Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Kawharu, Ian Hugh

Page 1: Biography

All images & media in this story

Kawharu, Ian Hugh


Te Taoū, Ngāti Whātua, Mahurehure; rangatira, social anthropologist

This biography, written by Margaret Kawharu, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2023. It was translated into te reo Māori by Ruki Tobin and Evelyn Tobin.

Sir Hugh Kawharu, a Ngāti Whātua rangatira, a distinguished anthropologist, and an eloquent statesman, was held in high regard by Māori and non-Māori alike. He was a prominent leader of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei in central Auckland and chairman of its trust board for 26 years. He may be remembered best for his translation of te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Māori version of the Treaty of Waitangi, from a Māori perspective, at a time when the treaty was becoming recognised as the cornerstone of an emerging and unique sense of nationhood. He was a man of quiet persuasion, whose persistent advocacy for the Māori right to exercise rangatiratanga (self-determination), the principle at the heart of the treaty, was delivered with unfailing grace, goodwill, and inclusiveness. In his inspired speeches of welcome to the athletes at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, to the victorious Team New Zealand yachtsmen who brought home the America’s Cup in 1995, and to many visiting dignitaries, including Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton, Hugh personified the best of both cultures to the world.

Early life

Ian Hugh Paora, always known as Hugh, was born in Ashburton on 18 February 1927, the only son of Janet Knox Anderson and her husband Wiremu Paora (Te Taoū, Ngāti Whātua) who had been born at Reweti, Kaipara in 1892. Janet was born in Derby, England, in 1883, and trained as a physiotherapist at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the First World War. She emigrated to New Zealand on the hospital ship Maheno in 1917.  Her skills were in such high demand that she trained some of the first masseuses in the military ward at Dunedin Hospital. In 1926 she married Wiremu. He had qualified as a surveyor in 1913 and worked for the Department of Lands and Survey until he joined the Pioneer Battalion of the New Zealand Division in 1916. He was badly wounded on the Somme in September 1916 and returned home.

The family shifted to Auckland when Hugh was about two, and Wiremu resumed work as a surveyor. Hugh’s early life was shaped by his parents, who, despite their different backgrounds, shared common values and a sense of humour. He was raised a member of the Church of England.

Ngāti Whātua elders bestowed the surname Kawharu on Hugh just before he began at Cornwall Park District School in 1932, recognising his line of descent from a paternal great-grandfather, the renowned tohunga whakairo (carver) Paora Kawharu. The name change anticipated a future leadership role, and carried a sense of duty to those who had gone before, and those who were yet to come, an obligation from which Hugh never wavered.


Education was important to the family. Hugh’s paternal grandfather, Methodist minister Hauraki Paora, had ensured that all his children were educated. His father was an early Māori pupil at Auckland Grammar School, and Hugh followed in his footsteps. He did quite well academically but excelled in sport, which taught him to pace himself, a lesson in self-discipline that served him well in all his endeavours. Like his father, he won the Campbell Vase, the school’s shooting cup, and played in the first XV rugby team for three years. He enjoyed cricket and captained the first XI, and was the senior athletics champion in his final year. He was a prefect for three years from 1943 to 1945. In 2003 Auckland Grammar named Hugh Old Boy of the Year, acknowledging a lifetime of achievement.

Hugh’s academic training began in the sciences. He shifted to Wellington to study geology and physics at Victoria University College, working part-time as a clerk in the Department of Māori Affairs from March 1953. He graduated with a BSc in 1954, and would have toured Fiji with the New Zealand Māori rugby team had he not been injured. Instead, he won a Sir Apirana Ngata Memorial scholarship in 1955 to study anthropology at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, and took leave from the department.

Hugh gained a BA from Cambridge in 1957 and, with an extension to his scholarship, entered Exeter College at the University of Oxford to complete a BLitt in 1958. He studied one of the major consequences of Pākehā colonisation: how the shift from communal land ownership to individual land tenure had affected the social organisation of Māori communities; it proved an issue of enduring interest. He enrolled in a DPhil under the supervision of Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard but, as Māori land tenure was his topic, New Zealand was where his ethnographic fieldwork needed to be undertaken.

