Between 1950 and 1980, 60% of the Māori population moved from rural areas to cities and towns. Most of these migrants were very willing to escape the poverty of their tribal homelands. Between 1840 and 1950 tribes had lost 95% of their lands, and rural Māori families were often forced to survive on low incomes from labouring and seasonal work. Despite moving to the cities they largely remained at the lower end of the economic scale, but urban poverty was better than rural destitution, with higher incomes and a wider range of more regular employment opportunities.
Urban Māori became concentrated in areas of poorer housing such as Aranui in Christchurch, Porirua in Wellington, and Ōtara, Ōtāhuhu and Ponsonby in Auckland. They often experienced discrimination and prejudice in education, health, housing and work opportunities. Urban Māori were doubly alienated, as they were rejected by the dominant Pākehā culture and yet lived at a distance from their centres of traditional culture.
Pākehā characterisations of Māori were often determined by prejudice. Māori were widely regarded as lazy. A common unfriendly term for a Māori was ‘Hori’ (from the Māori version of the name George). A Māori way of doing things was supposedly slapdash and unprofessional, and ‘Māori time’ meant unpunctuality. Māori in cities encountered even more unpleasant racial language such as ‘boonga’ (an offensive term for an Australian Aborigine) or ‘nigger’ (an insulting term for black people generally).
Gangs and Rastas
The stresses of Māori urban migration encouraged the rise of ethnic Māori gangs such as the Mongrel Mob, known as Mobsters, and Black Power (‘the Blacks’) in the 1960s and 1970s. All gang members were expected to be staunch, meaning tough, loyal and tireless. From the 1980s young Māori adopted Rastafarian ideas and terms (originally developed by the descendants of black slaves in the Caribbean), including the distinctive dreadlocked hairstyle. More recent urban street gangs, inspired by black American gangs such as the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles, called themselves ‘gangstas’.
Gardeners, lovers and philosophers
The Māori educationalist Irihapeti Ramsden rejected the popular image of Māori as ‘toa’ or ‘warriors’, saying it was a limiting and unhelpful description of both traditional and present-day Māori. ‘Once were gardeners, once were astronomers, once were philosophers, once were lovers,’ she declared.1
Urbanisation resulted in new ideas about the Māori extended family. Māori from different tribes were brought together in new multi-tribal communities, giving rise to the idea that all Māori were ‘cuzzies’ (an abbreviation of cousins), regardless of which tribe or region they were from. By a similar process, Māori men became known as ‘bros’ (short for brothers). ‘Bro culture’ became cool. Bros greeted each other with phrases derived from black American culture such as ‘Yo, bro’.
Bro culture spawned various subcultures such as ‘toa’ (warrior) identities and variations like ‘sport warriors’. This was a way of both adapting warrior traditions and rejecting negative stereotypes about violent brown men. The resurgence of haka in many sports, and role models such as All Black captain Buck Shelford, helped to strengthen the image of Māori males as strong, athletic and competitive.