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Waitangi Week: Morgan Godfery on the myths and stereotypes of urban Māori

All week this week we feature tangata whenua writings to mark Waitangi Day. Today: “Everything we know about urban Māori is probably wrong”, writes Morgan Godfery, in his review of a new study by Bradford Haami.

The first urban Māori were probably eighteenth century Sydneysiders. Until 1912, a laneway near the Australian Heritage Hotel, a whalers’ pub in The Rocks, was known by locals as “Māori Lane” – a nod to the 700 or so Māori who were living, working, or passing through Sydney in the half-century before the Treaty signing. Māori were the country’s first expatriates, and a good number were more familiar with metropolitan life than many of the early settlers in New Zealand’s tiny outposts.

It’s a useful reminder that nearly everything we know about urban Māori is probably wrong. The first urban Māori weren’t post-war. They were pre-Treaty. Even Ngāti Rānana, the old London Māori Club, predates similar clubs in Auckland and Christchurch. And in the usual telling, urban Māori are people who are out of work. No-hopers and abusers like Jake the Muss. In fact they were 19th century whalers and sealers in Sydney, and 20th century professionals in London.

Governments officials are usually as guilty as media and other narrative-makers. In reports “urban Māori” is sometimes a stand-in for disconnection and deficits. In the 1960s Jack Hunn, the ex-chief of the Māori Affairs Department, would link urban migration with rising crime, and in the 1990s the seemingly impartial New Zealand Official Yearbook would link urban Māori with “gangs”. If you read enough, “urban Māori” begins to look indistinguishable from “the Heke family”.

This is news to the 400,000-odd urban Māori who aren’t Mungies, Blacks, Tribesmen, Nomads, Greasy Dogs, or otherwise useless pricks. Urban Māori, as Bradford Haami’s book Urban Māori: The Second Great Migration reveals, are more than the sum of their official deficits. Haami outlines the history of Māori migration, bringing it to life with personal stories, from the traumatic to triumphant. It’s urban Māori as academics, bureaucrats, builders, factory workers, and more.

Whaea Ella Henry is in there. John Tamihere, Auckland mayoral aspirant and CEO of the Waipereira Trust, is there too, writing an affecting foreword. Māori readers will recognise other names as well. But the book is more than just a who’s who. It’s a careful study in the lives of Māori who made the move. Some were searching for work. Some were escaping their old lives. Either way, they made their new surrounds work, building support networks like urban Marae, social networks like Māori “clubs”, and advocacy networks like the twin urban Māori authorities in Auckland.

Haami isn’t depicting an urban utopia, though. Māori were and sometimes are victims of racism. Violence did and does happen. In nearly every whānau there are criminals and fuck-ups.

The fly-in, fly-out ethnographers and the amateur anthropologists blame disconnection. Urban Māori lost touch with their whakapapa, and they were never in touch with New Zealand society. They were outsiders in their own country, and that would force them to act out.  It’s a neat little theory, refusing to apportion blame to politics or institutions. It’s personal frustrations all the way down. But it doesn’t work. Melissa Matutina Williams, in her 2015 book Panguru and the City: He Kāinga Rua, argues that many urban Māori were never wholly disconnected from either their whakapapa or New Zealand society. Whānau from Panguru, the tiny settlement on the Hokianga Habour, nurtured their relationship with home. They were back and forth between Auckland and Panguru. Whānau were always coming and going.

They were, at the same time, right and proper New Zealanders too. Urban Māori were doing the donkey work in its factories (Hone Tuwhare the boilermaker!), making up the backline in its rugby and league teams (kia ora, Christian Cullen), and working around the edges of its media and publishing scene. Disconnection was a thing, for sure – a good number of urban Māori still struggle with their pepeha – but it was never The Thing. Internal states like disconnection are never a good explanation for external phenomenon.

“If you read enough, ‘urban Māori’ begins to look indistinguishable from ‘the Heke family’”. Image: YouTube.

Instead it’s all politics. “There are effectively two classes of Māori”, according to Tamihere. “The iwi elite and everyone else.” He’s quite right. At the top end an exceedingly small class of Māori managers, lawyers, accountants, and business consultants growing fat off of administering iwi assets, securing government contracts, and working with iwi clients at the major law and professional services firms. At the bottom end, a precariat.

This is another way of saying urban Māori and their “deficits” aren’t so much an outcome of place as they are of class. Māori in Murupara aren’t joining the Mob because they’re city soy boys. They’re joining because they’re poor. Even the “urban migration” itself wasn’t entirely urban. The people who left their rural kāinga in the twentieth century were moving to Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch as well as Tokoroa, Kawerau, Hawera, and Flaxmere.

I’m not sure, then, that “urban Māori” is all that useful as a category or descriptor. What distinguishes and unites one Māori from another is their whakapapa, not their residence. The deficits we attribute to urban Māori – gang membership, joblessness, homelessness – apply to “rural” Māori as well. Inequality doesn’t distinguish between brown town and brown country. Neither does everyday life. Urban Māori play rugby and touch in the yard. “Rural” Māori play in the paddock. Nan is still boiling a pot of mince whether she lives in Tawa or Te Kaha.

For how much longer, though? In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s Māori were hauled from – as Marx would put it, offensively – “rural idiocy” and radicalised in the factories, shops, and trade unions. The Northern Drivers’ Union, for example, was a training ground for activists like Tame Iti. Their struggles reshaped Māori society, forcing the government to acknowledge everything from te reo Māori to Treaty breaches.

But late capitalism is reshaping Māori society in the 10s. The Māori economy is worth an estimated $50 billion, up from an estimated $37 billion in 2013. At the same time the unemployment rate for Māori remains double the national rate. The government estimates Māori enterprise is growing faster than the economy as a whole, even as the Māori home ownership rate remains flat at 28 percent. Whether you benefit from this is matter of class, not a matter of an imagined urban and rural split. This is the new divide, and sooner or later we’re going to have to acknowledge it.

More from Waitangi Week at The Spinoff Review of Books: 

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The Queen is dead, or may as well be: Morgan Godfery on the case for a NZ republic

The war in Tauranga, which pretends history never happened there: Vincent O’Malley on a new history of Gate Pā

Urban Māori: The second great migration by Bradford Haami (Oratia Books, $40) is available at Unity Books.


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