Story: Māori–Pākehā relations

Page 5. Māori urban migration

All images & media in this story

At the beginning of the 20th century New Zealand was, in effect, two separate countries. The non-Māori population lived mainly in cities and towns and received the great bulk of national and local government services. Māori New Zealand was almost entirely rural and, until the late 1930s, received lower welfare payments than non-Māori. Because Europeans in the main centres seldom came into contact with Māori, there was little friction between the two peoples.

‘World’s finest race relations’

Pākehā claimed that New Zealand had the finest race relations in the world, and that the Treaty of Waitangi was the fairest treaty ever made by Europeans with a native race. In 1903, Bay of Plenty MP William Herries told Parliament that he looked forward to 100 years in the future, when ‘we shall have no Maoris at all but a white race with a dash of the finest coloured race in the world’.1

Māori political leaders

The few Māori well known to Pākehā in this period were mainly political leaders such as James Carroll, Apirana Ngata, the Kingitanga leader Te Puea Hērangi and Māui Pōmare of Taranaki. They represented a people whose numbers were so reduced that many thought they were doomed to extinction. Official policy towards Māori in the early 20th century has been described as ‘a kind of benign segregation’.2 Pākehā claimed that Māori were being assimilated into their society, yet Māori maintained separate military, religious, sporting, welfare, land development, educational and cultural organisations.


This situation changed dramatically during and after the Second World War as Māori moved from the countryside to the cities to find paid work. In the 50 years between 1936 and 1986, the Māori population changed from 83% rural to 83% urban, one of the fastest rates of urbanisation in the world. As a result, many Pākehā came into close contact with Māori for the first time.

Leading by example

As Māori poured into the cities during and after the Second World War, the traditions and customs they had developed in rural communities changed suddenly and dramatically. One early internal migrant was Miraka Szaszy, a Far North woman of Dalmatian and Māori descent. She was a founder of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, set up in 1951, which aimed, in part, to promote understanding between Māori and European women. Szaszy believed Māori women living in a new society needed to take on new leadership roles. She provided an example in her own life, becoming one of the first Māori women to graduate from university.

Social problems

The speed of this transformation created many social problems. Many Europeans did not want Māori neighbours, and suburbs such as Ōtara in South Auckland and Porirua East in Wellington changed from predominantly Pākehā to almost entirely Māori (later joined by other Polynesian migrants). Many Māori experienced discrimination in finding accommodation and employment, and were refused service in hotel bars. They had less education and fewer skills than the majority population and, especially with worsening economic conditions in the 1970s, were more likely to be unemployed.

Changing customs

The government made little effort to help urban Māori adapt to this different way of life. They were expected to learn English and to abandon or alter their own customs. Māori had to find ways to hold hui where no meeting houses were available, to decide whether to hold tangi in their homes or back on rural marae, to learn how to make a hāngī in the backyard, and to cooperate with people of other tribes. Many younger urban Māori no longer based their cultural identity on their home marae and their whakapapa. Although some succeeded within the Pākehā-dominated education system, many others became school drop-outs, psychiatric patients, drug users or gang members.

In the late 1960s, a new generation of urban Māori, including some of those who had earlier gained educational qualifications and status, began to draw public attention to Māori issues for the first time in a century. New institutions such as urban marae and pan-tribal Māori organisations helped Māori to live in cities without abandoning their own culture.

  1. Quoted in Michael King, The Penguin history of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 2004, p. 441. Back
  2. James Belich, Paradise reforged: a history of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the year 2000. Auckland: Penguin, 2001, p. 206. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Māori–Pākehā relations - Māori urban migration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011