Margaret Pattison Thom, who was later widely known as Makereti (or Maggie) Papakura, was born at Matata, in the Bay of Plenty, on 20 October 1873. Her father was an Englishman, William Arthur Thom, a storekeeper who later worked in the Resident Magistrate's Court at Rotorua, and then at Wairoa. Her mother was Pia Ngarotu Te Rihi, a high-born Te Arawa woman of Ngati Wahiao hapu of Tuhourangi, who was descended from Te Arawa chiefs Tama-te-kapua, Ngatoroirangi, Hei and Ika. Soon after her birth, Makereti was taken to the rural community of Parekarangi to be raised by her mother's paternal aunt and uncle, Marara Marotaua and Maihi Te Kakau Paraoa. It was from them that Makereti learnt the genealogies, history and customs of her tribe.
Makereti did not speak English until her father took over her education when she was 10 years old. Periods spent at schools in Rotorua and Tauranga, tuition from an English governess, and three years at Hukarere Native Girls' School, Napier, gave her the language skills and confidence to move with aplomb between the Pakeha and Maori worlds. On leaving school, Makereti went to live at Whakarewarewa, the ancestral home of her people.
The Rotorua region was beginning to recover after the devastating eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886, and the tourist guiding tradition, which had started at Te Wairoa with expeditions to the world-famous Pink and White Terraces, was transferred to the thermal valley of Whakarewarewa. Under the experienced eye of Guide Sophia Hinerangi, Makereti became an accomplished hostess, entertainer and storyteller. Renowned for her beauty, charm and ready wit, her services as a guide were keenly sought. On one occasion, when asked by a visitor if she had a Maori surname, Makereti glanced for inspiration to a nearby geyser which was called Papakura and immediately responded, 'My name is Papakura, Maggie Papakura'. From that time on she was widely known as Guide Maggie Papakura. The name Papakura was also assumed by close members of her family.
On 7 May 1891 at Wairoa, her father's place of residence, Makereti married Francis (Frank) Joseph Dennan, a surveyor. Her only child, William Francis (Te Aonui) Dennan, was born later that year. Makereti lived for a short while in Wairarapa with her husband, but when he left to work in the Taupo district she returned to Whakarewarewa. They were never reunited and Makereti petitioned for divorce in 1900. Guiding provided a source of income for her while her son was growing up.
In 1901 Makereti achieved international recognition when, in front of a large crowd, she welcomed the duke and duchess of Cornwall and York on their visit to Rotorua. Thereafter she was in even greater demand as a guide. Before 1910 she made a number of brief trips to Australia, and her social activities attracted comment in the society columns of local newspapers and magazines. Makereti was a popular subject for photographers, notably E. W. Payton, C. P. Parkerson and George Isles. Postcards of her clothed in Pakeha or Maori costume, with the headscarf she usually wore when guiding, were widely available.
The welfare of her people was always a major concern for Makereti. Her natural leadership qualities soon earned her respect within her local community and she was a strong advocate for the right of the Maori to self-determination. She had powerful friends, including prominent leaders and politicians such as Peter Buck, Maui Pomare and Apirana Ngata, and she was not slow to appeal to them for help.
Makereti had a keen entrepreneurial sense and was interested in promoting aspects of Maori culture to gain economic benefits for her people. She wrote a book, entitled Guide to the hot lakes district (1905), and formed a concert party with her sister Bella, who was an exponent of waiata and poi. The Reverend Frederick Bennett wrote items for this group.
In 1910 Makereti and her cultural group were invited to take part in a Sydney exhibition. Here they gave concert performances and set up a model Maori village. Such was the success of this venture that Makereti was asked by a syndicate of Sydney businessmen to manage a Maori concert party tour to Sydney and then to England to take part in the Festival of Empire celebrations. Makereti gathered together a touring party consisting of around 40 members of her extended family, including her sister Bella, brother Tiki (Dick) Papakura, the Tuhourangi leader Mita Taupopoki, and a selected group of the finest singers and performers. In April 1911 they left Sydney for London.
They appeared at various venues including Crystal Palace, the Palace Theatre and White City and entertained thousands of visitors with songs and dances, story-telling and whaikorero (speech-making). An accompanying exhibition of Maori artefacts, including a meeting house and storehouse, was equally popular with the crowds. The newspapers eagerly reported the group's activities, including the christening of a baby born to one of their members shortly after arrival in England. A highlight was the launching of a 45-foot canoe named Te Arawa at the Henley Royal Regatta.
Despite favourable publicity the tour was beset by financial problems, and in late 1911 the group decided to return to New Zealand. When they arrived back in early 1912 they received a hostile reception from the people at Whakarewarewa, who were distressed at the death of one of the touring party and angry that half of their number had chosen to remain in England. The financial failure of the venture exacerbated the situation and Makereti received much of the blame.
Her return to Whakarewarewa, though troubled, was brief. During her time in England, Makereti had renewed her acquaintance with Richard Charles Staples-Browne, whom she had met earlier while he was on a tour of New Zealand. The friendship developed into romance and on 26 November 1911 the Observer of London published notice of their engagement. Makereti returned to England, and married Staples-Browne at Kensington on 12 June 1912.
Her new husband was a wealthy landowner, and after their marriage Makereti lived at Oddington Grange, near Oxford. With the outbreak of war in 1914, she opened her home and her private suite in a London hotel to New Zealand troops, as a gesture of support and hospitality to her countrymen. Before and after the war she travelled widely in Europe.
In mid 1924 her second marriage ended in divorce, but Makereti continued to live in England. One of the rooms at her Oxford home was furnished with her extensive collection of carvings, cloaks and greenstone ornaments from Whakarewarewa. It was known as the New Zealand room, and it was here that she entertained guests or lectured on Maori history to students, anthropologists and interested visitors.
In 1926 Makereti enrolled as a student at the University of Oxford to study for a BSc in anthropology. A lifetime collection of notes, journals and diaries was collated and rewritten for her thesis. The same year she journeyed back to New Zealand to consult her elders on the content of her work and gain their approval. On 16 April 1930, just two weeks before her thesis was due for examination, Makereti died suddenly at Oxford from a ruptured aortic artery. Despite protests from her Tuhourangi people, she was buried in accordance with her wishes at Oddington cemetery in Oxfordshire. A year later a memorial to her was erected at Whakarewarewa.
Makereti's thesis was published eight years after her death by T. K. Penniman, secretary of the anthropology committee at Oxford University, a friend from whom Makereti had sought guidance during the course of her studies. The old-time Maori, which Makereti dedicated to the memory of her first teachers, Marara Marotaua and Maihi Te Kakau Paraoa, gives an account and analysis of the customs of Te Arawa from the point of view of a woman. It covers many aspects of daily life, including child-rearing and family relationships, which were generally ignored or treated superficially by male writers on Maori society. Makereti was scornful of the ignorant assumptions of many Pakeha ethnologists and corrected them in her text.
The book has a unique place as the first extensive published ethnographic work by a Maori scholar; however, it received little attention when it was first published, and was not reprinted until 1986. Perhaps the most striking quality of The old-time Maori is that while scholarly in approach, it is based on traditionally acquired knowledge and first-hand experience. Moreover, it reflects the self-awareness of its author who was at all times conscious of her lineage and responsibility to her people. T. K. Penniman understood this when in his introduction he paid tribute to Makereti: 'The secret of her own greatness of soul lay in knowing who she was'.