‘Savages’ to ‘Suits’: Māori in editorial cartoons

In July, the NZ Cartoon Archive will be publishing the second in a series of monographs dealing with more specialist aspects of New Zealand cartoon history. ‘Savages’ to ‘Suits’: Māori in editorial cartoons by Paul Diamond, ATL Māori Curator, surveys cartoons produced from the 1930s until the 1990s, and examines how cartoonists (and editors and media owners) have depicted Māori, Pākehā and race relations.

Nevil Colvin’s Evening Post cartoon during royal visit in
Nevil Colvin’s Evening Post cartoon during royal visit in 1953 – the Maori figure in traditional garb. ATL: C-132-868
John McNamara’s 1949
cartoon, ‘Through the Tory Hat’.
‘Through the Tory Hat’. John McNamara’s 1949 cartoon in Wellington’s Southern Cross. The little Maori figure appeared regularly in his cartoons. ATL: A-369-132

The study builds on the arguments of the first monograph in this series – A Cartoon War by Sarah Murray – for cartoons to be employed as historical sources in their own right. The different stereotypes that emerged during the period are the focus of the monograph. These stereotypes both reflected and led public attitudes about Māori.

Chapters One and Two are concerned with Māori cultural references and Māori material culture, symbols and events in cartoons – evident in the earliest cartoons from the 19th century, right through to present-day cartoons. Sometimes these references are in relation to Māori, but they are also used to make points about Pākehā. Cartoons featuring Māori cultural references, symbols and events sometimes feature Māori themselves, but they tend not to be identified.

The Māori people who most commonly appear in cartoons as named individuals, are politicians, who are considered in Chapter Three. These include Matiu Rata, who was part of a later generation of politicians associated with the greater recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, the topic of Chapter Four. As the Treaty became more prominent in public life, its presence in cartoons increased and changed over time.

Māori prowess as warriors is a longstanding and enduring stereotype, which is connected with two interrelated areas – war and sport – where Māori appear in cartoons and are the subjects of Chapters Five and Six. ‘Sport’ is a misnomer, as just about all the cartoons relate to Māori men playing one code (rugby union) against one team (the South African Springboks).

Māori and their culture are often depicted in cartoons alongside Māori language, the topic of Chapter Seven. This also considers a Pidgin-type jargon, English- Māori paradoxically written by Pākehā. The final chapter, Chapter Eight, looks at Māori cartoonists and how their work compares with Pākehā practitioners.

Racism, and attitudes to race and ethnicity are at the heart of the cartoons reviewed for this monograph. The cartoons need to be seen alongside changing conceptions of race and ethnicity in New Zealand, as recorded or observed in other sources. The cartoons are evidence of how attitudes about these concepts have changed over time.

As Paul Diamond says: “The 2013 controversy sparked by two Al Nisbet cartoons about the Government’s breakfast in schools programme illustrated the ongoing power of cartoons as lightning rods for public opinion.”