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Urban Māori 

Maori began moving to New Zealand’s cities in large numbers after World War II. Many faced discrimination and separation from their whanau (families), language, and culture. Discover how they confronted these challenges to emerge as major players in the urban cultural and political landscape by the century’s end.

‘Haere ki te ao hou, kimihia he oranga mou …’
‘Go to the new world, find a good job …’
Kiwaha (common saying)

Moving to the city

In the boom years after World War II, many Maori moved to New Zealand’s cities seeking work, education, and adventure. Before the war, more than 80 percent of Maori had lived rurally, most within their own tribal regions. By the mid 1980s, the situation had reversed, with about 80 percent living in urban areas.

Urban life – a threat to Maori culture

Some Maori flourished in the city, establishing successful careers and enjoying the benefits of the modern world. Many others had a much tougher time. Some met Pakeha (European New Zealanders) and Maori from other iwi (tribes) for the first time. Many faced discrimination and separation from their whanau (families) and iwi.

The emerging urban generation had less knowledge of their language and culture. This dislocation contributed to Maori struggling to achieve in the education system and being over-represented in unemployment figures, hospitals, and prisons.

Improving Maori welfare

Maori confronted these inequalities tenaciously, setting up cultural organisations, urban marae (meeting places), and social and sports groups. Some groups were iwi-based, while others were pan-tribal.

The Maori Women’s Welfare League, established in 1951, became a major force in navigating the social changes and tackling welfare issues. The league focused on family welfare – housing, health, and education – as much as women’s welfare. With branches in cities nationwide, it gave Maori a strong political voice. The league also sought to preserve customary arts, which were increasingly threatened in the modern world.

Maori arts and cultural revival

Into the 1960s and 70s, Maori formed various groups and festivals to revitalise customary practices. Kapa haka (cultural performing arts), taonga puoro (musical instruments and traditions), whakairo (carving), raranga (weaving), ta moko (tattooing), and the racing of waka ama (outrigger canoes) were all revived.

Many Maori artists, musicians, and writers combined customary practices with modern art forms and technologies. The Maori showbands of the 1950s and 60s were a particularly successful example, both here and abroad.

Maori language revitalisation

By the 1960s, most fluent speakers of te reo (the Maori language) were elderly, and people feared that the language would die out.

In the 1970s, Maori initiated various programmes to revive te reo, including the Te Ataarangi immersion method of learning. Kohanga reo (early childhood language nests), kura kaupapa (primary schools), and wananga (tertiary institutions) followed in the 1980s.

In 1987, Maori was finally acknowledged as an official language. By now, the revitalisation was in full swing. In the century’s last decade, wharekura (secondary schools) opened to cater to students graduating from kura kaupapa, and Maori radio stations and television programmes also hit the airwaves.

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