New Zealand and its Indigenous People

New Zealand

and its Indigenous People


New Zealand lies in the South Pacific, nearly 2.000 kms from Australia, to the east, and 19.017 kms, or 11.790 miles from Paris, France.

The capital city of New Zealand is Wellington, although Auckland is the largest city, with a population having just reached one million. The total population of the country is 3.8 million.

The Maori make up about 15%, and are the indigenous people of New Zealand. Most Maori live in the North Island areas of Northland, Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Waikato.

New Zealand is similar in size to Japan or Great Britain.

Its climate is temperate to subtropical. The languages are mainly English and Maori.

The government is of parliamentary type. New Zealand has a written constitution. Queen Elizabeth II is the chief of state. She is represented by a governor general. The head of government is the prime minister. The third part of the executive consists of the cabinet. The legislative is made up of the House of Representatives (called "parliament"). The third branch is the judicial branch (the courts).

All New Zealanders are allowed to vote at the age of 18. Most of the 3.8 million New Zealanders are of British origin. Nearly 75% of the people, including a large majority of Maori, live on the North Island. In addition, 167,000 Pacific Islanders also live in New Zealand. New Zealanders colloquially refer to themselves as "Kiwis" - the country's native bird.


1) Origin

Nobody knows for sure how the Maori got to New Zealand hundreds of years ago. According to legend, the first adventurous explorers arrived there around 1350 AD from Polynesia. Due to cramped conditions and a shortage of food, they launched 10 great canoes and set off for the virtually uninhabited island, which is known in Maori as Aotearoa.

Maori tribal legends are full of stories of great voyages and of a distant homeland called Hawaiki. They called New Zealand Aotearoa, which means Land of the Long White Cloud. This is how the first voyagers (an explorer called Kupe) saw New Zealand on the horizon: a long shining cloud covering the hills and mountains. The first arrivals lived by fishing and by hunting the giant flightless birds, known as the moa, which were common in New Zealand then. The word "Maori" means "moa hunter". As the population increased tribes began to grow plants brought from the Pacific, but these war hard to cultivate in Aotearoa's colder climate.

Aotearoa's forests contained some of the largest trees in the world, and the Maori became great wood-carvers. The men became great fighters too, for tribal warfare was a habit among the Maori.

2) Arrival of the Pakeha

In the last 150 years, the Maori way of life has changed almost completely because of the arrival of white explorers and then white settlers in Aotearoa. They called the country New Zealand and they saw that it had magnificent forests full of valuable timber, land which would be easy to farm and seas teeming with fish and other life. In the early nineteenth century more and more people from Europe and America travelled to New Zealand, many tried to buy land from the Maori. The Maori called these white people Pakeha, or strangers, and at first they were keen to learn from them about Western inventions.

The Maori wanted to know about the Pakeha's farming methods and other skills, and they welcomed Pakeha traders. The Pakeha population got bigger, and in 1840 the British queen, Victoria, suggestet to the Maori that Aotearoa should become a British colony. Maori chiefs were told that if they signed a treaty with the queen they would always be able to keep their lands, forests and fisheries. No one would take the Maori's lands away from them. Neither the British government nor the Maori knew how many settlers would soon be coming to Aotearoa (sent there by an organisation called New Zealand Company). So the Maori agreed to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. They thought it would be good to have the protection of the British queen, as their country was attracting many lawless adventurers to its coasts - traders, sailors hunting whales and seals, and runaway convicts from the prison colonies in Australia. As long as they could live according to their customs they did not mind having some Pakeha among them, especially useful traders and missionaries who brought with them new skills in crop-growing and in reading and writing.

Since the first Pakeha settlers arrived the Maori have had to change their way of life drastically. Aotearoa was a land of forests, but the Pakeha cut the lowland forests down. They covered much of the country with European-style farms. They even introduced birds like blackbirds, thrushes and goldfinches, and animals such as rabbits and hedgehogs, to make New Zealand seem more like a European country and less like old Aotearoa. The beautiful Aotearoa has gone, replaced by a landscape that the Pakeha created to remind them of where they came from.

