The price of citizenship?

John Scott’s building cannot be divorced from the context of the 28th (Maori) Battalion for which it was built to commemorate.  The Maori Battalion itself can be seen to mark a turning point in New Zealand’s cultural identity, and such a reading may strengthen McKay’s claims.  The Battalion became one of the most celebrated and decorated units in the New Zealand forces in World War II.

Prominent leaders such as Apirana Ngata saw the creation of the Maori Battalion as an important way of attaining equality in the future.  The Third Article of the Treaty of Waitangi granted Maori the full rights of British citizens, and fighting in the war could be seen as respecting this.  Also, Ngata saw participation in the war effort as a prerequisite to being able to have a say in how the future of the country could be shaped following the war.  Ngata noted in his booklet “The Price of Citizenship” (1943): ‘Have the civilians of New Zealand, men and women, fully realised the implications of the joint participation of Pakeha and Maori in the last and greatest demonstration of the highest citizenship?’

The Battalion was a pastiche of tribal affiliations.  Formed voluntarily, the first soldiers arrived in Palmerston North for training on 26 January 1940.  Claudia Orange notes how the voluntary formation was necessary because of the contention caused in World War One when a group of Waikato Maori (who had suffered land confiscations in the late 19th Century) were imprisoned for resisting conscription.  Figures such as Te Puea Herangi of Tainui were not fully supportive of the Battalion in World War Two due to land grievances remaining, although she did not actively discourage enlistment.

Having departed from Palmerston North for war on 1 May 1940, the next five years would see 600 of the 3618 men enlisted in the 28th (Maori) Battalion killed, and some 1700 wounded (a casualty rate almost 50% higher than other NZ infantry battalions).  While many young men were lost, a number of leaders were created and found as part of the five years of battle, building on the early efforts to have the right for Maori to command themselves.  As Orange notes, this struggle for self-leadership was indicative of a wider Maori viewpoint of the time that leadership over Maori affairs in the broadest sense should be held by Maori.

This goal of having leadership of Maori affaris residing with Maori was also pursued through the Maori War Effort Organsiation (MWEO).  Formed in 1942 to handle Maori recruitment and war-related activities, the MWEO became a further vehicle through which Maori could achieve a degree of self-leadership.  The pan-Maori organisation expanded its operations into education, job training, and land use, and allowed “the Maori people to organise in their own way, to move into the mainstream of economic and social life, and to assume positions of leadership in the wider community.” (NZ History Online, see here).

These gains were not to continue post-war.  Government was wary of the support base for the MWEO (not only from returned Maori Battalion servicemen), and sought to avoid a rise of Maori nationalism by curbing the MWEO’s expansion or entrenchment and instead utilise the Native Department for the functions of the MWEO (thereby still achieving the goals of Maori advancement).  However, this solution watered down the degree of tribal responsibility, and re-institutionalised decisions on Maori affairs – the end result “a compromise that satisfied no-one.” (NZ History Online, see here).

The tale of the 28th (Maori) Battalion is therefore intrinsically linked with the aspirations of the Maori people during and also after the war.  It was an opportunity for equality that saw some gains, but never fulfilled the goal of achieving self-leadership.

John Scott’s Maori Battalion Memorial Building is not a compromise that satisfied no-one – the adulation poured on it through publications such as Te Ao Hou denies such a reading.  However, it can be read as supporting the wider context of the Battalion and the MWEO as part of Maoridom at the time.  It perhaps represents Ngata’s goal of earning equality through battle, of earning the rights provided under the Treaty by also bearing the duties that came with it.  It was not a goal of separatism, but of Maori helping to shape and then share the future of the country.  Nor is it a goal of blending – Maori architectural elements sit alongside Pakeha in the building, one is not subsumed by the other.

In its formal response to its historical context, the Maori Battalion Memorial Building fits with Bill McKay’s idea of ‘bicultural’.  However, the MWEO shows that it was not a fully attained goal.  Political tensions and fears held further advancement back.  It could be argued that this tension comes through the design (much like Steiner points out), particularly when Pakeha eyes view it.  To Maori eyes it may represent a beautiful goal, but to Pakeha eyes it represents a threat, and is therefore tagged as ugly and best not given any recognition.

Apirana Ngata, The Price of Citizenship: Ngarimu V.C., Wellington, N.Z. : Printed by W. & T., 1943.

Claudia Orange, “The Price of Citizenship? The Maori War Effort”, pp.236-251 in John Crawford (ed), Kia Kaha. New Zealand in the Second World War, OUP, Auckland, 2000.

Wira Gardiner, Te Mura O te Ahi. The Story of the Maori Battalion, Reed, Auckland, 1995.

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