Page 1: Biography
Māori literature scholar and author
This biography, written by Ross Calman, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2023.
Margaret Orbell was one of New Zealand’s leading authorities on traditional Māori literature. She published prolifically, for both academic and general audiences, and her books achieved critical and popular success. Although she had highly developed written skills in te reo Māori, she was not a fluent speaker. Quietly spoken and intense, from the 1970s she attracted criticism for being a Pākehā academic working on Māori subject matter.
Early life and interest in te ao Māori
Margaret Rose Orbell was born in Auckland on 17 July 1934, the oldest daughter of Reginald John Orbell, a radio engineer originally from Geraldine, South Canterbury, and his wife Eileen Winifred Rich, a schoolteacher from New Plymouth. The family lived in a wooden bungalow on the lower slopes of Ōwairaka/Mt Albert, a volcanic cone and former pā site. Margaret’s childhood experiences of exploring Auckland’s historic pā sites with her parents triggered an interest in the Māori world. At 11 she told her parents that she wanted to learn te reo Māori.
Margaret was educated at St Cuthbert’s College, a private girls’ school. She visited Mt Ngāuruhoe on a school trip when she was 16 and later became a keen tramper. She went on to study at Auckland University College, where she graduated with a Master of Arts with honours in English literature in 1957. She later noted the parallels between Renaissance poetry and Māori poetry, particularly their elaborate patterns of imagery. She simultaneously studied to become a secondary schoolteacher, at Ardmore Teachers’ Training College, and graduated in 1956.
After graduating, Orbell spent two years teaching in England and travelling in Europe. On her return to New Zealand, she enrolled in stage three anthropology at Auckland University College. There she was first exposed to the work of the Danish anthropologist and religious historian J. Prytz Johansen, whose two pioneering studies on Māori religion, published in the 1950s, were to strongly influence her approach to the study of Māori literature. On her return from Europe, she had become fascinated by the traditional Māori art that she saw in museums, and was surprised by the lack of published research on the subject. She began to research a book herself, buying an old car and visiting ‘pretty well every carved house in the country’ over the course of two years, taking photographs of the artwork that adorned the wharenui.1 On a trip to the East Coast in 1961 she was accompanied by the Indonesian Dutch artist Theo Schoon. By that time she was lecturing in English at Ardmore Teachers’ Training College, a role she left in mid-1961 to take up a short-term teaching position at Ngata Memorial College, Ruatōria, hoping to improve her knowledge of Māori.
Te Ao Hou and early books
In December 1960 Margaret had submitted an article on the Wairoa meeting house Te Poho-o-Tamaterangi to the Māori Affairs Department quarterly magazine Te Ao Hou; it appeared in the September 1961 issue. When she heard that Te Ao Hou was looking for a new editor, she jumped at the opportunity, describing her recruitment to the role as ‘an enormous piece of luck’.2 She commenced as editor in November 1961, moving to Wellington to take up the post. Early in her tenure she became aware of the wealth of virtually unknown Māori language literature held in manuscript form in public archives, collected by the likes of George Grey, John White and S. Percy Smith in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interpreting this written heritage, which she viewed as ‘the greater part of our national literature’, would become her life’s work.3 She greatly expanded the publication of such material in Te Ao Hou during her editorship.
As editor, Orbell developed relationships with many of the key Māori artists, writers and scholars of the day, travelling around the country to attend hui. She was generous with the feedback she gave to aspiring Māori writers such as Harry Dansey, Rowley Habib, Katarina Mataira, Hirini Mead and Hone Tuwhare. She was also an advocate for Māori art, and luminaries such as Ralph Hōtere, Para Matchitt, Selwyn Muru and Arnold Wilson contributed to the magazine. Photographer Ans Westra achieved nationwide prominence for her work on Te Ao Hou.
