Wellington, New Zealand — New Zealand's Maoris, the indigenous people of these South Pacific islands, are about to embark on their biggest step since the coming of the Europeans 140 years ago.
In an effort to get some economic independence after a long period of pakeha (white New Zealander) paternalism, the Maoris are setting up a venture to give them a slice of a billion-dollar industry - tourism - which is largely based on them but over which they have little say.
There are 300,000 Maoris in New Zealand, or 10 percent of the population. They make up a disproportionate share of the nation's unemployed, and only 45 percent own their own homes vs. two-thirds of the white population.
Two-thirds of the Maoris are under age 25. In recent years, many of these youngsters have gained notoriety by forming motorcycle gangs with names like Black Power, the Nomads, and the Mongrel Mob.
Their activities have coincided with a soaring crime rate and a rise in the number of youths who live in the streets, disaffected from their families.
But Maoris have also become politicized, and are demanding the return of traditional lands. In the past, Maori land was practically given away to the pakeha for items of little worth.
In recent years, Maoris have migrated from their traditional family homes in the countryside in search of jobs and the ''good life.''
Now, three-quarters of the Maoris live in cities, away from the influences of the extended family system that maintained their traditional way of life and values. But in urban areas they have found a shortage of housing, unemployment, and an alien environment.
Like blacks in urban America years ago, they settled in ghettos. Whites discriminated against the Maoris, many of whom sank deeper into poverty, crime, and despair.
Since early this century, Maoris have been equal with whites under New Zealand law. They are guaranteed four members in the 92-seat Parliament to protect their interests.
But the government approach to Maoris has been paternalistic. New Zealand's Maori Affairs Department admits that it had a ''somewhat aloof'' stance, which could be translated as an ''Uncle Tom'' attitude until recently.
It wasn't until six years ago that Kara Puketapu, a member of the Te Atiawa tribal group from the southwest coast of the North Island, took over as secretary of Maori Affairs. At 43, he was the youngest head of a government department ever appointed in New Zealand.
Puketapu - a farmer's son, a national Rugby Union player, and a Harkness fellow who studied in the United States for two years in the late 1960s and then became a consultant to the Ford Foundation - was something of a whiz kid even before he came to the Maori Affairs Department.
He launched a series of programs, the key one being tu tangata, literally translated, ''to stand tall.'' It was a philosophy more than a program, designed to restore pride and self-confidence in the Maori, seek improvements in education, raise their socioeconomic status, and provide more opportunities for self-fulfillment in the community.
A first step was to revive the Maori language. For years, Maoris went to integrated schools where their language was banned. In some cases children were strapped for speaking it.
As the children grew up and became integrated into pakeha society, where Maori was not spoken, the language was forgotten. Today, only about 70,000 Maoris speak their native tongue. Few under age 35 - by far the majority of the Maori population - understand it.
Puketapu launched a ''language nest'' program called te kohanga reo, which teaches urban Maori children their native tongue. The children speak English with their parents at night, and Puketapu hopes the program will teach the children to speak Maori by the time they enter school at age 5.
The nests are staffed from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. by Maori elders, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who look after the children virtually from birth. This allows both parents to work.
Eighty language nests have been established in the last 18 months. This figure is expected to double next year.
Says Maori Affairs Minister Benjamin Couch, ''The family, the basis of all Maori life, has been under threat. Some of the young have had no one to teach them. The old have no one to teach. Without this life stream, the heart of Maoridom has slowed its beat. They, the young people, must be able to maintain their cultural heritage.''
According to the Maori Affairs Department, the language-nest program has been a resounding success. The department believes the program will help reverse an increasing crime rate and bring the Maoris' educational level up to that of the rest of the country.
''We can anticipate . . . a younger generation intellectually stimulated, more highly motivated and technically qualified in the basis of two world cultures - Maori and pakeha,'' the department said.
At the other end of the juvenile spectrum, a foster parent (matua whangai) program has been established to care for delinquent teen-agers and reassimilate them into their extended families and their tribes, Puketapu says.
Now Puketapu is taking a three-year leave of absence from the government to become managing director of a new commercial venture, Maori International.
Its aim, he says, is to give the Maoris, who have social and cultural muscle but no economic clout, some power in New Zealand's commercial life. The organization is backed by some of the wealthiest Maoris in the country and a series of trusts and land incorporations. Initially, it is looking specifically at tourism.
Thousands of overseas tourists come to New Zealand every year. A major attraction is the Maori, particularly in Rotorua, a famous central thermal resort on the North Island.
The Maoris perform at native concerts, and demonstrate their carving and weaving. But they have little or no slice of the economic action. ''There is minimal Maori involvement,'' Puketapu says.
So what he describes as ''up-market tourist development'' is the first target. And his eyes are set on American tourists - who are very wealthy by New Zealand standards - in the first few years.
''We want to offer something quite different. And, although it will be of high standard, it will not be like the Sheraton. It will be a Maori palace,'' he says.
''People in these hotels will speak Maori. The staff will look different. They will speak differently. The architecture . . . the decor in the bedrooms . . . the cuisine and entertainment will be quite different.
''Tourists will be offered every modern comfort, but they will be offered the Maori culture on truly Maori terms.''
The first five years of Puketapu's plan is centered around tourism. But his goal is a 20- to 30-year development plan that would mobilize the resources of the Maori people and encourage development and investment.
''Maori International believes that the Maori has a much greater role to play in tourism development - in the ownership and management of tourist-related ventures in New Zealand and abroad,'' he says. ''A greater involvement will provide many benefits economically, environmentally, and culturally to the Maori people.''
Puketapu wants Maoris to have a say in operating hotels, resort development, shops, manufacturing, entertainment, and transport.
The company plans to invite public shareholdings to boost initial capital, with voting powers limited to Maoris. The government has given its full backing to the group, whose chairman will be Sir Graham Latimer, one of the nation's most respected Maori leaders.