Māori Mobilisation: Wartime, Peacetime, Covid-19-time
In recent weeks I have been pondering the iwi Māori capacity to mobilise, noticing how quickly and efficiently Māori groups and communities throughout the country rallied in response to the Covid-19 rāhui. Remote communities back home set up check points to regulate the movement of people into and through their territories. Māori clergy turned Facebook into a pulpit for morning and evening karakia and Sunday services. Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa is just one example. Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā has been both advising Māori about Covid-19 and making a stand for government responses that centre equity, keep faith with mana motuhake, and aim for an exit from the current rāhui that allows Māori to thrive. For me, social media has been a steady stream of acknowledgement of iwi, urban Māori, kura, and Māori organisations of all shapes and sizes making and delivering care packages, kai hampers, sanitizer and masks. Among all the activity, I see a robust and grounded home-front, a productive mobilisation that reflects important elements of our past.
Historically, major crises – whether war or disease – that took and disrupted far too many lives also generated unreservedly Māori responses, often paying attention to whānau and community health and wellbeing.
Ngāpuhi Nursing sisters
This striking image of the Ngāpuhi Nursing Sisters, or Ngāpuhi Sisters of Mercy, produced in 1901 springs easily to mind. The women were likely from prominent families of the Whangarei District. They trained in first aid, intending to qualify as nurses in the field. They appear to have attended public events, providing first aid services, like at the 1901 Marsden military sports day. They also fundraised for New Zealand’s contributions to the South African War; their uniform was based on the one worn by New Zealand’s mounted volunteers.
Through the same period, and well into the 1910s, Māori communities continued to suffer disproportionately from typhoid, smallpox, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. The Young Māori Party advocated for a comprehensive Māori health programme, including substantial nurse training leading to an autonomous network of Māori nurses working in Māori districts. Despite decades of lobbying, planning, and work, those aspirations were dashed for a range of reasons that included lack of government support and Pākehā resistance.
In the meantime, Akenehi Hei (Te Whakatohea and Te Whānau a Apanui) became the first Māori woman to qualify with a full nurse’s registration. Her several nursing appointments included working at Te Kao during a typhoid outbreak in 1909. In the winter of 1910, she returned to Gisborne to nurse a niece who was sick with typhoid. Soon she was nursing other family members also. She succumbed to the disease herself later that year, dedicated to her nursing mission to the end.
First World War
During World War I, efforts on the home-front included the Māori Soldiers’ Fund, launched in 1915. The fund was an initiative of Miria Pomare (Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki) and Lady Annette Liverpool, the wives of Maui Pomare and the governor (later governor-general) Lord Liverpool respectively. The fund’s mobilisation included sending kai and clothing to the Māori contingent, holding receptions for returned servicemen, and visiting wounded soldiers in hospital.
Another prominent woman mobilised Māori, Waikato-Tainui specifically, against the same war. Te Puea Hērangi stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Waikato men when they refused conscription and were roundly punished as a result. Her leadership and service continued when her home community of Mangatāwhiri was devastated by influenza in 1918. She saw to it that 100 orphaned children were placed with remaining families and embarked on a project that led eventually to the establishment of Tūrangawaewae at Ngāruawāhia as the Kīngitanga centre. Whānau health and welfare remained on the agenda of Māori women’s organisation through the rest of the century. Established at Ōhinemutu during the inter-war years, the Women’s Health League, with its mostly Māori membership, focused on the health of women and children in the home.
Second World War
When the 28th (Māori) Battalion formed in 1940, young Māori men quickly filled its companies, though some opposition continued, including in Waikato. Back home, Māori throughout the country applied their energies to supporting ‘the boys’. Marae, youth groups, and tribal committees fundraised by holding dances, picture shows, and basket socials. Māori musicians and performers, like Ana Hato, Deane Waretini, and Epi Shalfoon, organised concerts, visited hospitals, and performed for servicemen. New wartime music included Anania Amohau’s ‘Māori Battalion March to Victory’, Tuini Ngawai’s ‘Arohaina Mai’, and Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue Smoke’. Alongside the care packages and Christmas parcels, many Māori communities also turned their attention internally to the welfare of themselves, their homes and their marae, in the process laying the foundations for community work that would follow in the second half of the century.
All that mobilisation. All that energy and action. All that rallying in times of hardship and crisis. In the past and in the present. I feel immensely proud. But I’m also a bit sad and wary. I’m sad and wary because our mobilisations have so often been met with resistance, demands to prove their value and relevance, and even charges of separatism; and because they have so often turned on the defence of Māori lives and lifeways. In the past and in the present.
However, I am uplifted by knowing that what I’ve laid out here is part of our history. To risk a gross generalisation, I think Māori are well-equipped for mobilisation, we’re called to instant action every time an unexpected hui is on its way to the marae. Whanaungatanga, relatedness, means our lives are undergirded by organisation and networking, a foundation for belonging, which I’m sure is a boost in times of need, such as the circumstances we are facing with the current Covid-19 rāhui.
Dr Aroha Harris belongs to Te Rarawa and Ngapuhi. Her current projects reflect her interest in Māori and iwi histories of Māori policy and community development in the twentieth century. Aroha is a founding member of Te Pouhere Korero, the national organisation of Māori historians, and co-editor of their journal of the same name. She has variously published in edited collections and academic journals.
Read more on Māori organising in the twentieth century: Aroha Harris with Melissa Matutina Williams, Te Ao Hurihuri: The Changing World 1920-2004, Wellington, 2018, pp.14-41.
Cite this article
Dr Aroha Harris.
Māori Mobilisation: Wartime, Peacetime, Covid-19-time. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 April 2020. Updated: 21 April 2020.