Volume 59 1950 > Volume 59, No. 4 > Leader of genius, by I. L. G. Sutherland, p 293-294
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- 293

I had the very great privilege of knowing Sir Apirana Ngata for some twenty years. I saw and heard him in action on many occasions and in many different circumstances; and during this long time I had many discussions with him regarding Maori affairs.

As my knowledge of the man and his work increased, my conviction of his greatness grew. Sir Apirana Ngata was, in my opinion, one of the few really great men that this country has produced. He had an extraordinary able mind—when with him one was always aware of his sheer intellectual power—and he had a forceful and tireless personality devoted for more than half a century to one dominant purpose, namely, the saving and regenerating of the people to whom he belonged.

Years ago a frank scientist referred to “the tragic mess which invariably results from the impact of white upon aboriginal culture.” The New Zealand version of this situation was obvious enough at the end of the nineteenth century. The Maori people was at its lowest ebb in numbers, health and social condition. And it was then that a group of educated young Maoris, of whom Ngata was easily the most outstanding and singleminded, set to work.

At the first the young reformers, though intensely in earnest, were very inexperienced. They formed a body to which they gave the ambitious name: “The Association for the Amelioration of the Maori Race,” and they started enthusiastically to make things better. They met with opposition and scorn: the young should not instruct their elders. But the young really meant it and they met again in conference to discuss what had happened and to formulate a more practicable plan.

Reviewing their first effort young Ngata said: “The causes of failure are easy to find. In the first place our enthusiasm outran our caution, so that we proposed in our - 294 inexperience, with very weak instruments, to effect reforms of a most sweeping nature. We had none of us any great knowledge of Maori life: the little we knew was not to the credit of the Maori people. Beyond that little we did not look. It was sufficient for us that our people were dirty, idle, drunken and immoral; for we would teach them how to become clean, industrious, sober and virtuous. So we framed a constitution utterly impracticable, unsuited to the circumstances of Maori society; and beyond the power of the greatest organizing genius to effect.”

This was the real beginning, and at this 1897 conference Ngata showed already that power of analysis and comprehensive grasp of the problems of his people which were to characterize the rest of his lifetime. As a movement from within for the regeneration of a people the work of the Young Maori Party is probably unique and to it, and to the agencies it set in operation, is due the vastly changed condition of the Maori people today. The planning, preparation and launching of the land development schemes, in the face of the most complex human and material difficulties, was the greatest step forward in the whole movement and one would not like to contemplate what the present condition of the Maori people might have been if this basic task had not been accomplished.

But no feature of the situation was overlooked—economic, educational or cultural. No means was neglected: Ngata never missed a move that would further the main purpose. And the main purpose had been achieved before he died and Maori affairs now pass into another phase in which new and different problems of adjustment must be worked out, as Ngata himself was realizing toward the end of his life. But at the most critical stage in recent Maori life Ngata gave to his people leadership of genius.