3) The Treaty of Waitangi (1840)

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 marked the end of old Aotearoa and the start of modern New Zealand, as the Maori agreed to place themselves under the protection of the British queen. But the promises made to the Maoris were soon broken, as ships full of settlers arrived. By 1856 there were more Pakeha than Maori in New Zealand. The Maori tribes did not want to sell any more land to them and there was fighting between the two peoples. This fighting is called the Land Wars. Some tribes were called rebels against the government and their tribal lands were confiscated by the settler government.

This was a bad time for the Maori people. They had no resistance against the new diseases brought by the Pakeha. Weakened by war and disease, the Maori population was becoming smaller and smaller while the Pakeha were increasing and was often predicted to disappear soon. But the Maori did not die. They recovered from most shocks of the nineteenth century. Maoritanga - Maori custom and belief - is still strong in New Zealand. However, the Maori are only a minority of the population now, outnumbered by the Pakeha almost ten to one.

4) The Land March and Te Hikoi

The Maori lost much of their land in the nineteenth century, and they also became poor compared with the Pakeha. Their complaints were largely ignored by the Pakeha until 1975, when young Maori protesters helped to organise a great Land March of Maori from all over New Zealand, down the length of the North Island. At the head of the march was Whina Cooper (when she made the march, she was almost eighty years old!). Their destination was the Parliament Buildings in Wellington.

Whina Cooper

This march to draw attention to Maori land losses and other grievances was followed in 1984 by another march in the opposite direction, Te Hikoi. This time the Maori protesters walked from Ngaruawahia, home of the Maori King Movement, to Waitangi in the north, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. They called on the government to 'honour the treaty' and they wanted to tell the Pakeha about the problems facing the Maori. Once again there was a woman, or rather two women, at the head of the march - Eva Rickard and Titewhai Harawira. They wanted the Government to plan for Maori development, and they wanted the return of more Maori land.

The protestors were not allowed to speak to the governor general and the prime minister. They had hoped to do that, but they had also promised that Te Hikoi would be a peace march. Nobody made trouble at Waitangi. Even the gang members kept the promise to be peaceful, though they danced war dances in a field and made fiercy speeches.

The protestors went home from Waitangi thinking their march had been a failure. A few months later, however, the National Party lost the elections to the Labour Party, and a new government came to power which promised to examine the grievances which the Maori marchers had taken to Waitangi.

Maori tribal groups and individuals have successfully challenged the government in the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal in recent years, forcing changes of policy on a number of issues.

6) The Waikato and Kingitanga

The Waikato is New Zealand's longest river. The farmlands of the Waikato valley are often said to be the richest in the world. Tonnes of butter and cheese are made from the milk of the cows which graze on the Waikato fields.

Before the Pakeha arrived in New Zealand the Waikato river was a great highway for the Maori. They used the country's many rivers as their roads, travelling along them in their canoes and settling on the fertile river banks. The river was an important centre of Maori life and the Waikato tribe was one of the most powerful tribes in Aotearoa. Unlike any of the other tribes in New Zealand, the Waikato tribe has kings and queens. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Pakeha were arriving to settle in New Zealand. The tribes had signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British, but they had not expected so many settlers. The treaty had promised to protect them but already much land had gone to the Pakeha, some of it unfairly, or for very little money and cheap trade goods such as axes and blankets. And still the settlers wanted more land.

In 1985 there was a meeting of many important tribes. They joined together in what they called Kingitanga - the Maori King Movement - and they elected a Maori king. They thought that if they united under one king, as the Pakeha were united under their queen, Victoria, they would become stronger, and better able to stop the Pakeha from takint over all of Aotearoa.

The warrior they chose as their king was the leading chief of the Waikato tribe, and ever since then his descendants have had the title of king or queen, and have led Kingitanga.

