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How have Māori been de­picted in our cul­ture for the past two cen­turies? Philip Matthews took a cold, hard look at our me­dia, arts and en­ter­tain­ment, and it wasn’t pretty.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - THE GRILL -

It has been three months since Na­tional Geo­graphic took the brave and un­usual step of own­ing up. In a spe­cial is­sue ded­i­cated to race, the long-run­ning mag­a­zine con­fessed to what had been in plain sight all along: the mag­a­zine had re­in­forced racist and colo­nial at­ti­tudes. For ex­am­ple, when it de­voted a spe­cial is­sue to Aus­tralia in 1916, it told read­ers that Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians were “sav­ages” who “rank low­est in in­tel­li­gence of all hu­man be­ings”.

The mag­a­zine would reg­u­larly de­pict “na­tives” as “ex­otics, fa­mously and fre­quently un­clothed, happy hun­ters, no­ble sav­ages – every type of cliche,” ed­i­tor in chief Su­san Gold­berg wrote.

Na­tional Geo­graphic is hardly alone, but its in­flu­ence on gen­er­a­tions of read­ers was greater than most. Its con­fes­sion prompted a ques­tion: what im­ages of M ori have been per­pe­trated by our news me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment and cul­ture in­dus­try, in books, news sto­ries, car­toons, songs, TV shows and movies? Should we be just as sorry as Na­tional Geo­graphic? The short an­swer is yes. What fol­lows is a sur­vey of more than 200 years of racism dis­guised as news and en­ter­tain­ment in which M ori were rou­tinely de­picted as lazy, dis­hon­est, prim­i­tive, drunk, stupid, vi­o­lent, and greedy. All in­cor­rect uses of M ori lan­guage have been left as they were.


Lazy, de­graded, war­like and so on. Schol­ars have not set­tled the ques­tion of how wide­spread can­ni­bal­ism was among pre-con­tact M ori, but all agree it must be un­der­stood as a con­se­quence of tribal bat­tle. Can­ni­bal­ism re­mained a P keh ob­ses­sion un­til well into the 20th cen­tury. In other ways, M ori fit the Euro­pean check­list of sav­agery, with some mis­sion­ar­ies shocked by their “hea­then” na­tures, but other writ­ers would come to praise the M ori as a bet­ter class of sav­age than most and de­spite the war­rior stereo­types, M ori Stud­ies and An­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor Dame Anne Sal­mond has found many ex­am­ples of M ori men be­ing seen as “kind, lov­ing and de­voted to their chil­dren”.

A myth grew dur­ing the 19th cen­tury that M ori had killed and eaten the “in­fe­rior” Moriori, who sur­vived only on the Chathams, or so the story went. This was some­times used to jus­tify the sub­ju­ga­tion of M ori by P keh . By the cen­tury’s end, it was as­sumed that M ori were a dy­ing race.

“The in­hab­i­tants of th­ese is­lands… ap­pear to me to be de­scended from a once pow­er­ful peo­ple… Here grad­u­ally de­gen­er­at­ing into bar­barism, from a high state of civil­i­sa­tion… they ul­ti­mately passed to the last stage of moral degra­da­tion.”

John Lid­di­ard Ni­cholas, from Nar­ra­tive of a Voy­age to New Zealand, 1817.

“Oh what a wretched spot is a hea­then pa, hu­man ex­cre­ment and filth in every di­rec­tion so that it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to avoid tread­ing in it – wretched­ness in every form, women all but naked with their heads and bod­ies smeared with ochre and oil, shriek­ing or cry­ing and dirty chil­dren run­ning about in a state of nu­dity all com­bine to form as wretched a whole as can well be imag­ined.”

Mis­sion­ary Richard Tay­lor.

“The Maori, how­ever ed­u­cated… is a Maori still. He has re­ceived a kind of rough pol­ish, which only de­ceives the un­ob­ser­vant; but be­neath this var­nish he is a cun­ning, schem­ing, de­ceit­ful sav­age… In the at­tempt to gov­ern the na­tives we have made a false start. He was treated as if his men­tal con­sti­tu­tion and moral na­ture were iden­ti­cal with our own race. The re­v­erse of this be­ing the case, we have sig­nally failed.”

