As for other New Zealanders, Māori use of and response to alcohol has been diverse. Drinking, whether beer, wine or spirits, is often enjoyed at parties or get-togethers with family and friends, contributing to sociability, dancing, singing and talk. It can also fuel risk-taking, violence and the disruption of relationships and productive life.
Māori did not have alcohol before Europeans arrived; when they were introduced to it, most did not like it. It was called waipiro (stinking water), wai kaha (strong water), or, by the few who liked it, waipai (good water). A taste for alcohol was not acquired by significant numbers of Māori until the 1850s; once that had occurred the integration of waipiro into Māori life was vigorously managed.
Many Māori leaders were concerned about the impact of alcohol on their communities and took steps to prevent its spread and use. Hapū would declare their community or marae dry or control access to liquor. In 1884 Ngāti Maniapoto persuaded the government to declare the entire Rohe Pōtae (King Country) a dry area – the largest in New Zealand. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some Māori joined the prohibition movement.
An 1874 petition to Parliament by Whanganui Māori stated, ‘[Liquor] impoverishes us; our children are not born healthy because the parents drink to excess, and the child suffers; it muddles men’s brains, and they in ignorance sign important documents, and get into trouble thereby; grog also turns the intelligent men of the Maori race into fools ... grog is the cause of various diseases which afflict us. We are also liable to accidents, such as tumbling off horses and falling into the water; these things occur through drunkenness. It also leads on men to take improper liberties with other people’s wives.’1
Alcohol sometimes greased the wheels of land sales, and was used to blunt the grief Māori communities experienced as a result of high rates of death and loss of land. Binge drinking, which became common in the 1870s, often occurred in settler towns where social constraints were looser, but it was not until the 1890s that Māori drinking and alcohol-related convictions reached settler level. In the early 20th century the first crop of Māori doctors described drinking as a major social problem.
Māori petitions to governors and parliaments left a record of their thinking about waipiro and how it should be handled. However, government intervention was not universally favoured. While some Māori wanted the government to control availability of liquor, others objected to intervention, preferring to manage the matter themselves.
Numerous regulations and laws concerned with Māori and alcohol were passed. Among them were:
- the Sale of Spirits to Natives Ordinance 1847, which prohibited the sale of spirits and limited the sale of other intoxicating liquors to Māori
- the Outlying Districts Sale of Spirits Act 1870, which enabled the creation of a licensing system in areas with predominantly Māori inhabitants
- the Native Licensing Act 1878, which provided for the setting up of ‘dry’ districts in rural areas with predominantly Māori inhabitants
- the Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Amendment Act 1895, which prevented Māori women, unless married to a European, from buying alcohol
- the Licensing Amendment Act 1904, which prevented Māori men from buying take-away alcohol in most of the North Island.
After the Second World War
The Licensing Amendment Act 1948 removed many of the controls on Māori access to liquor. Māori returned servicemen were strongly in favour of this, and although many other Māori were not, the mood in the country was for equality. Despite this, some publicans continued to discourage or ban Māori from lounge and private bars because they perceived them to be too rough and rowdy.
Opponents of King Country prohibition claimed Māori going to sly-grog shanties were being sold a mix of methylated spirits, whisky and raspberry cordial known as ‘Lightning Rod’. Later commentators suggested the claim was a scare tactic, designed to persuade Māori to vote against prohibition.
With urbanisation and plentiful employment opportunities, drinking became the norm for increasing numbers of Māori. Many marae remained alcohol-free, but even there groups would congregate outside or in someone’s nearby garage to enjoy a drink, and beer was often served at weddings and 21sts.
Binge drinkers and teetotallers
In the late 20th century average daily consumption of alcohol was the same for Māori and non-Māori, but the underlying pattern was different. About a quarter of Māori did not drink alcohol at all, and those who did drink did so less frequently than non-Māori. When Māori drank, however, they consumed more – in the late 1980s about twice as much at each drinking session. This dropped in the 2000s to about 40% more than non-Māori per session. The pattern of less frequent drinking sessions at which more was consumed continued, but the number of non-drinking Māori had dropped.
Binge drinking is more likely to cause harm to the person doing it and those around them than more frequent moderate drinking. These effects were made worse by the age structure of the Māori population, half of whom were under 24, an age group more likely to suffer alcohol-related harm. Māori were more than twice as likely to suffer severe alcohol-related problems, and four times as likely to die of a condition caused or made worse by alcohol.
Māori use both general and Māori-focused alcohol harm-reduction programmes.