The Land Wars in the Waikato Valley

The second half of the nineteenth century was a sad time for the Waikato Maori. There were wars between the Kingitanga tribes and the Pakeha over land. A British army invaded the Waikato valley and its gunboats sailed up the Waikato river. Many Pakeha and Maori were killed in battles along the river, and the Maori king and his followers retreated into the hills to the west, where they remained in exile for many years. This hilly country is still called the King Country. No Pakeha entered the King Country bt the settlers confiscated almost all the tribal land in the Waikato valley. The Waikato tribes were described as rebels by the government, and the settlers believed they deserved to lose their land. They took even the land of Maori who had not fought against the settlers in the Land Wars.

Today, the government admits that the Maori were treated unfairly. The Treaty of Waitangi should have protected their land and it did not. Over a century ago the Waikato tribespeople returned to the Waikato from exile in the King Country. The tribe received some money from the New Zealand Government for the loss of their lands, but not enough to remove the feeling of injustice.

7) The Drift to the Cities and Farming Difficulties

Farming is more difficult now because there are no longer small dairy factories making butter and cheese in these isolated areas, and there is little profit to be made from other forms of farming. Sheep farming is still important but it is harder to sell wool and mutton overseas these days. New Zealand has to find new markets and new products to survive.

The Maori of the remote rural areas and the Maori of the cities both face special problems. These problems have been created by change, for New Zealand as a whole is changing nowadays very rapidly. Not long ago New Zealand sold most of its good to Britain. Some people called it Britain's 'farm in the Pacific'.

Now Britain is part of the European Union, which already has too much milk, butter and meat. New Zealand has to find new products to sell to the rest of the world, and has to make new friends and trading partners, in the countries of the East as well as Europe and America.

When farming faces difficulties, everyone suffers. Many young Maori started going to the cities in the 1960s and 1970s where they looked for work in factories, offices and wherever else jobs are available. For many of them lack of training is a handicap, and there are many problems facing the young Maori in the cities. Under the stress of town life, which is very different from the traditions of rural areas, families may break up. Tribal ties are no longer as strong as they were in the countryside. Some young Maori become homeless and some get into difficulties with the police. Crime is a big problem in the cities and can seem the only option to those with no money and lots of time.

8) The Maori Way

Before the Europeans arrived the lives of the Maori were not governed by clocks. Nowadays they have modern jobs in factories, offices, farms and other workplaces, but the life of the tribe is still important to most of them - even to the Maori of the city. The tribe is their family - a much bigger family than most Pakeha have. There are tribal ceremonies such as tangihanga, which are funeral wakes for important people who have died. Traditionally these wakes will go on for several days and distant relatives and acquaintances of the dead person are expected to gather from all over the country. If you are working in an office it is not easy to follow this tradition. There are often clashes between the ways of the Pakeha world and tribal custom.

Marae and pa

A Maori village is called a pa, and in the old days it was usually built with earthworks and wooden palisades, or fences, to keep out tribal enemies.

Each large Maori tribe is made up of several sub-tribes, and it is customary for each sub-tribe to have its own marae and meeting-house. A marae is a meeting place. It is often just a bare patch of ground, an open space or courtyard in front of a Maori meeting-house. The language spoken on the marae is still Maori. It is on the marae that the Maori are truly in their own world again. All meeting houses and marae are special places where Maori people feel themselves to be in the presence of their ancestors. Indeed a meeting house is said to be shaped like a human being with head, arms and body. When you walk inside you enter the body of the tribal ancestor.

Oratory - the art of speaking in public - was traditionally one of the most important arts in Maori society. Chiefs might dance up and down, waving in the air their carved spear or their stone club, and sometimes breaking into songs and chants.

Nowadays a good speaker on the marae is still fascinating to watch. Most men in the tribes did not like women to speak on the marae but this is changing. In recent times some of the most powerful leaders among the Maori have been women.

