When C Company of the 28th Māori Battalion arrived in Gisborne after the end of the Second World War, they were met by teeming crowds of their whānaunga. At the formal gathering on Te Poho-o-Rawiri marae, Sir Apirana Ngata, the man responsible more than any other for the battalion's formation, praised them for their brave service and how they had brought great honour to their people.
Included in his speech was the cryptic line: "Kua puare te keti—the gate is open."
It was the sort of rural analogy that would have struck a chord with the young men who had grown up on farms up and down the Tairawhiti region. It was both an acknowledgement of the limited choices that were on offer and an encouragement to seek greener pastures elsewhere.
Ngata was nearing the end of his illustrious career. He'd channeled his considerable talents into the monumental task of rolling back the tide of institutional racism that had deprived his people of what they had been promised in the Treaty of Waitangi—equality of citizenship. Indeed, his rationale in recruiting the Māori Battalion was so that Māori could not only meet their obligations as citizens but also prove they were worthy of equality. He called it the price of citizenship.
But after a lifetime of work on behalf of his people, that dream was still far from reality.
Not only were Maori kicked out of their own economy, the state failed to include them in the wider economy. The limit to the economic opportunities that Ngata saw for his Ngāti Porou kinsmen was even more pronounced for other iwi. Through Ngata's leadership, Ngāti Porou had managed to retain most of the land in their rohe, even though it had become fragmented through the Native Land Court system.
Through Ngata's enterprise and influence, Ngāti Porou hapū had managed to find new forms of management that had made farms at least viable if not highly profitable.
Other iwi had either lost lands through outright confiscation or erosion by government land purchases that Māori had few options to resist.
Running parallel to this decline in economic base was the decline in the population through devastating epidemics of disease as well as poor health brought on by poverty. Ngata and his colleagues Te Rangi Hiroa and Maui Pomare were instrumental in halting this decline by educating their people and providing mass immunisation. These jabs were often administered to people waiting for their hearings at the Native Land Court.
By the time of the recruitment drive for the Māori Battalion in the 1930s, the Māori population was just beginning to recover.
Although he was an exceptional man, Apirana Ngata might not have been had he been born two decades later. The education he and other Māori leaders received at Te Aute college in the late 1800s would become a rarity over the course of the 20th century.
John Thornton, principal of Te Aute from 1878 to 1912, believed Māori were just as capable as any other of achieving academic success and pursuing professional occupations. The Education Department had other ideas and put pressure on Thornton to desist from offering Māori students a classical education. George Hogben, the inspector general of schools, along with others who appeared before a Royal Commission, recommended that the college "drop Latin, Euclid, and algebra out of the... curriculum altogether".
Article continues in issue 135