The move to towns and cities provided new opportunities for Māori, but there were drawbacks as well.
Employment and education
Urban centres offered better paid jobs, although in the main, the first wave of arrivals were poorly educated and took up unskilled manual work. Such jobs would always be vulnerable in times of economic downturn. Māori found themselves engaged in clothing factories, on the wharves, in the freezing works, in the transport services, and the city municipal works. Others went into the teaching services, and into government departments, particularly the Department of Māori Affairs. A number of young school leavers found their way to the cities through educational opportunities, including the trade training schemes promoted by the Department of Māori Affairs until the 1970s.
The challenges of city life
The change from life in small communities where everybody knew what everybody else was doing, to the strangeness and anonymity of the city, called for rapid re-adjustment. Some people flourished, establishing successful careers and enjoying the advantages that the city had to offer, but never losing links with their home communities. Others, however, had more of a struggle.
In 1961 the magazine Te Ao Hou gave the following warning to its Māori readers:
‘Life in the city is not easy: you have to work regularly, be very careful with money, accommodation often gives trouble, and friends and relations have a habit of getting themselves into difficulties you have to help them out of.’ 1
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the major difficulty was finding suitable accommodation. In Auckland numerous migrants were forced to live in the then depressed inner-city areas of Freemans Bay, Ponsonby and Herne Bay. Guest houses and hostels, such as Waipapa in Auckland, Te Rāhui in Hamilton and Rēhua in Christchurch, were established. The Department of Māori Affairs also made housing available in the better suburbs of Auckland and elsewhere, in accordance with a policy of ‘pepper potting’ or scattering and integrating individual Māori families among Pākehā neighbours. This was preferred to placing Māori together into one area.
However, the numbers burgeoned and eventually families were allocated state-built homes in large housing estates such as Te Atatū, Ōtara, and Māngere in Auckland, and Porirua, Hutt Valley, and Wainuiomata in Wellington. These suburbs grew into Māori communities.
Having to take on permanent jobs and meet financial commitments, many Māori had difficulty in accepting the constraints of their new situation. With no extended family to fall back on, the growing and predominantly young group inevitably faced problems. Unemployment, loneliness and antisocial behaviour came to characterise city life for far too many young people. Some ended up on the streets and in gangs. This social dislocation was depicted in Alan Duff’s 1990 novel, Once were warriors (which was made into a film in 1994).
Pita Sharples, one of the founders of Hoani Waititi urban marae, describes the social problems he observed among Māori who came to live in Auckland in the 1950s and 60s:
‘The change from the rural to an urban way of life was a huge culture shock. So many families were soon run down and the children were in trouble. They were broke, they had their power and water cut off, they owed rates and stuff like this. The discipline of the city was totally different from the discipline of the country. So there were huge problems.’ 2
From the beginning, people brought with them their traditions and values. They kept in contact with their home communities, made occasional return visits and took their dead home for burial. Increasingly though, the demands of city life and the pressures of conforming to Pākehā ways made it difficult for many to maintain that relationship over long distances, often hundreds of kilometres. Others had firmly planted their roots in the city and were less disposed to keep up that contact.
The new generation
The connection was even more tenuous for countless offspring of the migrants who were far removed from, and thus out of touch with, the tribal origins of their parents and grandparents. In the city they were separated from their marae and all the traditions that constituted their tribal identity. They generally did not have their elders to guide and instruct them in ‘being Māori’. Because they had not grown up within the tribe they did not have the same sense of yearning to ‘go back home’. A rising generation looked Māori, but could not speak the language and knew little or nothing about their heritage and traditions.