The South­ern Cross news­pa­per, 1865.

“They [the Moriori] are far in­fe­rior to the Maoris phys­i­cally, and, I should say, men­tally too... I saw Moriori set­tle­ments far be­hind any pa I had ever seen. The poor crea­tures have a squalid, way­worn look, and al­most ex­cite one’s pity; but I am afraid they are thor­oughly lazy and in­do­lent.”

Rev PC Anderson in The New Zealand Her­ald, 1882.

“Time was not at all pre­cious to the Maori. He squat­ted in the sun, wrapped up in mat or blan­ket, smoked his pipe, or had a com­fort­able doze; while his pig, teth­ered by a rope of flax, grunted and winked, and grubbed up and chumped the young roots of the fern.”

From Our Maoris by Lady Martin, 1884.

“The Maori boys and girls be­tween the speeches sang English glees and catches with great spirit. It was a pleas­ant sur­prise to find that the New Zealan­ders, when prop­erly taught, had much mu­si­cal talent and very good voices.”

Lady Martin.

“We should re­mem­ber that Ro­man colonists must have found the Bri­ton as rough and un­washen and self-willed and prej­u­diced as the Maoris, and that it has taken more than a thou­sand years to bring us to our present form of civil­i­sa­tion.”

Lady Martin.

“Where once the swarthy chief held sav­age sway, / The sun of progress sheds his bright­est ray.”

Thomas Bracken from the poem “Ju­bilee Day”, in Musings in Mao­ri­land, 1890. A poet and politi­cian, Bracken also wrote God De­fend New Zealand.

“The great body of the Eu­ro­peans through­out the colony now re­gard the na­tives with in­dif­fer­ence. They do not pre­tend to un­der­stand the na­tive char­ac­ter. They do not trou­ble them­selves to en­ter­tain an­tic­i­pa­tions of their ad­vance­ment to civil­i­sa­tion. They look upon them as an ob­sta­cle to the spread of set­tle­ment, and so far a draw­back to the colony.”

The New Zealand Her­ald, 1897.

“The seamy side of Maori life, as of all sav­age life, was patent to the most unimag­i­na­tive ob­server. The trav­eller found it not easy to dwell on the dig­nity, po­etry, and brav­ery of a race which con­temned wash­ing, and lived, for the most part, in noi­some hov­els... Though a can­ni­bal feast was a rare orgie, pu­trid food was a com­mon dainty. With­out the cring­ing man­ner of the Ori­en­tal, the Maori had his full share of de­ceit­ful­ness. Elab­o­rate treach­ery is con­stantly met with in the ac­counts of their wars. If adul­tery was rare, chastity among the sin­gle women was rarer still.”

Wil­liam Pem­ber Reeves in The Long White Cloud, 1898.

“The aver­age colonist re­gards a Mon­go­lian with re­pul­sion, a Ne­gro with con­tempt, and looks on an Aus­tralian black as very near a wild beast; but he likes the Maoris.”

Wil­liam Pem­ber Reeves.

“The poor crea­tures have a squalid, way­worn look, and al­most ex­cite one’s pity; but I am afraid they are thor­oughly lazy.”


At the start of the cen­tury, the im­age of M ori as a dy­ing race was re­in­forced by P keh artists such as CF Goldie and Got­tfried Lin­daeur. Art his­to­rian Leonard Bell ex­plains in his book Colo­nial Con­structs that they gave “pic­to­rial ex­pres­sion” to “the stan­dard Euro­pean view of tra­di­tional Maoridom as ei­ther of the past or some­thing the last remnants of which were about to van­ish for all time in the face of Euro­pean progress”. That “The New Zealand Her­ald in 1907 could com­ment ca­su­ally on the few ‘last spec­i­mens’ of a ‘van­ish­ing na­tional en­tity’ suggests what a pop­u­lar com­mon­place the no­tion of van­ish­ing Maori was,” Bell writes.

