Contact Us

Maori and Pakeha

30 November, 1999

Fr Paul Andrews reflects on some of the very positive qualities he discovered in the people he met during his stay in New Zealand.

On my breakfast TV a fat man in a sloppy T-shirt was explaining in Maori the need for a Maori party in the New Zealand parliament. There were English subtitles as he spoke: We need to make our voice heard, he stressed. The pakeha (Europeans, or non-Maori) do not understand our culture, our deep spirituality, our bond with the land. He was expressing some of the tensions of this diverse population: the Maori sense of being victimized and misunderstood, of having a distinctive spirituality, of being different. The speaker’s casual dress was part of this, a sartorial protest against the suits.

New Zealand was colonized in two waves: by Polynesians (ancestors of the Maori), starting in the thirteenth century; and by Europeans in the nineteenth. The Polynesians, some of history’s most remarkable sailors and navigators, came in canoes to a land rich in natural beauty and wildlife, and empty of people. Spreading through the two islands, they farmed, fished and hunted.

Someone has said that they ate their future. They hunted so successfully that they wiped out whole species of creatures like the moa, a huge, flightless bird, larger and heavier than an ostrich, which in the absence of any predators had flourished until humans arrived and learned to appreciate the rich meat it offered. We know it now only through its bones.

The second wave of colonizers, largely English and Scottish but with a mixture of other Europeans, gathered momentum in the nineteenth century, and was predatory in a different way. They destroyed enormous colonies of seals to supply the English market for sealskin; and they gained possession of large tracts of land by often fraudulent bargains with the Maori, for which compensation is still being paid to this day.

`Possession’ is not a simple notion. The Maori would say: We do not possess the land. It does not belong to us, but rather we belong to the land. The clash with Europeans was over the very notion of private property.

In Ireland we are sometimes unaware of how far this hunger for possessing land affects us. English landlords laid claim to riverbanks and fishing rights in a way that would have been unthinkable in New Zealand. And the English tradition of privatizing bits of riverbank or lakeshore continues with us.

In well-watered New Zealand, the Queen’s Chain is a ribbon of land twenty-two feet in width, along every riverbank, lakeshore and coast. It is public: every waterway is accessible to everyone. It reflects the fiercely egalitarian instinct of the Kiwis, who prefer to see resources spread wisely and equitably throughout the community, and not, as elsewhere, in massive disproportion between the very rich and the very poor.

So the first colonists, the Maori, left their own stamp on the second wave of colonists. They intermarried to the extent that there are said to be no pure-bred Maori left. They adapted easily to Christianity in its various denominational forms. They were already a spiritual, prayerful people, and had no problem accepting the oneness of God.

They identified strongly with the Israelites of the Old Testament, as a disinherited but Chosen People to whom God had promised deliverance and fulfilment.

They had difficulty with two other Christian beliefs: that man is fallen and needs to be redeemed by Christ; and that every human life is of equal value before God – Maori had their own hierarchy of nobles and commoners. Two moral issues, which were a problem in the early days, no longer trouble them: the Christian disapproval of eating human flesh, and of keeping slaves.

How does the Good News impact on a people whose culture is already spiritual? We Irish missionaries were not always perceptive. We left a deep mark on the Catholicism of New Zealand, but we were more conscious of our differences from the Imperial British than of our similarities to the Maori.

In a beautiful little Otago town called Cromwell, an Irish priest reacted to the name of the place by dedicating his church ‘to the Irish Martyrs’ – with probably a sideways look at the Cromwellian massacres in Drogheda and Wexford. As often happens, it was the women, the nuns, who were – and are – more attuned than the priests to the spirituality they found in the Maori.

In the Southland parish I am serving, I was working in the office when an attractive young woman, 30-ish, in jeans, black T-shirt and sneakers, came in to prepare music for a youth Mass she was organizing. She introduced herself as Maeve (I have changed the name). Next day she came fishing with the PP and me. She had tied some flies, and with one of them caught a five-pound trout. It was a good day; she was fun to be with. One of the children in the secondary school said: Maeve loves everyone she teaches, even those who don’t deserve it.

Alas, Maeve moved to another school at the end of term. Before she went, I discovered two things about her: she is a Josephite nun, and she is half-Maori, which may explain both her striking beauty, and the warmth and ease she has in speaking or singing of things of the spirit. If the Kiwi Church was in hands such as hers, the future would be bright.

As it is, the outlook is mixed. On the negative side, Mass attendance is low, especially among the young, and there are few vocations to the priesthood. On the other hand, Kiwis respect and trust one another in a way we could learn from. You can leave your car unlocked on the side of a public road without fear of robbers. When shopkeepers greet you with, How are you today? they are ready for a real conversation.

The government is secular in philosophy, but efficient. They respect the glorious country they have inherited. The Maori feeling for the land shows itself in the crystal clear waters of their lakes and rivers, and in the concern to hand on an unpolluted environment to their children. There is plenty to learn here.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.