Māori in the military business

What started out as simple curiosity for senior lecturer Dr Maria Bargh has culminated in a new book on a highly secretive world—one that challenges perceptions around the economic contribution of Māori.

Senior lecturer Dr Maria Bargh

A Hidden Economy is the end product of Maria’s research into private military organisations and, more specifically, the participation of Māori in this traditionally closed world.

“In the course of my day-to-day research, I kept hearing about Māori who were travelling to and from places like Iraq or Afghanistan in a capacity outside of a typical nation-based defence force,” says Maria.

“This talk aroused my curiosity, but because of the highly specialised and secretive nature of this kind of work, I was a little nervous about exploring things further. This world is not particularly well documented for a reason. People don’t tend to just voluntarily come forward.”

Maria, however, started asking around to see if she could find anyone open to discussing their experience working in the private military.

“I was amazed by the response. In many respects I put this down to something very unique to the principles of kaupapa Māori. The way the network developed from my initial enquiries—often starting with women—meant the trust was already firmly in place by the time I reached the key individuals themselves.

“Because of this, the participants tended to speak very openly and frankly about their work in these organisations. This was great for the book, but it also meant I had a tremendous responsibility to them as individuals.”

Maria believes the relatively high proportion of Māori entering private military organisations is partly a reflection of a large percentage of Māori in the New Zealand Defence Force, although they may not have been aware of the possibility of private sector work when they joined up.

It’s also thought that the change of focus of the New Zealand Defence Force, to one of peacekeeping and support, has arguably made the private military more attractive for those seeking combat operations.

“Having said that, it’s interesting to note that Māori in the private military are not seen as a warrior people with skills predominantly suited for frontline activities, as is often the perception in New Zealand,” says Maria.

“They are simply referred to as Kiwis and very often picked for management positions.

“As such, the extent of Māori participation in the private military also presents a challenge to stereotypes that primarily consign Māori to farming, fishing and forestry.”