But rather than de­cline, M ori pop­u­la­tions be­gan to grow again and as M ori be­came more ur­ban, stereo­types moved out of the past and into the present. By the late 20th cen­tury, the so-called “griev­ance in­dus­try” cre­ated by the Wai­tangi Tri­bunal and Treaty claims had be­come a more top­i­cal tar­get.

“The peo­ple of New Zealand were very much con­cerned with where the Maoris came from, but were not so much con­cerned as to where they were go­ing to. ‘Yes,’ re­marked the speaker, ‘we are a dy­ing race and the ques­tion arises: Is an­other race doomed to ex­tinc­tion be­fore the cruel march of civil­i­sa­tion.’”

The Poverty Bay Her­ald, 1900.

“Sir Wal­ter Buller stated that in Capt. Cook’s time there must have been 100,000, and at the pe­riod of the first coloni­sa­tion of New Zealand about 70,000, but now there are only be­tween about 30,000 and 40,000 Maoris. In 1856 Sir Isaac (then Dr) Feather­ston said ‘the Maoris are dy­ing out fast, noth­ing can save them; our plain duty as com­pas­sion­ate colonists is to smooth the dy­ing pil­low of the Maori; then his­tory will have noth­ing to re­proach us with.’”

The South­land Times, 1900.

“It is per­haps not so well known as it should be that the Maoris were not the first in­hab­i­tants of New Zealand – they were pre­ceded by a race known as the Mo­ri­oris, who are rep­re­sented in re­cent times by the Chatham Is­landers... They were in­fe­rior to the Maoris in physique, less civilised, poorly armed, and at one time classed as Me­lane­sians or Asi­atic Ne­groes.”

The Clutha Leader, 1903.

“They built no huts, and were con­tent with the most mea­gre shel­ter af­forded by mis­er­ably con­structed lean-to hov­els. With­out fixed abode, they wan­dered about al­most aim­lessly, and camped where night over­took them... It has been re­marked by more than one author­ity that in fea­tures they strangely re­sem­bled the Jewish type.”

The Press cov­ers the Moriori, 1904. “Maoris are dy­ing out fast, noth­ing can save them; our plain duty as com­pas­sion­ate colonists is to smooth the dy­ing pil­low of the Maori.”

“It is true that the Maoris were can­ni­bals. It is true that war was their chief oc­cu­pa­tion and recre­ation, but they re­tained a mea­sure of cul­ture which has never been equalled by any prim­i­tive dark race of the world.”

Frances Del Mar in A Year Among the Maoris, 1924.

“To sum up: in con­di­tions of steady, con­tin­u­ous work, de­mand­ing strength, en­durance, and steady ap­pli­ca­tion, the Maori is not the equal to the Euro­pean set­tler. The dis­ci­pline that pro­duces th­ese qual­i­ties is the prod­uct of more ad­vanced civ­i­liza­tions, and is not a fea­ture of the lower planes of civ­i­liza­tion.”

Els­don Best in The Maori as he was, 1934.

“It is un­ques­tion­able, I think, that a great many of the Maori peo­ple voted Labour be­cause of what they hoped to get from so­cial se­cu­rity.”

Sid­ney Hol­land, Leader of the Op­po­si­tion, 1947.

“Had there been an abun­dance of meat avail­able it is pos­si­ble that there might not have been any room later for white peo­ple, but a con­tin­ual diet of fish with only an oc­ca­sional Moa en­tree is suf­fi­cient rea­son to turn any­one can­ni­bal.”

Carl V Smith in From N to Z, 1947. “Al­though the Maoris did not seem averse to mar­ry­ing some of the tan­gata whenua women, they

Early 20th cen­tury com­men­ta­tors be­lieved Maori¯ peo­ple and cul­ture were dis­ap­pear­ing. Charles Goldie’s The Widow from 1903, be­low right, evoked his “nos­tal­gia for a dy­ing race”.

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