Wood Carvings

The Maori have always been great wood carvers. This art is most dramatically displayed in the large carved houses or meeting-houses, found all over New Zealand, decorated with sculptures of ancestor-figures and with creatures from tribal myth. After 1840 European travellers began arriving in New Zealand. More and more visitors demanded bigger buildings, so the modern meeting-house was created. In its design this is a combination of the old chief's houses where visitors used to be accommodated and the simple wooden churches of the first missionaries.


To press noses with each other is to hongi. When two people hongi together they feel close to each other. It is a much more friendly greeting than a handshake or even a kiss on the cheek.

Communal Work

In a Maori tribe in the old days work was communal. Everyone joined in activities such as planting and looking after the growing crops. When Pakeha came they changed Aotearoa into a country of small farms raising sheep and cattle, each one owned by only one person or one family. Recently some tribal groups in the Waikato and on the east coast have tried a return to communal farming. They have moved away from the one-person farm to organize collectives, claiming back Maori land leased to Pakeha farmers and pooling the labour and skills of tribal members.


A haka is a war dance where the warriors stick out their tongues and stomp on the ground . It was a way of challenging an opposing tribe and chanting in a menacing way. This was often accompanied by foot stamping and arm actions. Today, the All Blacks (the New Zealand rugby team) perform a haka before their matches.


Known in Maori as moko, these face tattoos were common amongst the higher classes. Those of a very high rank had tattoos on their face as well as their body. (Maoris used to have a complicated class system ranging from a slave class to a royal class.)

Hierarchy System

There is a hierarchy system in the Maori tribe. People were either born into chiefly families or as commoners. They became slaves if they were captured in a war. Society was divided into two classes. The upper class composed of the highest nobles and the military generals or chiefs. The lower class was made of commoners. Those outside these classes were slaves who held no rights. They did menial work and often died as sacrificial victims or to provide food when special events required human flesh. Whole communities which shared a common ancestor were under the jurisdiction of a family who earned the authority partly from hereditary and partly from past achievement.

9) Maori Today

Nowadays most Maori live in European-style houses and their children go to English-speaking schools along with the children of their Pakeha neighbours. They wear European-style clothes, vote in elections along with the Pakeha, watch television and play rugby and netball. But they are still proud to be Maori and in some important things their way of life remains different. They prefer some of their old customs to those brought by the Pakeha.

Among the very young a new pride in being Maori is encouraged in learning nests, where pre-school children speak nothing but Maori, and imagery from tribal legends may decorate the walls. Many of the older people were not allowed to speak Maori at school. Be like the Pakeha, they were told. Some of them believed that this was best, and a few of them even tried to discourage their own children from speaking Maori. Today, more and more schools are beginning to teach Maori, to Pakeha as well as to Maori children. Some schools which once banned Maori are now using it in all their lessons, as the main language.


Unemployment among the Maori people is much higher than among the Pakeha. Alarming figures on Maori underdevelopment were given in 1982 in a booklet called Race Against Time. They showed that just over 67 per cent of Maori left school with no qualifications compared with 28.5 per cent of Pakeha New Zealanders. When the booklet was published Maori made up 9 per cent of the total population in Zew Zealand but 46 per cent of the prison population. Compared with the rest of the population Maori health was poor and many Maori were poorly housed. Steps have been taken to improve Maori education since then, but statistics still show the Maori to be worse off than the Pakeha in most areas of life.

Few Maori boys go on from school to become apprentices and to learn skills like plumbing and electrical repair work, and even fewer go on to higher education and to university. This is one reason why unemployment is high among the Maori.

Among those people who have jobs in New Zealand the average income of Maori families is a good deal lower than that of the average Pakeha. This does not mean that the Maori feel inferior to the Pakeha, however. They know that, given the opportunity, they can do anything the Pakeha can do. In New Zealand there are Maori politicians, doctors, writers, lawyers and engineers. There are also brilliant Maori artists. The Maori have never allowed themselves to become a servant class to the Pakeha. But the Pakeha run New Zealand according to their own values, which are often different from those of the Maori. To succeed in Pakeha society the Maori have had to turn their backs on their own customs. The best jobs, the best education and the best land in New Zealand have usually gone to the Pakeha.

