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Story: Cultural go-betweens

Some 19th-century Pākehā ‘went native’ and became known as Pākehā–Māori, living with tribes, marrying Māori women, and sometimes even being tattooed with full-face moko. Others who mediated between Māori and Pākehā worlds included Māori political leaders James Carroll, Āpirana Ngata and Whina Cooper – as well as, more recently, Pita Sharples and Pākehā politician Doug Graham.

Story by Mark Derby
Main image: Pākehā–Māori Barnet Burns

Story Summary

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From the very first meetings between Māori and non-Māori, people who could bridge the gap between them have been important. Early go-betweens usually learned the language of the other group, and understood their customs.

Early go-betweens

Tupaia was a Tahitian priest who visited New Zealand in 1769 on British navigator James Cook’s ship the Endeavour. He interpreted between Māori and the ship’s crew.

Ruatara was a Ngāpuhi chief who worked on European whaling ships, visiting several countries and learning English. When he returned to New Zealand he introduced European foods and animals, and helped protect early missionaries.

Pākehā–Māori

Pākehā–Māori were Europeans who lived with Māori as part of the tribe, often marrying Māori women. Some were traders, whalers and sealers, and others were runaway seamen and convicts. Other Pākehā often looked down on them.

Missionaries

Missionaries needed to know Māori language and customs. They often taught Māori to read and write, and to farm using European methods. Missionaries arrived in the Bay of Islands with Ruatara in 1814. They believed that teaching Māori useful skills and farming would encourage them to become Christians.

The missionary William Williams, and his son and grandson, wrote and published Māori-language books and dictionaries.

Political go-betweens

  • Governor George Grey developed friendships with a number of chiefs. Te Arawa chief Te Rangikāheke lived in Grey’s Auckland home and taught the governor Māori language, customs, traditions and history.
  • James Carroll, of Māori and Pākehā descent, became an MP in 1887 and helped win greater respect and understanding for Māori.
  • Āpirana Ngata was an important politician who worked to improve things for Māori in the early 20th century.
  • Whina Cooper was the first president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in the 1950s.
  • Te Puea Hērangi worked to rebuild the Māori king’s home at Ngāruawāhia and to set up Tūrangawaewae marae.
  • Pita Sharples, former MP and co-leader of the Māori Party, was popular with both Pākehā and Māori in the early 21st century.

Artists and academics

Writers, artists and thinkers who have often acted as cultural go-betweens include:

  • S. Percy Smith and Edward Tregear, who formed the Polynesian Society to study Māori and other Polynesians
  • Elsdon Best, who learnt about Tūhoe customs from tribal elders
  • Maggie Papakura, who studied anthropology at Oxford University in England, and whose thesis about Māori was published after her death
  • Witi Ihimaera, one of the first Māori writers to be widely read by Pākehā
  • James K. Baxter, a Pākehā poet who set up a community based partly on Māori values.
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Cultural go-betweens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/cultural-go-betweens (accessed 15 December 2017)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017