(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

For many years, John Bluck’s dad ran a trucking business in Nuhaka, a small, mostly Māori community between Gisborne and Wairoa. John appeared on the scene in 1943, and grew up in a settlement made up of Māori and Pākehā.

He recalls, though, that the two worlds were “rubbing up against one another but rarely melding”.

As he moved on to Napier Boys’ High, then university, ordination as an Anglican priest, then time as the Bishop of Waiapu, and on to work as a journalist and journalism tutor, he took a special interest in Māori issues. His columns and broadcasts often focused on the inequalities that Māori were suffering.

In this excerpt from his new book Becoming Pākehā: A journey between two cultures, he focuses on how little, at times, the Māori and Pākehā worlds have seen or known of each other.


For the first 40 or so years of Pākehā settlement, Māori were seen, of course. As the dominant culture driving the economy in peacetime and, later at war, they could hardly be avoided. But then, as Pākehā culture took over and built a largely urban-based presence, Māori were increasingly marginalised — economically, culturally and in sheer physical presence.

They became largely invisible, as they still are outside the Far North, South Auckland, Rotorua and Gisborne. In the wealthy suburbs of Remuera, Karori, Fendalton and, ironically, Māori Hill in Dunedin, the closest you probably get to te ao Māori is a programme on Māori Television or a broadcast of an All Black or Super Rugby game.

Māori make up 15.6* per cent of the population but you have to go looking to find them in urban New Zealand or the Canterbury hill country — anywhere, in fact, that is halfway affluent.

After two centuries and more of living together on the same islands, you’d think Māori and Pākehā would have got to know each other. And they did for those first few decades, until the governor of the day made them antagonists in battle, then punished Māori for daring to “rebel” and began the long process of legal dispossession.

Nothing was ever the same after that and the two cultures ended up knowing less and less about each other and living further and further apart. And when Māori increasingly joined Pākehā in towns and cities from the 1950s, it was as less advantaged, poorer cousins. On every indicator from health status to educational achievement, prison numbers to housing, the gap grew wider.

The history of how all that happened wasn’t taught at any level of the education system. You had to be a specialist historian to learn about the way native land ownership was redefined as individual rather than corporate title, way back in 1862, how 3,000,000 acres (1,215,000 hectares) were confiscated as punishment in the following year, and that Māori seats — just four, when on a population basis it should have been 20 — were established in 1867 to prevent Māori gaining a majority in Parliament.

And if that wasn’t enough, in 1877 Chief Justice Sir James Prendergast — the same judge who sanctioned the invasion of Parihaka — declared the Treaty of Waitangi “worthless” because the signatories had been “a civilised nation and a group of savage”’. The Treaty had not been made a part of the country’s domestic law, and so it amounted to a “simple nullity”. It took another 100 years to reverse that decision.

Once it became clear that Māori weren’t going to die out, as many expected at the end of the 19th century, they were gradually accepted, on condition that they were assimilated and made to be like Pākehā. Māori language was discouraged in schools, Māori knowledge devalued and ignored, Māori soldiers were not permitted to go to war in the same way Pākehā could (until 1939). Māori could play rugby, but not always overseas or only as honorary whites.

All those conditions, and a thousand more unspoken, served to hide te ao Māori from Pākehā eyes and ears. And because Pākehā didn’t see that world, let alone engage with it, they didn’t feel involved in what was going on for the people who lived inside it.

Some saw the problems, even at the time. It was in the 1950s, for instance, that Presbyterian minister John Laughton said, “To try and make Māori into Pākehā like some plant is to strip him of every leaf and bud and leave him a gaunt and naked stem.” But he and others like him were the exception, and the powers that be continued to promote assimilation and make it acceptable.

In 1980 the Human Rights Commission was still singing the same song, declaring that “being a Māori is often a state of mind” and because there was “so little Māori blood involved we should all be called New Zealanders . . . the majority of Māori consider themselves New Zealanders and are quite happy to live with the rest of us.”

And in the same year, Minister of Māori Affairs Ben Couch declared, “I am a New Zealander first and a Māori second. We are living in a Pākehā world, and if I were to rely on the Māoris for a living I would starve.” He would have found many to agree with him in Nūhaka.

Assimilation was widely seen as inevitable, and even some academics agreed. Peter Munz, who became Professor of History at Victoria University of Wellington in 1968, well before that institution felt compelled to add a Māori name, declared that “Assimilation and colonisation are the essence of human history. You can try to stop it or slow it down but you can’t prevent it, no matter what you do.” And few would have disagreed with his claim that “Pākehā have ceased to be all that English, and Māori will eventually cease to be all that Māori.”

I’ve been told through my life that I’m too tall, too scared, that I can’t run fast enough or tackle hard enough. But I’ve never been told that my skin is the wrong colour or been forbidden to use the name my family gave me. I can’t imagine what that would be like. Especially if someone decided to call me something they found easier to pronounce or replaced it altogether with something they thought was more civilised.