Hugh had married Hermina Carola Margaretha (Nina) Schepp in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on 26 October 1957. They lived briefly in Oxford, where their first child, Margaret, was born, before returning to New Zealand in late 1958. There they had two more daughters, Evelyn and Linden. In time they separated, and divorced in 1969.

Formative years in the field

On his return to New Zealand Hugh resumed work for the Department of Māori Affairs as a Māori welfare officer based in Auckland. This gave him first-hand experience of Māori housing, welfare, education programmes, and trust administration throughout the Auckland, Waitematā and Kaipara regions. These experiences informed his academic studies. The changing nature of Māori land tenure was illustrated by the largest Ngāti Whātua landholding in the Kaipara, in which Hugh had an ancestral interest. The property had been leased for 50 years, and at the conclusion of the lease the owners became shareholders in the newly incorporated Ōtakanini Tōpu. Hugh became a member of the management committee, and retained a lifelong interest in the property’s development as a sheep and beef farm.

A 1960 André Mayer research fellowship from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) enabled Hugh to build on his earlier research by investigating the impact of Māori Land Court operations, and development and consolidation schemes, on traditional tribal social structures. Mentored by John Rangihau and elders of Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Whātua and Te Mahurehure, he was indebted to them for their hospitality and willingness to discuss land matters with him. He conducted fieldwork in New Zealand in 1961 and 1962, before travelling abroad to study community development programmes in India and South-East Asia. He presented a report of his findings to the FAO before returning to Oxford in 1963 to submit a doctorate based on his research. His book Māori land tenure: studies of a changing institution (1977) synthesised his BLitt and DPhil research and added an analysis of the Māori Affairs Amendment Act of 1967, with its controversial measures to alienate and compulsorily acquire uneconomic Māori land interests. The book, which became a leading academic text, memorably characterised the nineteenth-century Native Land Court as ‘a veritable engine of destruction for any tribe’s land tenure’.1

Hugh carried out further research during 1964, this time with his own people, sponsored by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research and his ‘Uncle Jim’, James Te Hikoi Paora. The resulting book, Ōrākei: a Ngāti Whātua community (1975), examined the educational development of Māori children in tribal and non-tribal environments. Lord Ballantrae (former governor-general Sir Bernard Fergusson), who had taken a keen interest in Ōrākei and formed a friendship with Hugh, wrote the foreword.

Professional career

Equipped with a deep understanding of contemporary Māori realities, and a capacity for meticulous research, Hugh took up a senior lectureship in social anthropology at the University of Auckland, under Professor Ralph Piddington, in 1965. He edited a collection of essays from some of his students, Conflict and compromise: essays on the Māori since colonisation (1975), which he dedicated to Piddington’s memory.

In 1970 Hugh was named foundation professor of social anthropology and Māori studies at Massey University, a personal chair he held until 1984. He had married Freda Violet Rankin on 23 May 1970 at Oromāhoe, Bay of Islands. Freda was one of the first Māori women to graduate in fine arts in New Zealand; she was a talented artist and teacher of art and physical education. The family, including Hugh’s mother and daughter Margaret, moved to Palmerston North in early 1971. Two daughters were born there, Merata and Amokura.

In the early 1980s, as consultant to the New Zealand Māori Council, Hugh helped write guidelines for framing future legislation which would enable Māori to use their land in accordance with their own customs and traditions as guaranteed by te Tiriti o Waitangi. He firmly believed that, ‘While the treaty is the justification for the constitutional government in this country, it is equally the principle justification the Maori people have for insisting on the incorporation of their cultural values into the laws of the land.’2

In 1985, Hugh returned to the University of Auckland to the chair of Māori studies, which was then within the Department of Social Anthropology. He presided over the building of the university marae, Waipapa, and the carving and adornment of the meeting house Tāne-nui-ā-rangi, which was opened on 20 February 1988. The marae complex provided a Māori-centric environment for teaching and research and enabled Māori Studies to become its own department in 1992.

Retiring as emeritus professor in 1993, Hugh remained involved in university life, supervising graduate students and publishing and speaking on issues affecting Māori. He served as president of the Polynesian Society from 1993 until 2005, which pleased him, as his grandfather had been one of the society’s earliest corresponding members from 1892. As inaugural director of the James Henare Research Centre from 1993 until 1995, Hugh established a research programme relevant to tribal groups in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), to assist them with their social and economic development.