Another artist who contributed artwork and designs was Gordon Walters, whom she married on 14 May 1963 at the Wellington Registry Office. They shared an interest in te ao Māori, something that was relatively unusual for Pākehā in that period. At her marriage she became Margaret Walters, though she continued to be known professionally as Margaret Orbell. She officially changed her surname back to Orbell and dropped her middle name altogether in 1991.
Orbell finished at Te Ao Hou in 1966, moving to the Correspondence School, where she taught te reo Māori while herself studying the language at Victoria University of Wellington under Wiremu Parker. She continued to contribute translations of traditional songs and narratives, as well as book reviews, to Te Ao Hou, and sent pieces to the School Journal.
Her first two books were a direct result of her time at Te Ao Hou. Māori folktales (1968) was a collection of mostly unpublished Māori stories from various tribal areas, in both English and Māori. She acknowledged the assistance of Beth Ranapia and Wiremu Parker, both of whom she had met through Te Ao Hou. Koro Dewes remarked in his review for Te Ao Hou that she had done a good job for someone relatively new to te reo Māori.
Her edited poetry and short story collection, Contemporary Māori writing (1970), was a landmark anthology that helped to launch the careers of Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace, among others. Featuring a striking jacket designed by Gordon Walters, it placed second in the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards for 1971.
Margaret and Gordon had had their first child, a girl, in 1969, and in 1971 the family moved to Auckland, where Orbell commenced a doctoral thesis on ‘Themes and images in Maori love poetry’ in the University of Auckland’s Anthropology and Maori Studies Department. She studied under linguist and te reo Māori authority Bruce Biggs, and taught alongside him in 1974–75.
Traditional songs of the Māori (1975) established Orbell’s reputation as a serious scholar of Māori studies. She co-authored the book with ethnomusicologist Mervyn McLean, whom she had met during her Te Ao Hou years. Orbell regarded the selection of songs as a ‘random sample’ (the waiata were chosen by McLean), rather than giving a well-rounded picture of traditional Māori waiata.4 The first book to include musical notation for traditional Māori waiata, it won the New Zealand Book Award for non-fiction in 1976 and remained in print for 30 years.
The family relocated to Christchurch in 1976 so that Orbell could take up a position as a lecturer within the recently established Māori Studies Department at the University of Canterbury. She joined Te Awaroa (Bill) Nepia, who had been appointed in 1974. Margaret and Gordon’s second child, a son, was also born in 1976.
Her doctorate was conferred in 1977 and another book, Māori poetry: an introductory anthology, appeared the following year. In the late 1970s Orbell spent several years collecting and translating song poetry from the wider Pacific with the aim of publishing an anthology, but she failed to attract a publisher. As part of her research she travelled to New York in 1980, her first overseas trip since the 1950s. During this period she also translated more than 100 waiata ā-ringa (action songs) for the School Publications Branch, but these too remained unpublished.
Getting her work before a wide audience was always important for Orbell. Through the 1970s and 1980s she contributed articles, mostly interpretations of traditional Māori songs, to Landfall, Islands, the Journal of the Polynesian Society, the New Zealand Listener and Tu Tangata. She always included the Māori text as well as the English translation. She saw herself as a writer rather than an academic, and she was undoubtedly thinking of herself when she described writers as ‘often private and rather prickly people – they have to be, I think, to get up the necessary head of steam to work in isolation.’5 She increasingly resented the requirements of university teaching as taking her away from her writing.
Pushback from Māori about Pākehā scholars working in Māori spaces began in the 1970s and intensified in the 1980s. Some criticised Michael King for writing books about te ao Māori, while others argued that Gordon Walters’ use of Māori motifs in his paintings amounted to cultural appropriation. In 1985 Orbell’s work, too, came under scrutiny. Members of Ngāti Hine objected to a series of translations of material of Ngāti Hine origin in Tu Tangata magazine, pointing to her lack of consultation and errors of interpretation and historic fact.