Since the 1930s New Zealand has been a welfare state. There has been free health care, social welfare assistance and unemployment pay available to all the population - both Pakeha and Maori. So nobody starved in recent times. Indeed the country became very wealthy after the Second World War, when high prices were paid by overseas buyers for its butter, cheese, meat and wool. There was enough for everybody. Times are harder now, however, because it is more difficult to sell meat and dairy produce overseas.

Crime and street gangs

In 1982 New Zealand's Race Relations Conciliator published statistics which showed that 46 per cent of the prison population was Maori and nearly 50 per cent of all the criminal cases involved Maori. At that time only about 9 per cent of the population was Maori. More recent statistics still show the proportion of Maori in jail to be over seven times the national average. Crime among the Maori rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s as people moved to the cities. Crime in may societies is highest among the young and the lower wage earning groups and the Maori population was very young and often poor.

The Race Reliations Conciliator said in 1982 that the New Zealand police had come under severe criticism from Maori and Pacific Polynesian communities. These communities felt they were being unequally singled out by harsh police methods. In street inquiries the police seemed to pick on Maori and Pacific Polynesians, who were more likely to end up before the courts for minor offences than the Pakeha.

A lot of young Maori in the city want the close companionship of tribal life, so they join Maori gangs, because they feel safer and more at ease in a group. The gang system began to develop in New Zealand after thousands of young Maori moved to the towns and cities. Many of these young people lost touch with their tribal roots. They had no elders in the cities and they felt ill at ease and even angry in a world where the Pakeha seemed to have all the money and power. The young Maori often had difficulty getting jobs. The gangs they formed were like the motor-cycle gangs of the US - the Hell's Angels. They called themselves the Stormtroopers, the Nigs and Junior Nigs, the Spades, Black Power, the Tribe, the Mongrels and the Panthers. Sometimes they lived together in houses whicht they fortified so they seemed to be like the old fighting pa.

The gangs frightened the Pakeha and they frightened and worried many of the older Maori in the countryside. They were not all bad and dangerous, however. There were many young men in some of the gangs who could see that the Maori people were poorer than the Pakeha, and that Maori health was often poor too. Maori went to prison more than Pakeha. These things made them angry.

Member of the Black Power gang Auckland

Street kids

Street kids are young homeless people, mostly from Maori or from Pacific islander families. They are to be found in New Zealand's cities, sometimes sleeping in rough shelters. The street kids have often run away from troubles at home.

There may have been little room for them in crowded housing with unemployed brothers, sisters and cousins. Some Maori in the cities feel that they are surrounded by a culture that is different from their own. They cannot get a job or a decent place to live, and this makes them feel that they are worthless. Some of them get drunk to try to get rid of this feeling of worthlessness. Many street children have run away from homes where their parents or relatives drank too much.

Maori in Government

The Pakeha settlers in New Zealand were allowed their first parliament in 1852 by the British Government. In 1867 it was decided that four Maori members should be elected by the Maori people to represent the northern, western, eastern and southern Maori.

Nowadays there are still four Maori members of the ninety-five member parliament. Maori voters can choose to switch from the Maori to the general electoral roll if they wish, to vote for the same candidates as their Pakeha neighbours.

Maori Law


The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 by the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. It is a permanent commission of inquiry and consists of 16 members appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Minister of Maori Affairs. The Tribunal's role is to make recommendations on claims brought by Maori relating to the practical application of the Treaty and to determine whether certain matters are inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty.

10) The Four Winds

The Maori sometimes call themselves the tribes of the four winds, because they can be divided into the northern, eastern, western and southern peoples - the North Wind, the East Wind, the West Wind and the South Wind.