With a surname like Bluck, I’ve often been told, much to my annoyance, how odd it is and what it rhymes with. But no one has ever asked me Malcolm X’s famous question, “Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin?” And I’ve never been punished for using the language my parents taught me.

Until very recently I’d never thought of myself as being especially privileged. I thought that word meant coming from a family with a lot of money or going to a school fancier than mine, which I didn’t want to attend anyway. Being Pākehā never limited the access I had to the courses I wanted to take, the job I dreamt of doing, the flat I wanted to rent.

And the family history I inherit, though it has a few dodgy bits, has never made me feel angry, ashamed or resentful. As a Pākehā student, I was never accused of being specially privileged simply because I was able to attend university, but Māori students were. And no one ever asked me, “How Pākehā are you?” Māori friends were often asked, “How Māori are you?” — an echo from the days when being “mixed race” was a slur. It still happens.

So when I come face to face with Māori who accuse me of being privileged for simply being who I am, I’m initially baffled and in denial, until I realise their accusation isn’t so much personal, though it is that, as systemic and historical.

Auckland-based forensic psychiatrist Krishna Pillai sees this every day in his work in the criminal justice system where, in his words, “the structural effects of colonisation are expressed in some of the worst examples of inequity in Aotearoa New Zealand”. Fifty per cent of the cases he deals with are Māori, 15 per cent are of Pacific descent.

This “gross over-representation”, Pillai points out, “is not due to the personal failings of the people involved”. For each case he draws together “the biological, psychological, social and cultural, linking the here and now to all that has gone before” in a “complex and interconnecting web of cause and effect.” And the “thread of connection” goes a long way back — to “the traumas experienced by previous generations . . . The experiences of our grandparents are still carried in our DNA.”

Two centuries of living together has produced some wonderful things for both cultures but the balance of those benefits is lopsided. Even the shrillest of voices that claim colonisation was good for Māori don’t claim it was bad for Pākehā. On the balance of land owned, wealth accumulated, health benefits, school achievement, time spent in prison, life expectancy — almost any measure you choose — Pākehā have done better from our colonial history. And, what’s more, they have controlled the way that history is told.

* * *

John Bluck. (Photo: RNZ / Paul Bushnell)

We’ve been calling each other names ever since we first met. Māori warriors thought the first Pākehā sailors they saw were goblins, which was nothing compared with the new arrivals’ characterisation of Māori as smelly, painted savages — this from men who wouldn’t have smelt like rosebuds themselves. They misread gestures of welcome and challenge as intents to kill and responded with musket fire.

The earliest descriptions of Māori by Pākehā were a curious mixture of fear and admiration, insult and awe. An introductory book written for new colonists in 1839–40 by the Secretary to the New Zealand Company, John Ward, described Māori as “essentially a savage people . . . dirty in their persons, and sometimes overrun with vermin”, who knew almost nothing about “the meaning of arts, trade, industry, or coin”, had no roads but only footpaths and lacked any system of law or government. “With the physical powers and passions of men,” Ward wrote, “they have at present the intellect of children, and in moral principle, are little above the level of brute creation.”

He did, however, admit that there was “a natural politeness and grandeur in their deportment, a yearning after poetry, music, and the fine arts, a wit and eloquence”, that their language was “rich and sonorous”, and that they excelled at carving.

The insults, written and visual, continued. Many popular illustrated magazines from the late 19th century and the first decades of the 20th featured cartoons portraying Māori as fat, lazy and stupid, and Chinese as sinister and drug-addicted foreign devils. To modern eyes, the level of casual, unapologetic racism is startling. Terms like “hori” and mimicry of speech like “py corry” were commonplace — and jokes about Māori as slow and dumb, and references to keeping “Māori time”, were commonplace even into the 1960s.

The myths about Māori seem to fall into four groups: the inherently good, dignified and even noble; the bad ones who get into trouble with the law; the radical stirrers or “haters and wreckers”, as one prime minister described them; the peaceful ones happy to accept the status quo. There is also another category that divides old Māori, traditional, respectful, pliable, close to nature and mostly rural, from new Māori, who are extreme, aggressive and uncompromising.

These myths still swirl about, just below the surface of public debate, distorting the conversation and preventing dialogue from being creative and respectful. They are used to brand Māori as being too Māori or not Māori enough, too willing to “fit in” or not willing enough. These “callous overgeneralisations”, as Andrew Eruera Vercoe calls them, cause enormous hurt. “If you’re Māori,” he says, “you’re either a mealy-mouthed Treaty of Waitangi, tino rangatiratanga prune head (like Moana Jackson) or you’re a benefit beer drinking degenerate (any Māori leaning on a bar).”

In the end, these myths and stereotypes damage us all, on both the giving and the receiving end. As Vercoe eloquently puts it: “Every time a Māori is locked up in prison, every time a Māori is denied his or her basic rights, every time a Māori assaults someone else, we all, yes even Pākehā, lose a little bit of mana.”

