We continue our Waitangi week coverage with a portrait of a scholar and a visionary

The book I have owned for the longest stands in prime position in the wooden bookcase in my study. Purchased when I was 18, it  still bears my parents’ address in my sprawling, cursive handwriting style and the year, 1995.

Throughout the text are Coca-Cola stains, interspersed with the odd tear on the corner of a page. This paperback has travelled with me around the country, and it still remains the first book I consult when I write. Now, as a 45-year-old who holds a doctorate in history, I have learnt from other Māori historians that they too have kept the same book — first published in 1990, the year of the sesquicentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi — in their pride of place.

Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle without end was the first history of Māori authored by a Māori historian, the late Ranginui Joseph Isaac Walker. The text has heavily influenced several generations of academics and it remains the principal reference for thousands of students throughout Aotearoa New Zealand’s numerous tertiary institutions. For many Māori undergraduates, it was the first publication to tell us how it was that Māori went from being chiefs in our own lands, to being in a fight to survive as a people as the full effects of British rule took hold, to our people no longer being ashamed to proudly declare their identity to the world. For me, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou was an awakening.


Not only did Ka Whawhai Tonu define me but it also told me how I got there. Our tīpuna arrived on waka after traversing thousands of miles of sea and lived and breathed a different world guided by fundamental principles. Then came the white men: Tasman followed by Cook and then the missionaries. Agreements were sought with the visitors via the Declaration of Independence and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

These pacts were dishonoured, war erupted and we lost our whenua as well as our ability to determine our own destiny. From near extinction, our greatest achievement was to survive as a people. Then came the displacement of our great- grandparents from their rural homes, and as our people adapted to the urban centres, cultural practices including our own language were being lost. Next was the renaissance of who we are as a people, a reclamation of identity. This is where I was at in my journey in 1995. Walker had charted my history without knowing me personally.

So who was this Māori Nostradamus who knew me but didn’t? Ranginui Walker was born in Lower Waiaua, near Ōpōtiki, in 1932. In his formative years he was raised on a farm on his tribal lands of Whakatōhea where he was surrounded in te reo Māori me ōna tikanga. Walker later remembered how as a young child growing up in Ōpōtiki. “Māori language and culture were distinctly unfashionable and my generation was expected to assimilate, to ‘forget the past’ and become ‘brown Pākehās’.” Luckily for Walker, it was “Wairata [Walker’s aunt who he describes as being his foster mother], the repository of folk memory, who sang the ancient chants of remembering, so that the past would not be expunged by schooling or religious indoctrination”.

Walker commented that the country’s race relation problems would be solved “in the bedrooms of the nation”

It was obvious to me that Walker’s conscientisation at a young age was due, in part, to his following of the country’s rugby encounters with apartheid South Africa. I was lucky enough to interview Walker on two occasions at his central Auckland home: once in 2010 for an hour regarding his brother-in-law Sir Graham Latimer (Latimer was married to Walker’s first cousin, Emily Moore, who had been raised as a sister to Ranginui) and the second in 2014 for two hours on the subject of apartheid South Africa and Māori history in general. What struck me upon listening to the interviews again was that Ranginui was part of a team, the other member being his wife, Deidre. Deidre would assist her husband if his memory had a momentary lapse, was also very much a part of his work with the New Zealand Māori Council, and she also advocated strongly for indigenous rights. One such example was during the 1981 Springbok tour when Deidre recalled being chased over a fence by Ron Don, chair of the Auckland Rugby Union, at the cancelled Hamilton match.

Another observation was that the phone had rung four times during one interview, with one call being a query from Television New Zealand. Walker, although he was retired at this time, was still in hot demand for his critique of Māori–Pākehā relations. My final thought from the interview was Walker’s ability to freely use the theories of Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire to help explain and contextualise the plight of Māori. Expressions such as “power of the state”, “the oppressed and the oppressors”, and “subalterns” (a term used to describe Uncle Toms) were littered throughout his kōrero.

Walker’s first vivid memory of rugby was reading about the great Springbok side of 1937 from cuttings of the Weekly News that was used as wallpaper where he lived. One habit he developed at a young age was counting the number of Māori announced in All Blacks teams, especially in 1949 when the squad was named to tour the republic. As Walker rightly pointed out, 1949 “was the holy grail to beat South Africa on their own ground, as a payback for ’37”. (The Springboks had defeated the All Blacks in 1937 at home, taking the test series 2–1, and the side was subsequently labelled The Invincibles.)

Much to his disappointment and that of other Māori, no Māori were named in the 1949 team as they were unable to travel to apartheid South Africa. The most notable omission was a star centre from North Auckland, J.B. Smith. Another memory Walker had was that Black spectators were “behind the wire mesh” according to the commentators who were broadcasting the tests on the wireless. That was foreign to him, as at home spectators, including Māori and Pākehā, intermingled off the field and in the clubrooms. Even more strange was that the Blacks were cheering for the All Blacks, not the South Africans, leading him to conclude: “That was when I knew something wasn’t right in South Africa. We knew that the New Zealand rugby union was a power to themselves and that we were not part of that power structure.”

After leaving school, Walker enrolled in a primary teacher’s course at Auckland Teachers’ Training College in Epsom. It was here that he met the love of his life, Deirdre Dodson, and the two would marry in 1953. Explains biographer Professor Paul Spoonley in Mata Toa: The Life and Times of Ranginui Walker, “The acceptance of intermarriage was an issue for both sets of parents: Walker’s parents were concerned that Deidre was a Pākehā and not Roman Catholic; Deidre’s were concerned that their daughter was to marry a Māori.” Undoubtedly Walker’s own experience, and that of other interracial marriages that took place at that time, would lead him to comment that the country’s race relation problems would be solved “in the bedrooms of the nation”.


Ranginui Walker passed away in February 2016, a day before his 84th birthday. His tangihanga was attended by thousands of mourners at Ōrākei Marae. Only some nine months after, his wife and soulmate Deidre died. I considered myself fortunate to have spent time with Walker, yet I do have one regret from our encounters. I never had the opportunity to thank him for what he provided me. He told my story and that of so many other Māori in Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou, he was generous with his time and enriched me with stories about his experiences with the New Zealand Māori Council and his struggles in educating our own about apartheid South Africa, he joined forces to combat racism in the form of Don Brash, and he was humble enough to allow me to share a stage with him. Above all else, I will be forever grateful for just having the opportunity to meet a man of his mana.

This is a short extract from Malcolm Mulholland’s much longer essay in Nine Lives (Upstart Press, $39.99), a collection of nine portraits of notable New Zealanders, including Catherine Robertson on Margaret Sparrow, Stephanie Johnson on Carole Beu, Paula Morris on Matiu Rata, Paul Thomas on John Wright, and Elspeth Sandys on Rewi Alley.

Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: questions raised by a famous Rita Angus self-portrait in a kind of blackface.

Dr Malcolm Mulholland (Ngāti Kahungunu) is a historian based at Massey University. He is the author of a history of Māori rugby, Beneath the Māori Moon, and has been involved in over ten publications...

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