11) The Future

The Maori would like more land to be returned to them, and they want help to develop so that they can overcome the problems they face - problems of high unemployment, poor health, bad housing and underdevelopment. Underdevelopment means that a community has the basis to be able to provide for itself (for example land or fishing grounds) but not enough money to pay for necessary equipment (for example farm machinery or fishing nets and packing plants).

Now, after living together in the same country for a long time, almost all the old Maori way of life has disappeared. Both the Pakeha and the Maori participate in the general way of life. People believe that the Maori and Pakeha should be remembered that they are two different people and became one - New Zealanders. Many Maori today encourage government to recognise that there is more than one way of life in New Zealand. Some Maori feel that they should have their own National Unity and should have the power to decide certain matters for themselves. There is a separate Maori court to handle all matters concerning land owned by Maori (The Maori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal). There are other organisations in charge especially for the Maori needs.

The modern Maori are building new marae and meeting-houses in the cities now. More and more Maori participate in politics and social concerns.


1) Author - Alan Duff

Alan Duff is on of New Zealand's biggest selling novelist. His books are published in 15 countries. He also writes a weekly opinion column in 9 newspapers. Alan Duff has also been successful with two screenplays ("Once Were Warriors" in 1994 and "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?" in 1999). His published writings include: "Out of the Mist & Steam" (Memoirs, 1999), "Both Sides of the Moon" (Novel, 1998), "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?" (Novel, 1996), "Maori: The Crisis & The Challenge" (Non-fiction, 1993), "Once Were Warriors" (Novel, 1990), and many more. The author lives in Havelock North, New Zealand.

2) Setting - Pine Block

The story takes place in the Maori slum of Pine Block in Two Lakes, New Zealand. Pine Block consists of "a mile-long picture of the same thing; all the same, just two-storey, side-by-side misery boxes" (p. 7). The houses are all identical, all imprisoning. The children who life there are "ill-directioned, neglected" (p. 7). The Maoris of Pine Block are "boozing away their lives and the booze making things all distorted and warped and violent" (p. 8). In Pine Block, there are neither gardens nor trees or plant arrangments. Furthermore, hardly anybody speaks the Maori language there.

3) Main Characters and Sociogram

Beth Heke (née Ransfield):

  • still loves her husband, the "black, fist-happy bastard" (p.7)
  • 34 years old
  • very strong person, has her opinion, she's a fighter, she tries not to let self-pity creep in
  • Maori descent (about half with white blood on both sides of her parentage)
  • wishes to have her own house
  • likes to drink herself in the beginning, but after Grace's dead she stops drinking because she understands the danger of the booze (that it is ruining their lives)
  • developes into a very helpful and socially involved person
  • wants to spread the old Maori knowledge in Pine Block (warriorhood, singing the songs, the Maori language, haka dancing,.)
  • finds her strength she needs to throw Jake out in the history of her people - the Maoris
  • self-help ideas make her happier, she organises weelkly Saturday get-togethers for Pine Blockers and a Maori chief

Jake Heke

  • Beth's husband, 36 years old
  • very fist-happy when drunk, beats up his wife Beth
  • near a full-blood Maori
  • is called Jake "The Muss" Heke because he is to be said the toughest man in Two Lakes ("muss" for "muscles")
  • he is one of the long-term unemployed of Two Lakes
  • descends from slaves (lowest class in Maori hierarchy) and was a hatred outsider as a child (he was being picked on, beated up and bullied)
  • loses his temper easily
  • likes sport
  • his whole life moves around the drinking, he spends most of his time at the local pub (bets on racing horses, fightings, drinking)
  • believes that every man needs love from his wife, his mates and his kids, but is unable to show feelings

Nig Heke

  • Beth's and Jake's eldest son
  • Beth's favourite
  • 17 years old
  • handsome
  • wants to become a member of the Brown Fists and spends all his time hanging out with other Brown Fist prospects, fighting and building up his reputation
  • loves his sister Grace
  • plays tough but feels sorry for the victims of the Brown Fists
  • when inside the gang, the "dream'd turned to a nightmare" (p.159), he feels helpless, lost and sad when doing the robberies
  • gets to know Tania, another member of the Brown Fists, and falls in love with her
  • murdered by the chef of the Brown Fists because he had beated up members of another gang

