Both Māori and non-Māori political leaders have served as important cultural go-betweens throughout New Zealand’s colonial history. However, many have found it difficult (and occasionally fatal) to retain the support of their own people while reaching out to another.
Many of the early European missionaries in New Zealand became heavily involved in political negotiations between settlers and Māori. In 1840 the Reverend Henry Williams translated the English draft of the Treaty of Waitangi into Māori and explained it to Māori leaders. Wesleyan missionary John Whiteley encouraged chiefs in the Kāwhia region to sign the treaty, and Robert Maunsell did the same in the Maraetai area. Missionary George Clarke’s Māori-language ability led to him becoming chief protector of aborigines (Māori) in 1840.
Missionaries often ran into trouble for these political involvements. Octavius Hadfield’s work among Māori around Nelson and Wellington brought him into conflict with European settlers, who dubbed him the ‘political parson’.1 In 1865, during the land wars, the Reverend Carl Völkner was executed by Māori near his church in Ōpōtiki after accusations he had acted as a government spy.
One unfortunate political go-between was James Te Mautaranui Fulloon, born in 1840 to an English father and a leading woman of Tūhoe. He became an interpreter, gathering secret information for the government’s military campaign in Waikato in 1863–4. In 1865 he tried to use his mother’s connections to capture a group of Pai Mārire fighters in Bay of Plenty. The plan failed and Fulloon and several others were killed on board their ship.
George Grey and Te Rangikāheke
George Grey was appointed governor of New Zealand in 1845, a time of violent disputes between many settlers and Māori. Recognising that he needed to win the respect of Maori, Grey developed friendships with a number of chiefs, especially Te Rangikāheke (Wiremu Maihi) of the Ngāti Rangiwewehi subtribe of Te Arawa.
The chief lived with his family in Grey’s home in Auckland, and was paid a salary to teach the governor the language, customs, traditions and history of his people. From their combined efforts came a number of important books of Māori ancestral stories, songs and chants, and proverbs.
Early Māori politicians
The best-known broker between the Māori and Pākehā worlds in the late 19th century was James Carroll. He was born in Hawke’s Bay in 1857 to an Irishman and a senior woman of Ngāti Kahungunu. Carroll became the MP for Eastern Māori in 1887 and from 1893 was the first Māori to represent a general electorate. He had great influence on the Liberal government’s land and ‘native’ policies. He firmly believed that Māori could succeed in European society. At a time when Māori were mainly restricted to the margins of national life, Carroll won them greater respect and understanding.
Āpirana Ngata was the most prominent mediator between the Māori and Pākehā worlds in the early 20th century. As MP for Eastern Māori he helped draft legislation giving Māori a greater say in their affairs. In both world wars Ngata helped recruit Māori troops and insisted that they fight together as a Māori battalion. Using his knowledge of the Pākehā world and his professional skills, Ngata dedicated his life to reforming the social and economic situation of Māori and promoting the place of Māoritanga in the modern world.
Māori women leaders
Te Puea Hērangi was born into the family of the Māori king in Waikato in 1883. Her determination to rebuild King Tāwhiao’s home at Ngāruawāhia established the great new marae and community of Tūrangawaewae. Te Puea believed that the two races should respect and learn from each other, and she steadily improved relations between the Kīngitanga and the government. Her achievements communicated across cultures and she was recognised as ‘the greatest Māori woman of our time’.2
Whina Cooper was born in the northern Hokianga in 1895. She became the best-known Māori woman in the country in the 1950s after she was elected first president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, in which role she worked on Māori housing, education, crime, employment and health issues. At the opening of the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, Dame Whina called on the country to ‘remember that the Treaty was signed so that we could all live as one nation in Aotearoa’.3
Recent political go-betweens
Doug Graham, a Pākehā descendant of renowned scholars of the Māori language, became the National MP for Remuera in 1984. He was appointed minister in charge of treaty negotiations in 1991 and played a key role in major treaty settlements with the Ngāi Tahu and Tainui tribes. After retiring from Parliament Sir Doug continued to facilitate Treaty of Waitangi settlement negotiations. He is credited with enhancing the status of the treaty among both Māori and Pākehā.
Pita Sharples, the son of an English father and Ngāti Kahungunu mother, completed a PhD in 1976 and began a long public-service career that included establishing the first urban inter-tribal marae. He also pioneered the development of kōhanga reo (pre-school language nests) and revived the use of the taiaha as a martial art. Co-leader of the Māori Party, Sharples entered Parliament in 2005 as the MP for Tāmaki Makaurau. Popular with Pākehā as well as Māori, he was described in 2009 as ‘the nation’s kaumātua’.4 Pita Sharples stood down from Parliament in 2014 and was knighted for his services to Māori in 2015.
Metiria Turei of Ngāti Kahungunu grew up in a working-class Māori family in Palmerston North and experienced unemployment as a school leaver. She became a single mother in her early 20s. She got a training incentive allowance, completed a law degree in 1999, started work in a lawyers’ office and joined the Green Party. In 2002 she entered Parliament as a list MP and became co-leader of the party in 2009. She worked closely with two Pākehā male co-leaders, Russell Norman and James Shaw and had a major commitment to the involvement of both Māori and women in Green Party activism. She resigned as co-leader of the Green Party in August 2017 and retired from politics after the September 2017 general election. This followed controversy about her misleading the Ministry of Social Development about her living circumstances when she was a sole parent on a benefit and her enrolment at that time in an electorate for which she was not eligible.