Public service

Throughout his career Hugh applied a careful, analytical and pragmatic approach to implementing the terms of te Tiriti o Waitangi, as part of shaping a bicultural nation. He was a member of the Royal Commission on the Courts (1976–78), the recommendations of which led to significant changes in the structure of the judicial system. He was appointed to the Board of Māori Affairs from 1987 to 1990, when the fourth Labour government’s policy of devolving authority to iwi presented opportunities for Māori to be more self-sufficient. He served on the Waitangi Tribunal for 10 years (1986–96), and contributed to 12 reports, including the three volume Ngāi Tahu report (1991). In that inquiry the tribunal found that the Crown had acted ‘unconscionably’ and recommended that a tribal structure which would allow Ngāi Tahu to begin negotiating with the Crown about remedies be implemented; this became established practice for later settlements. He also gave evidence to various tribunal inquiries, including those into Indigenous Flora and Fauna and Māori Intellectual Property (Wai 262) and the Foreshore and Seabed (Wai 1071).

Hugh also edited and co-authored Waitangi: Māori and Pākehā perspectives of the Treaty of Waitangi (1989), a collection of essays and case studies that investigated the cultural and constitutional opportunities and constraints inherent in the treaty. The publication appeared on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the treaty’s signing and became a standard reference work of public law. He contributed to a second edition, Waitangi revisited (2005), a review of developments in the field since the first edition and in the wake of the government’s 2004 foreshore and seabed legislation. In both editions, Hugh surveyed the challenges for the hapū at Ōrākei in retaining their status as tangata whenua in Auckland.

Hugh’s community service was exceptional. He served on the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, the Aotea Trust, and in governance positions at the Auckland War Memorial Museum for more than 20 years. He was a member of the museum’s trust board between 1985 and 1996, when he helped establish the Taumata-ā-Iwi museum advisory group, a unique framework for Māori representation based on recognition of the mana whenua held by Ngāti Whātua over the site of the museum and their alliances with neighbouring iwi, Ngāti Pāoa and Tainui. At its first meeting in 1997, the Taumata elected Hugh its representative on the museum trust board. Hugh served in that capacity until his death, providing a reassuring voice of authority.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei

Above all, Hugh devoted his life to Ngāti Whātua. He supported the establishment of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua, the development and progression of the tribe’s treaty claims in the Kaipara and Auckland districts, and the formalisation of the relationship between Ōrākei and the University of Auckland through a memorandum of understanding in 2003.

He was instrumental in negotiations with the Crown to recover the lands at Takaparawhau (Bastion Point). He chaired the inaugural Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei Reserves Board, through which Ōrākei and Auckland City Council jointly managed the ‘Whenua Rangatira’, the part of Bastion Point kept as a green space for all to enjoy. Well ahead of his time, Hugh steered the hapū through transformational change: from being denied the status of tangata whenua and having only a quarter-acre cemetery to their name, to a modern corporate identity with a significant economic, political and cultural foundation on which to stand proudly and flourish.


Hugh’s achievements and talents as a conciliator led to many honours: a knighthood in 1989 for services to education and to Māori; the prestigious Order of New Zealand in 2002 for services to New Zealand; Auckland City’s Distinguished Citizen Award in 2005. He received the Elsdon Best Medal in 1992 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1994. The University of Oxford recognised Hugh as an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College and a patron of the Pitt-Rivers Museum Society.

Hugh’s legacy to New Zealand demonstrated the value of courtesy, dignity and wisdom. He displayed a graciousness and generosity of spirit towards all people, in much the same way as his forebears had done when they invited Governor William Hobson to establish the town of Auckland on their land.

Freda Kawharu died in 2000. Hugh died at home in Milford, Auckland on 19 September 2006, aged 79, surrounded by his family. He lay in state at Ōrākei before travelling to Reweti, where he was buried beside his parents.

  1. I.H. Kawharu. Māori land tenure: studies of a changing institution. Oxford, 1977: 15. Back
  2. Quoted in ‘Māoris “lose out” in the pākehā land laws’. Manawatū Evening Standard. 9 March 1983. Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret Kawharu. 'Kawharu, Ian Hugh', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2023. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6k2/kawharu-ian-hugh (accessed 20 April 2024)