Even the way Māori and Pākehā talk about each other is run according to Pākehā rules — in other words, in English.

Psychologist Raymond Nairn has talked about “the attempt to civilise Māori by the perfect language of English”, which he believes keeps both cultures “cribbed, cabined and confined within a Pākehā speech community”. At the heart of all this is a division over what it means to be normal.

When Pākehā first arrived in New Zealand, Māori was the measure of normality: the very word meant, literally, ordinary or normal. At home and abroad they were called the New Zealanders. Pākehā were the guests and a tiny minority at that, and until the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, they had no legal rights to even be here.

But by the time Pākehā had been in New Zealand for a century or so, being normal meant speaking English, following English law, being defined by, and taking pride in, a heritage and culture that were heavily weighted towards the British.

When Pākehā New Zealanders said they were going home, they often meant they were heading off on a trip to Britain. That usage has faded but many Pākehā today are genuinely puzzled over why Māori wouldn’t prefer to be like them, enjoying the same privileges of middle-class life, all good Kiwis together.

Pākehā fail to understand the depth of Māori anger and alienation. How, they ask, could anyone possibly compare our colonial history to a holocaust? Equally, Māori are baffled by Pākehā inability to see what’s going on. Sometimes the debate is akin to a description that a Jewish rabbi once gave me on a visit to Israel, to describe the confrontation with Palestinians and Jews. “It’s a collision,” he said, “between two traumatised peoples.”

Pākehā don’t see themselves in that way, but memory loss about their history and blindness about the social condition of their partner does create trauma of a different sort from that experienced by Māori. And if trauma is too strong a word, then many Pākehā are at least fearful about, and certainly rattled by, the tone of the current debate.

* * *

So what exactly are Pākehā scared of? Top of the list is that the demand for Māori self-determination, tino rangatiratanga, will result in two separate societies, a new kind of apartheid. Take the reaction to the He Puapua report. You could be forgiven for thinking this discussion document on improving race relations by 2040 was written by the devil himself, given the panicked attacks by some Pākehā commentators and politicians.

There’s nothing in the report that hasn’t been heard before. The idea of an upper parliamentary house to protect Māori interests has been long advocated by all sorts of political parties and organisations, including the Anglican Church. And the idea of a parallel court system floated in the report is already being used in some places.

Co-governance models, another suggestion, are already working in conservation estates. Both National and Labour governments have advocated shared leadership in such programmes as Whānau Ora, and social investment and primary healthcare models that target the most vulnerable. The reforms of Oranga Tamariki are all about self-determining governance.

Back in the 1840s, Selwyn, Colenso and Grace, to name only three missionaries, called for different constitutional self-governing structures for Māori, leasing rather than selling land, even a separate parliamentary house for Māori. To label self-determination as a new form of separatism or apartheid is to ignore history and forget the distinctive compact on which New Zealand is founded.

Another fear is that Māori language and culture will bury that of Pākehā. That, to demonstrate respect, Pākehā will be required to speak te reo, sing waiata at every public event, join in a haka — and because they don’t know how to do any of those things properly, they’ll humiliate themselves. That Māori poverty will get priority over that afflicting Pākehā. That Māori will get to be even more entitled and privileged than Pākehā are.

For a culture that has enjoyed privilege and priority, dominated language and cultural choices for so long, all these fears speak more about projection than real threat. The deepest fear might be that Māori might not be as good to Pākehā as Pākehā think they’ve been to Māori.

Trust is the nub of the issue, and being honest with each other when that trust breaks down, as it has over and over again. Professor Ranginui Walker often described our history as the settlers acting from the start as if sovereignty over the land had been ceded with the treaty, and Māori acting as though they had never given it away.

Commenting on that same bewilderment when speaking at a Turakina Māori Girls’ College prizegiving in 1997, Professor Hirini Moko Mead described the Pākehā before the Second World War as “a mixed up sort of fellow”. His body belonged to New Zealand but his soul belonged to a little island ”somewhere else”. And although they were now “eating our food, putting our history into textbooks and claiming Māori art as New Zealand art”, Mead regarded the huge majority of Pākehā, though sympathetic, as “still to be persuaded that Māori have a right to be different from them”.

A more recent comment came in 2015 from Tipa Mahuta of the Waikato Regional Council: “For 150 years we’ve been walking around each other and we’re still a bit of a mystery to each other.” Any other marriage in which the partners continued to remain such a mystery to each other would have failed long ago. But we’re still together, well sort of.

And as Archbishop Whakahuihui Vercoe used to love to say: “Like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.”


*Stats NZ estimate for Māori population at June 2022 is 17.4 percent (or 892,200).

This extract is from Becoming Pākehā: A journey between two cultures, written by John Bluck, and published by HarperCollins New Zealand.

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