Orbell had been active in fostering relationships with Māori in the 1960s, particularly as editor of Te Ao Hou, but as an academic her engagement with the Māori community was largely confined to interactions with Māori colleagues and students. Although she enjoyed warm relationships with some Māori, who called her ‘Makereti’, she sometimes struggled to maintain these relationships.
The natural world of the Māori (1985), with photography by Geoff Moon, was her first foray into a more popular format, driven in part by her failure to get the Pacific poetry anthology published. Orbell used this work to explore one of her abiding interests: patterns of imagery in Māori thought drawn from the natural environment. Awarded third place in the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards for 1985, the book was criticised by some Māori, particularly by Te Aue Davis in the New Zealand Listener. Davis complained that Orbell lacked an appreciation of the spiritual dimension of te ao Māori, and of the role of women in traditional Māori society. Other reviewers, including Orbell’s old Māori lecturer Wiremu Parker, were more positive.
Orbell responded that much of the material she worked with was of such antiquity that it came from anonymous sources without connections to any particular iwi or group, and therefore belonged to everyone. She maintained that, despite the occasional complaints, no one had seriously questioned the accuracy of her translations. Māori language authorities who reviewed her work generally deemed her translations to be accurate, although she was occasionally criticised for being overly literal in her approach.
Hawaiki: a new approach to Māori tradition (1985), based on a lecture series, was clearly aimed at an academic audience. Orbell argued cogently that Māori oral migration narratives should not be taken literally but viewed as symbolic religious narratives. She acknowledged her debt to Prytz Johansen for this reading of tradition. In the same year, Orbell acted as an editorial advisor on the Penguin book of New Zealand verse, pulling together the significant te reo Māori strand. This was the first time Māori-language verse had been included in a mainstream New Zealand poetry anthology.
Bill Nepia’s death in 1987 saw Orbell promoted to head of the Māori Studies Department. Her appointment drew criticism from the Māori University Teachers’ Association, and she was replaced by Roger Maaka in 1991.
In June 1989, in a rare foray as a public intellectual, she was involved in a fractious radio debate with the novelist C.K. Stead about Pākehā identity and biculturalism as part of the lead-up to the 1990 sesquicentennial commemorations. Orbell continued her output of popular works with Waiata: Māori songs in history: an anthology (1991) and Traditional Māori stories (1992), which introduced readers to Māori song and pūrākau (storytelling) respectively.
Later life and works
At the end of 1994, Orbell retired from her university position as a reader (equivalent to associate professor) to concentrate on writing. She had long preferred writing to teaching, but the financial uncertainty of Gordon’s art career made her steady salary essential for the family’s finances. A major reference work, The illustrated encyclopedia of Māori myth and legend appeared in 1995. Orbell described this as a ‘grab bag’ and acknowledged that it was not exhaustive. One of her best-known works, it was shortlisted for the 1996 Montana New Zealand Book Awards in the Cultural Heritage section.
Gordon Walters died on 5 November 1995. As a tribute to Gordon, Margaret collaborated with the visual artist Richard Killeen on a book entitled The presence of the dew, a meditation on the significance of dew in Māori symbolism.
After Gordon’s death, Margaret moved back to Auckland, where a highly productive period culminated in three significant works. Songs of a kaumātua (2002), which showcased the prolific output of mōteatea (traditional Māori chant) expert Kino Hughes, was another collaboration with McLean, and followed the same format as their earlier book. He reta ki te maunga: Māori letters to the editor, 1898–1905 (also 2002) was a selection of letters in Māori, with English translations, from the Māori language newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi. Her final work, Birds of Aotearoa: a natural and cultural history, was published the following year. Songs of a kaumātua and Birds of Aotearoa were both Montana Book Awards finalists. At the time of her death Orbell was working on a book tentatively entitled ‘The breakthrough: how sexual symbolism made us human’.
In 2002, Margaret Orbell was appointed a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to Māori and literature. She died in Auckland on 31 July 2006, aged 72.