Our history of Māori segregation needs to be part of the curriculum

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

OPINION: Few Kiwis are aware that the racial segregation of Māori ever happened.

It is a remarkable story that should be taught in our schools because confronting injustice and acknowledging past wrongs is part of the process of healing for the country.

To break down stereotypes associated with the polarising term ‘Māori privilege’, it is essential to learn about our past and the disadvantages they have wrought.

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What happened

The epicentre of the segregation was in the South Auckland town of Pukekohe, where for much of the 1920s to the early ‘60s, Māori were not allowed upstairs at the cinema or to enter dairies.

Most barbers refused to cut their hair, taxi drivers would not pick them up, and on the bus to Auckland, they were forced to stand for a white passenger if the seats got full.

From 1952 to 1964, the Pukekohe Māori-only school was the only racially segregated school in the history of the country. The previous school had separate toilets for Māori. Monday through Thursday, European and Asian pupils were allowed into the swimming baths; Māori were only let in on Fridays – then they changed the dirty water.

'Klan' in Auckland (An Auckland University capping parade on Karangahape Road in 1923. Students are dressed as Klan members - an organisation that was responsible for lynching thousands of African Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection
'Klan' in Auckland (An Auckland University capping parade on Karangahape Road in 1923. Students are dressed as Klan members - an organisation that was responsible for lynching thousands of African Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The apartheid-like housing segregation would result in hundreds of deaths. As one government report noted, there was an “unwritten rule” among townsfolk, not to rent to Māori, forcing them to live at the market gardens on the outskirts of town.

There they resided in converted manure sheds, and dilapidated huts without running water or indoor plumbing. In one case, 12 people were crammed into a two-room shack. They were deathtraps. Over 200 Māori infants and children died from a host of preventable diseases during this period – from measles and diphtheria to whooping cough and tuberculosis.

In 1931, a journalist wrote the following description: “In a shed 8ft by 10ft, built of kerosene cases and roofed with kerosene tins…Māories were living and paying a rent of 2/6 per week.”

A health official described the scene. “No fewer than eight persons are huddled into this ‘shelter’… and a few days ago a baby was born there. There is no floor, and on entering the place, mud was up to one’s boot tops during the recent rainy weather.”

In 1938 alone, 29 Māori infants and children died in Pukekohe from preventable diseases linked to their housing.

A wider issue

The segregation was not confined to South Auckland. The National Archives contain hundreds of examples from across the country.

In 1936, Tauranga barred Māori women and children from Pākehā restrooms.

In 1940, politicians approved the building of a library and reading room in Kaitaia, complete with segregated toilets.

Some hospitals had separate maternity wards and gave Māori patients cheaper cutlery.

In 1960, some shops in Hamilton refused to let Māori customers try on pants, while a student from Hawai'i who resembled a Māori entered a Dunedin restaurant and was refused service. He was told that reservations were required and that they were booked out for the next two weeks, but as he was leaving, “Pākehās entered and took tables without any indication of having made bookings.”

Why it matters

This topic is confronting, but it is no more difficult to breach than that of the many young men who died at Gallipoli and Passchendaele during World War I, or the history of black civil rights in America and South Africa – all standard topics taught in our schools today. I would argue that the segregation is even more poignant because it happened on Kiwi soil.

Teaching this history can help to explain why Māori lag behind other kiwis in every major social indicator. Māori die years younger than non-Māori, have higher rates of illness, infection, and psychiatric disorders, significantly higher mortality rates for stroke, heart disease, and cancer, and are two times more likely than any other New Zealander to forego collecting a prescription due to the cost.

On average, their income is lower, employment is mostly in low-paying primary and semi-skilled jobs, and their housing quality is poorer. They are more likely to be suspended from school or expelled, increasing the prospect of juvenile criminality.

Any discussion of the challenges faced by Māori today must include an understanding of how we got here - and the segregation era is a major part. Teaching this history is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength.

Dr Robert Bartholomew is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at Auckland University and the author of No Maori Allowed: New Zealand's forgotten history of racial segregation: How a generation of Māori children perished in the fields of Pukekohe, and We Don’t Serve Māori Here, which is aimed at intermediate and high school students.