The large Ngāti Porou tribe, based on the east coast of the North Island, enjoys a reputation for playing tricks, especially against non-Māori. A history of the tribe records that one elderly Ngāti Porou man asked for credit at a country store so that he and his work gang could produce a huge quantity of grass seed for sale. The storekeeper was delighted to have such a lucrative order and a large bill was run up. The old man then gave his name as Kawehe-ite-rekareka, his address as Haere oti atu and his local marae as Waingaromia. When the storekeeper tried to send the bill, he discovered that Kawehe-ite-rekareka meant ‘joyful parting’, ‘Haere oti atu’ meant ‘gone forever’ and ‘Waingaromia’ meant ‘out of sight’.1
Māori and Pākehā had little contact with each other in the early 20th century, and both peoples used humour to express their attitudes towards the other race.
For much of the 20th century non-Māori New Zealanders maintained a comic tradition of the simple-minded but good-humoured Māori. In 1910 Alfred Grace published a collection of comic sketches, the Hone Tiki dialogues, in which a mythical, clownish Māori comments in broken English on Pākehā customs. In many cartoons produced for publications such as the New Zealand Herald, Trevor Lloyd portrayed the ‘modern Māori’ as greedy, stupid and selfish.
Māori show bands
These crude parodies had little to do with the traditions and forms of humour enjoyed by Māori themselves. However, limited contact and lack of mutual understanding between the races meant that, for much of the 20th century, this was the only ‘Māori humour’ known beyond Māori society. It influenced the routines of popular Māori performers such as the show bands of the 1950s and 1960s. Groups such as the Howard Morrison Quartet included the clichés of ‘Māori’ humour in their stage acts and recordings.
Humorous writing in English
From the 1960s Māori increasingly published, performed and recorded examples of Māori humour that were not primarily aimed at confirming the stereotypes held by non-Māori. Although these works were mainly in the English language, they employed a more authentic Māori voice and often found humour in the contrast between traditional and modern culture. Hone Tuwhare’s 1972 poem ‘To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the chief post office, Auckland’ is as bawdy and direct as a pub conversation. Short story writer Arapera Blank has described lipsticked urban Māori girls returning to their rural community, where their relations suggested they must like to eat raw meat.
From 1981 the performer Billy T. James, originally a musician in a showband, became perhaps the best-known humorist in the country. His trademark high-pitched giggle helped him exploit the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky Māori no-hoper with sly effectiveness, and his characters generally outwitted supposedly smarter superiors. Since then other Māori comedians such as Mike King and Pio Terei continued to mock racial stereotypes from a Māori perspective, and proved popular with audiences of all kinds.