In the Corner of the World – Struggles of the modern Maori

Over the next few weeks here at Gadling, we’ll be bringing you updates from our recent travels across New Zealand – in the process, we hope to offer a range of perspectives about what visiting this truly unique and fascinating country is all about. You can read previous entries HERE.

After more than 24 hours of travel, I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. It was the longest amount of time that I had ever spent en route to a destination and the farthest that I had ever been from home. I was on the opposite side of the planet from my life in New York and experiencing the South Pacific for the first time. And I couldn’t shake one really odd feeling: The people here sure don’t look like Pacific Islanders. It seemed like everyone was white, spoke the Queen’s English and had created their own Little Britain. Maori people are grossly outnumbered by their colonial countrymen and their existence is markedly different. People of Maori decent currently make up only 15% of New Zealand’s population and they lag behind their European counterparts in crucial areas such as unemployment rates, literacy and health. This upset me and I wanted to learn more.

It seemed strange that people would travel all the way to New Zealand, snap photos of Maori meeting houses and war canoes and then leave without learning anything about modern Maori life. Troubled by how limited my interaction with Maori was while I was in New Zealand, I decided to retroactively learn more about the troubles that have befallen the population. What I learned was disheartening though not surprising given the country’s colonial history.
I scoured the website of Statistics New Zealand, the government’s official statistics department, for more information on the state of the Maori population. While the country is located in a far corner of the world, a distinction that inspired the name of this Gadling feature, it is growing whiter every year. Maori population growth is slowing at an alarming rate. Contributing to this is the average Maori life expectancy, which is about seven years less than the non-Maori population. Similarly, the gap between Maori and non-Maori mortality rates is growing.

Many of the Maori I did see in New Zealand were working in blue collar, unskilled positions. According to Statistics New Zealand,

Among the full-time employed, a higher proportion of Māori than non-Māori were employed in occupations with lower median incomes, for example, as sales and service workers, plant and machinery operators and in elementary occupations. In contrast, a lower proportion of Māori were employed as legislators, administrators and managers, professionals or technicians and associate professionals, occupations with higher median incomes. Māori were one and a half times more likely than non-Māori to be employed as trades workers and plant and machinery operators than legislators, administrators and managers.

This can be partially explained by the low literacy rates of the Maori. A recent survey described by Statistics New Zealand showed that close to three-fourths of Maori had literacy skills that were below the aptitude necessary to handle the “complex demands of everyday life and work.”

As a result of these low literacy rates and high proportion of Maori in low income jobs, more than 30% of Maori are in the lowest quartile of ranked incomes. While the non-Maori population sees a more even distribution of their population in the four household income quartiles, Maori are over-represented in the bottom two income quartiles.

Perhaps even more troubling is the representation of Maori in New Zealand’s prisons. Despite making up only 15% of the total population, close to 50% of New Zealand’s incarcerated prisoners are Maori according to the Department of Corrections.

By no means am I sharing these statistics to paint the Maori in an unflattering light. To the contrary, I seek only to illustrate how colonization drastically affects native people. The Treaty of Waitangi, which I touched upon briefly in an earlier post, has always been a point of contention between the Maori and the European settlers, and many argue that it was not properly explained to the Maori at the time of ratification. Regardless, since colonization, Maori culture has been marginalized and, to a degree, celebrated only for tourism purposes.

I loved my visit to New Zealand. And so did my Gadling cohorts Grant and Jeremy. The landscape is beautiful and the people are some of the friendliest I have ever met. But it was a reminder that traveling is more than just seeing sites and taking photos. We should learn about other cultures as we explore the world. And, as I looked around this remote corner of the world, I felt like it shouldn’t be so white. But that’s the truth in any place where colonization has occurred.

For better or for worse, Europeans spread their cultures across the globe centuries ago. But we should never forget the native cultures that existed before colonization and struggle to maintain their identities today. That is evident in the United States, as well, where Native Americans also face challenges with unemployment, literacy rates and health issues. These problems are not unique to New Zealand but, for some reason, I noticed them more there than any other place I have traveled.

Maybe I just feel as if, after 24 hours on a plane to a far-flung locale, that I should have had a far less seamless transition. I wanted a bit of culture shock. I wanted to feel as if I was far from home. But, at the end of the day, New Zealand kind of felt like Hawaii and Vermont had a baby and England adopted it. I guess I wanted something more untouched. But maybe that doesn’t exist anymore.

Read more of Gadling’s In the Corner of the World series here.