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Māori business: Historical context

Māori business development is part of the whole spectrum of Māori development. A central feature of this development is self-determination: the determination to succeed in today’s world 'as Māori' – without compromising cultural values and identity.

"The overarching theme of Māori development is Māori self-determination … A fundamental issue for many Māori-centred businesses is how to incorporate Māori cultural values and practices into commercial development. Insights into how to combine 'commerce and culture' in Māori self-determination development are provided by kaupapa Māori development models. Together they help provide sets of values for defining a Māori-centred business."

(Zygadlo; McIntosh; Matunga; Fairweather; Simmons, 2003)

Sometimes the focus of Māori business is the well-being and development of groups (whānau, hapū, iwi, or urban collectives) and sometimes it is the well-being of individual business owners.

Māori business in pre-European times

Historically, Māori had hapū (sub-tribal) and iwi (tribal) economies. These economies typically revolved around agricultural and horticultural production, fresh- and salt-water fisheries, hunting and gathering, carving, weaving, arts, weaponry, and tool design and production.

Trading within and between hapū and iwi was common, with some hapū specialising in particular products, such as greenstone, seafood, freshwater eels, or preserved birds. Technical, scientific, and artistic expertise, including in the areas of construction, navigation, oratory and composition, artisan crafts, and te moko, were highly valued and played an important role in the economy. Māori businesses engaged in commerce by land, sea, river, and lake.

In pre-European times, business was aimed at providing for the physical, social, and spiritual well-being of whānau, hapū, and iwi groups as well as protecting and building the resource base. Assets and resources were collectively 'owned', with control and strategic decision making vested primarily in rangatira.

The mana of a rangatira, and associated whānau, hapū, and iwi, was measured by the ability of the group to produce, manage, and profit from resources in a way that ensured the well-being, health, and prosperity of all. If things were going well, the people were well fed, warm, healthy, and productive.

A tradition of commerce, entrepreneurship, and enterprise

In pre-European times, the production of items of utility and beauty; trade with other groups; provision of gifts, hospitality, and entertainment for friends, relations, and neighbours; the building of sizeable, attractive, and well-constructed dwellings and meeting houses and defences against foes were all integral to the well-being of whānau, hapū, and iwi. In other words, commerce, entrepreneurship, and business enterprise were a core part of Māori life.

The Māori economy thrived in pre-European times without money. All members were expected to engage in whānau, hapū and iwi business. Waste or under-utilisation of human and environmental resources was frowned upon. Economic outcomes were measured in terms of assets (including access to land, bush, sea, river, and lake resources), production of goods, trading activity, the ability to host guests well, and the generation of fine arts.

Desired social outcomes included health and well-being, peace and productivity, education, and development. People valued knowledge and expertise in the sciences of navigation, horticulture, aquaculture, food preparation and preservation, and agriculture. Knowledge and skills in carving and weaving, entertainment arts, fishing, hunting and trapping, food gathering, defence, and warfare were carefully preserved and taught to selected students.

Spirituality was integral to all aspects of Māori life including the economic sphere. Spiritual acknowledgement and balance, as well as scientific knowledge, was embedded in all activities from construction, agriculture, and fisheries to arts and warfare.

Early European contact

As experienced traders, Māori generally welcomed early visitors and settlers for the trading opportunities they offered.

Māori were quick to adopt new technologies and adapt traditional technologies for new uses. For example, flax rope became a sought-after commodity for shipping and industry; guns, axes, and new agricultural produce (potatoes, corn, and wheat) were taken up, as was the farming of introduced animals.

During the early years of settlement, Māori out-produced the settlers and supplied most of the new townships in food and other materials. Māori settlements constructed flourmills, and Parihaka village in Taranaki was the first settlement to install streetlights.

Māori commerce and trade was not limited to New Zealand. Large numbers of European-style ships were bought and built by Māori. Using this new technology, Māori were networking and trading around Australia and the Pacific and travelling as far afield as Britain and North and South America by the mid-1800s.

Loss of population, lands, assets, and control

The large-scale alienation of Māori land through government confiscations and individualisation of title and sales, coupled with a shrinking population ravaged by introduced diseases such as influenza and measles, left Māori with reduced human resources and vastly reduced land holdings.

Much of the land that remained in Māori ownership was unproductive and, by the end of the nineteenth century, land 'reserved' for Māori was governed by restrictive laws and managed (or mismanaged) by Government officials. Māori were not able to utilise their collectively owned lands and other assets in the same ways as other landowners. In many cases, access to unpolluted, traditional fresh- and salt-water resources was also restricted.

Māori employment in the twentieth century

By the mid-twentieth century, urban migration saw Māori moving out of traditional settlements to provincial and urban centres to find work in industries. Since then, Māori employment has been largely concentrated in unskilled or semi-skilled sectors of the workforce, especially agricultural and factory production industries. During times of economic recession, it is these industries and the low-skilled and semi-skilled positions within them that are most at risk. For this reason, the Māori workforce has been, and continues to be, particularly vulnerable to job loss, unemployment, and under-employment.

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Last updated February 29, 2016



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