‘I have great optimism’

by The Listener / 03 March, 2016
Ranginui Walker championed racial equality and a Maori renaissance.
Photo/David White
Photo/David White

Ranginui Walker had an academic’s genius for appearing to be above the fray – even though he was so often the fray’s most influential combatant when it came to rigorously advancing the case for a strong and dynamic Maori cultural identity.

In championing racial equality and a Maori renaissance, Walker built on the foundations laid by his hero, Sir Apirana Ngata, although he chose to use the power of words alone. He eschewed opportunities to become an MP, and he never chained himself to railings.

As a distinguished anthropologist and educationalist, he relied on meticulous research, logic, passion and eloquence to convey his message. In so doing, he gave new generations of Maori a compelling charter for cultural and social justice.

Upon his death this week on the eve of his 84th birthday, there was barely a Maori leader or activist who did not credit Walker as a major source of inspiration, information and insight. He remained an aloof, uningratiating figure, who was the first to admit he lived “very much in my head” and never sugar-coated his advocacy in deference to the prevailing public palate. Yet he communicated so effectively to a general audience through the media he became a household name.

Walker might simply have lived his life as an academic. Although his early years were steeped in Maori culture and wairua, they also taught him self-protectively to downplay his culture. His earliest teachers upbraided him for speaking Maori and taught him to “live like a Pakeha”.

He married a Pakeha, Deirdre, to her father’s everlasting disapproval. In his early working life as a teacher, he conscientiously avoided even seeming to be Maori, abashed when his parents brought gifts of hens to his and Deirdre’s suburban home, lest this discomfort Pakeha neighbours. He judged that overt Maoriness would hamper his career.

“I was an upwardly mobile Maori, just disappearing into the social landscape, getting qualifications,” he once told the Listener. “The Pakehas [didn’t] realise what an incubus they were creating for themselves.”

Walker’s political and social consciousness began to take shape in 1969 after an uncle persuaded him to serve as secretary for the Auckland District Maori Council, which was becoming a nexus for transformation-minded Maori. From then until his death, he provided academic ballast from within the Pakeha establishment to the growing advocacy for Maori culture and values. Dame Cath Tizard told him her Auckland Mayoral predecessor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, declared Walker to be “the most dangerous Maori in New Zealand”.

Influential voice: a Walker article commissioned by the Listener in 2010.

History, however, would designate him as among the most unifying Maori of his time. His doctorate on Maori urbanisation was the first of his many influential writings that not only analysed the impact of Maori dislocation from iwi and hapu, but also reframed New Zealand as being first and foremost a Maori country, but one with other cultural influences.

Walker unstintingly advocated mutual respect and goodwill. In his first Korero column for the Listener in 1973, he hailed the appointment, at last, of a Maori, Matiu Rata, as the Minister for Maori Affairs, saying this would end a constant affront to Maoridom. “It signals an end to Pakeha paternalism by placing a Maori in charge of Maori affairs.” He recalled that Maori with long memories still remembered with disgust “the time when a Pakeha Minister sat in the place reserved for a representative of the Maori people at the Queen’s coronation in 1953”.

He urged Rata to give Prime Minister Norman Kirk lessons in pronunciation of te reo. “Correct pronunciation is a simple, direct and obvious way of demonstrating rapport and goodwill toward the Maori people.”

In his second Korero column, he recalled the start of a new academic year at the University of Auckland with other budding Maori luminaries in the mid-1950s. “We were a small group, we were diffident and we felt that we were barely tolerated in the unwelcoming and intimidating walls of institutionalised academia.”

Walker championed intermarriage, which he regarded as “the browning of New Zealand”, even shocking a 1970s audience of school principals by saying the race relations war was partly being solved in the nation’s bedrooms.

Last year, Walker declared himself in good heart about New Zealand’s cultural progress. “I have great optimism that things are getting better. In the last quarter century, there’s been a tremendous cultural revolution and renaissance of Maori people. I’ve lived through that, been a part of the revolution … We are a much better society now than we were 30, 40 years ago. It’s all happening.”

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