Grace Heke

  • 13 years old
  • loves her brothers and sisters, protects them when fightings take place in their living room
  • wants to disassociate herself from the other Maoris
  • she feels she is a good girl with good thoughts
  • hates being black, finds herself ugly, is jealous of rich Pakeha girls
  • wants to realize her potential and live a better life
  • her one and only friend is called Toot, who does glue and smokes dope and lives in a car wreck
  • commits suicide after being raped

Boogie (Mark) Heke

  • 14 years old
  • getting into more and more trouble at school
  • very sensitiv, hates fighting and violence
  • no one likes him, except the girls
  • he is considered to have failed the test of pending manhood and is seen as a wimp
  • he has got all the trouble at school because half the time he is scared of being picked on, or he is being led by other kids and he's too afraid to say no (stealing from shops, playing truant)

Other characters:

  • Beth's and Jake's other children: Abe (15), Polly (10), Huata (7)
  • the richest family in that area: Trambert family (Pakehas)
  • Mr. Bennett: child welfare officer
  • Mavis: singer at the local pub, friend of the family Heke
  • Jake's drinking mates: Dooly and Bully

4) Plot Summary

Mother and wife Beth Heke has distanced from her Maori tribe because she has been married to Jake for 18 years. Jake is a violent man who beats his wife frequently when drunk, and yet obviously loves both her and his family. Also the children have to face many problems: the oldest son, Nig, is about to become member of the the hardest, toughest and most violent street gang in Pine Block, the Black Fist. Boogie, the third oldest son, is in trouble with the police all the time.

One night, when Beth and Jake are having another drinking party, Jake beats up his wife Beth because she has said something "wrong". The next morning Beth is not able to manage to go to the courthouse with her son Boogie. He has to be there because of his shop-lifting and negative behaviour at school. Grace accompanies him for moral support. Because Beth doesn't appear, the child welfare officer decides to send Boogie to a Boy's home in order to find discipline and direction. When Beth wakes up that day, she immediately starts drinking because of her hurt from the beating.

A few weeks later, there was another drinking party. Grace follows the sound of a piano and wanders through the streets. She spies on the rich Trambert family because she wants to be just like their little girl - being white, playing the piano, having a loving, clean family. When Grace comes home again and goes to bed, suddenly a drunk man enters the room and rapes her. Grace doesn't dare to scream, feels physical pain and hurt. After the rape, she wanders throught the streets again and walks to her best friend Toot, asking him for some glue or dope.

After being beated up so brutally, Beth stops drinking. She saves some money so that the family can rent a car to visit Boogie, but Jake wants to drink some beer at the pub first. He stays there till the evening. The kids begin to feel hate for their father.

For Grace life is becoming so awful that she desperately commits suicide. Beth organises a "proper" Maori funeral for her. Jake does not appear at the funeral, nor does Nig. Beth finds strength in the history of Maoris while looking at the men dancing the war dances - a picture of absolute warriorhood. For Beth, life changes completely. The cops give her a letter Grace had written saying she was raped and that she thought the rapist was her father. Beth eventually throws Jake out and tells him to never come back again. Jake is uncertain if he really raped his daughter or not because he was drunk all the time.

Meanwhile, Nig has become member of the Brown Fists and he doesn't even appear at Grace's funeral altough the thought of it keeps nagging away in his mind. He feels sorry for the gang victims.

For Beth, life changes completely. She starts helping the kids of the streets and cares for the neglected kids. She gets financial support from her home village, and the people from the library give her a pile of "Teach Yourself" books, which she reads to the kids. She converts her sitting room to a sort of classroom and promises herself to give the kids their rightful warrior inheritance (pride in yourself, heart pride). Beth requests the Maori chief of her home village to bring the knowledge of the Maori history to the Pine Blockers. Suddenly, people start to understand themselves and change their lives for the better.

