Kōrero: European ideas about Māori

Whārangi 6. Modern racial stereotypes

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

From the 1940s the negative example of Hitler’s Nazism and the effect of modern genetics undermined racial theories in New Zealand, as elsewhere. However, many of the stereotypes which had been legitimised by racial theory continued.

For whom?

Māori had their own opinion of European ideas about them, pungently expressed in this song by Tuini Ngāwai:

Te mātauranga o te Pākehā
He mea whakatō hei tinanatanga
Mō wai rā, mō Hātana
Kia tūpato i ngā whakawai
Kia kaha rā.

European knowledge
Is implanted, as an embodiment
For whom, for Satan
Be wary of its beguiling
Be strong.

The anti-capitalist Māori

One common stereotype was of the Māori as unable to cope with the demands of the modern urban way of life. In the early 20th century, James Cowan, reflecting the romanticism of the painter Charles Goldie, preferred the ‘blanketted tattoo-spiralled old warrior’ to the modern Māori, ‘who as often as not wears tailor-made clothes of the latest pattern and whirls to the races in a motor-car’.1

As increasing numbers of Māori moved to the city in the years after the Second World War, views about Māori inability to deal with the demands of an urban capitalist life resurfaced. There were several elements to this:

  • the view that Māori were easily captured by the bright lights and consumer delights of the city, and wasted their money on gambling and drinking and flashy clothes
  • the idea that Māori did not understand the moral principles of financial responsibility and were inclined to favour friends and family
  • the stereotype of Māori as lazy, slovenly and inefficient, and not able to cope with the strict time demands of the capitalist world.

In many respects these images were an updating of the old polygenist view that Māori were inherently uncivilised and would soon revert to the ‘call of the pah’.

Māori words

The use of Māori as an adjective in 20th-century New Zealand revealed deep suspicions of Māori. They included:

‘Maori time’, in which things were done according to people’s desires, not the clock
a ‘Maori day’ – a ‘sickie’
a ‘Maori holiday’ – the day after payday
‘Maori PT’ (physical training) ‘meant no more and no less strenuous exercise than lying on the flat of his back on bed’.2

Once were warriors

Another persistent stereotype was the martial Māori, a natural warrior, which has arguably been internalised in Māori male conceptions of their own masculinity. Māori were excellent fighters in 19th-century wars and the achievements of 28 (Maori) Battalion in the Second World War reinforced this stereotype. This was more a matter of brains and courage than instinct or culture, and the view that Māori society before European contact was unusually warlike is contestable. Once were warriors, but once were also farmers and fathers.

To those who looked askance at Māori gangs or commented on the levels of Māori domestic violence, the image of the fighting Māori also had very negative connotations. Alan Duff’s novel Once were warriors (1990) and the subsequent film (1994) became a dominant symbol of this negative stereotype.

Noble savage

There was also a revival of the ‘noble savage’ as a way of critiquing contemporary Pākehā society. This took a number of forms. The poet James K. Baxter, who took the Māori version of his name, Hēmi, saw Māori communalism as an alternative to the harshness of Pākehā urban society, which he thought created battered homeless people.

Some environmentalists contrasted the exploitative attitudes of Europeans in their use of the land with Māori kaitiakitanga, the ethic of guardianship and conservation, which was claimed to govern traditional Māori attitudes to the natural world. There was considerable romanticism in some of these views. Māori environmentalism, for example, is sometimes overstated – Māori after all hunted the moa to extinction.

As in previous centuries, ideas about Māori in the 21st century are more revealing of the needs of Pākehā society than accurate depictions of Māori culture and society.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. James Cowan, The Maoris of New Zealand. Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1910, p. 7. Back
  2. Francis Jackson, Passage to Tobruk: the diary of a Kiwi in the Middle East. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1943, p. 105. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

James Belich, 'European ideas about Māori - Modern racial stereotypes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/european-ideas-about-maori/page-6 (accessed 6 July 2020)

He kōrero nā James Belich, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011