Jake - now homeless - gets to know a street kid and they become friends.

For Nig, still at the Brown Fists', the dream has turned into a nightmare. He gets to know a girl, Tania, has feelings for her. One day, Nig has to fight with their enemy gang members. He is being stabbed and eventually dies.

At his funeral, many people sing the Maori chants Beth and the Maori chief taught them. Even Jake appears and cries for the first time publicly.

5) Problems of Maoris shown in the book

"Once were Warriors" is a portrayal of Maoris in New Zealand's society of the 1990s. The following problems are shown in the book:

  • Alcoholism: "Beer and Maori culture. It's our lifeblood. We live for our beer" (p.41), drinking plays a big part in most of the lives of the Pine Block Maoris, this beer, it has you beat up your wives, your children, turn against each other. Yet you dare to call yourselves Maori" (p.181)
  • (Domestic) Violence: Jake beats up his wife, rape, gang wars, fights, murders
  • The Lost Tribe: term to describe the Pine Blockers because they are Maoris and yet don't know their language, history, culture etc.
  • Unemployment: Maoris are more likely to be unemployed than the Pakehas because they have no skills and the jobs they might get are paid so badly that they may as well be on the dole
  • Homelessness: Beth throws Jake out and he has to survive in the streets
  • Cultural Displacement: symbolised by the attempts of Jake and Nig Heke to assimilate their warrior ancestry in the modern world

6) What did I learn about the Maoris by reading the book?

  • Maori shyness: The Maori are shy people who don't want to be center of interest
  • Schools: Children only learn English history at school
  • Music: very important to Maori people
  • Warriorhood: The Maoris were once powerful, noble warriors. Nig, for instance, is a displaced warrior. While Maori warriors of the past fought with honour, these Brown Fist modern day warriors have no such code of ethics. Instead they threaten their neighbourhood with violence, even going so far as to kick a woman in the face. After becoming a Brown Fist, Nig has his face tattooed like his Maori warrior ancestors. He gets his tattoo done with a tattoo gun, rather than in the traditional Maori method of chiselling it on. Nig has a dream one night in which he asks men with detailed face tattoos if they are his Maori ancestors. They answer: "No. We are not of your cowardly blood, for we know you are knowing fear. We are warriors."(p. 188).
    In this passage, the author reveals the difference between the Maori warriors of the past and the recent Maori gangs. The deeply etched tattoos were chiselled in, often taking several weeks or even months to do, symbolising the deep honour, responsibility and work that went into becoming a warrior. The Brown Fists and other gangs were "lightly marked," both literally and figuratively. The tattoos took less time, pain, and investment to have done.

Through the character development of Jake, Beth and Nig Heke, the author provides insight into Maori culture and the struggles that modern Maoris face in their attempts to integrate their proud warrior past and the post-colonial present. Through the characterisations of the male protagonists, Jake and Nig Heke, Duff conveys the problems that contemporary Maoris face in reconciling the old with the new. Through his description of Beth Heke, he suggests that hope for their future lies in the ability to recover the strengths of their once proud past and merge it successfully into the modern world.

7) Differences between the book and the film

Alan Duff's novel is the basis of the film "Once were warriors", directed by Lee Tamahori, starring Rena Owens as Beth Heke. There are some differences between the book and the film:

  • In the film, the Heke family only has five children: Nig, Boogie, Grace, Polly and Huata
  • In the film, Grace is raped by one of Jake's drinking mates (in the book, it is unclear who really raped her)
  • In the film, there are not so many Brown Fist scenes. Nig does not get to know Tania and is not murdered. He changes for the better and appears at Grace's funeral in the end.
  • In the film, Jake does not sleep rough.
  • The last chapters, where Beth organises the self-help gatherings, don't happen in the film.

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