Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Walker, Ranginui Joseph Isaac

Page 1: Biography

All images & media in this story

Walker, Ranginui Joseph Isaac


Whakatōhea; academic, activist, author

This biography, written by Paul Spoonley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2024. It was translated into te reo Māori by Te Kahautu Maxwell.

Ranginui Walker was a highly influential writer, public commentator, community leader and activist who played a significant role in the cultural and political renaissance of Māori in the 1970s and 1980s. He contributed to the renegotiation of relations between the Crown and Māori as well as offering a critique of the racism of core societal institutions. He was able to cross the cultural and political divide between Māori and Pākehā, especially through books such as Ka whawhai tonu mātou and his New Zealand Listener columns. He was a convincing and engaging speaker whose ‘tongue was as sharp as a sword.’1 His critiques were not simply reserved for Pākehā or the state; he was just as likely to criticise Māori individuals and organisations. He was a product of his Catholic upbringing and his experiences as part of the post-war rural–urban migration of Māori. He gave voice to what had been lost as a result of colonialism.

Early life

Ranginui Joseph Isaac Walker was born on 1 March 1932 in Lower Waiaua, Bay of Plenty, to Mihikore Walker, who was 15 or 16 years of age when she became pregnant to George Edwards. Mihikore was betrothed to Ngawai (Fred) Amoamo and because of this and her age, the baby was adopted by Mihikore’s older sister Wairata and her husband, Isaac Walker, a farmer. He was brought up by his extended whānau in Waiaua, just east of Ōpōtiki. His birth and adoptive mothers were among 14 siblings who were members of two Whakatōhea hapū, Ngāti Patumoana and Ngāti Ruatākena. Walker had no contact with his biological father.

His whāngai mother, Wairata, and her father, Matewiki, were important influences on Walker as he grew up. Wairata instilled a sense of hard work and Catholicism, although she could also be very possessive. Her five whāngai struggled to maintain relationships with their birth parents because of this possessiveness.

Walker began his education at Ōmarūmutu Native School in 1937. Within a year, he was moved to Ōpōtiki Convent School at Wairata’s insistence. Both te reo Māori and English were spoken in his childhood home, but he gradually lost his ability to speak te reo – along with much of his Māori identity – during his time at the convent school. In 1946, Walker became a boarder at Hato Petera (St Peter’s Māori College) on Auckland’s North Shore. A classmate was Hone Papita Raukura (Ralph) Hōtere, and the two became the academic stars of the school during their time there. Walker spent his final year at Ōpōtiki District High School, which he always maintained would have provided a better education than Hato Petera. In 1950, he enrolled in the teacher’s college at Epsom, Auckland, to train as a primary schoolteacher. He entered as one of the Māori quota, intended to train teachers for Māori schools. He made new friends, notably Paakaariki (Paki) Harrison, who introduced Walker to parties and alcohol.

In Auckland, Walker began courting a young Pākehā woman, Deirdre Patricia Dodson, who was also training to be a teacher. Her family, particularly her father, did not approve of Walker, because he was both Māori and Roman Catholic. This was mirrored by Walker’s family, especially Wairata, who did not think it appropriate that Walker should marry a non-Catholic and a Pākehā. But his siblings were much more positive, especially as Deirdre turned out to be a no-nonsense person who softened Walker’s very disciplined and clinical view of the world. They were married on 25 August 1953 at St John’s Church, Parnell, and had three children together, Michael (born 1954), Stuart (1955) and Wendy (1958).

Deirdre proved a supportive partner and constant companion as Walker’s profile and activities grew. Politically, she was often the more radical of the two and would use formal functions to make her views known to political leaders and governmental officials. In the end, she was made welcome by Wairata.

Teaching and academia

Walker spent 1952, his probationary teaching year, at a Māori school in Pipiwai, Northland, before doing his compulsory military training at Papakura in 1953. He then returned to Northland to teach at Ōākura, before moving to Mount Eden Primary in Auckland in 1955. This gave him an opportunity to study for a BA at Auckland University College (later the University of Auckland), to enable him to improve his teaching qualification. He initially enrolled in Māori studies and anthropology, although he was not especially motivated and received middling grades.

He graduated in 1962 and returned to teacher’s college to complete his teacher’s certificate and then lecture in Māori studies from 1962 until 1966. In 1964, he re-enrolled at the University of Auckland to undertake an MA in anthropology, which he completed the following year. By now, he was enjoying study and enrolled for a PhD with Hugh Kawharu and Ralph Piddington as his supervisors. He researched the post-war urban migration of Māori, and their adjustment to city life, with a particular focus on the suburb of Ōtara. In 1967, he accepted a two-year temporary lectureship in the Anthropology Department, covering for Bruce Biggs and teaching his Māori studies course in his absence, on Māori mythology and tradition. In 1970, the university appointed him a lecturer in its Centre for Continuing Education, responsible for its sociology and Māori studies programmes for adult students. Here he remained – with some breaks – until 1985.

Activism and leadership

By the late 1960s, Ranginui Walker was beginning to emerge as a formidable public intellectual, leader and activist, shaped by intellectual and political developments both in New Zealand and internationally. Through his studies, he had been introduced to the works of radical theorists Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and Saul Alinsky, and the emancipatory potential of education. He became increasingly convinced of the political nature of education, that it was not value-free, much less culture-blind, and to regard it as a battleground for ideas and an opportunity to empower and transform. He was influenced by the arguments of Frantz Fanon on decolonisation, of Freire on the need for liberation from the constraints of the orthodox, and of Antonio Gramsci on the power of institutions like the media to impose conformity. He was to remain true to these theorists and their arguments throughout his academic career and subsequently. He used Gramscian arguments about co-option by the state to critique ‘compliant chiefs’ who failed to challenge the Pākehā establishment, and sought to give his students a deeper understanding of the issues facing Māori.2

Equally important was his involvement in the politics of Auckland Māori, in an era of growing Māori frustration with and resistance to government policies and practices relating to Māori land, resources and culture. As soon as his PhD was completed, Walker’s uncle Matiu (Matt) Te Auripo Te Hau told him that he was to be the new secretary for the Auckland District Māori Council. The district council was part of a national organisation, created by statute, which worked for the welfare of Māori communities and represented them in their dealings with the government. It was Walker’s first involvement with a Māori organisation. The previous secretary had misappropriated funds, and Walker was favoured as a replacement because he had both integrity and a car (a not inconsiderable asset). He was a member of the Auckland District Māori Council from 1969 to 1973 and its chair from 1974 to 1989.

The Auckland Council’s role and influence was not confined to the Auckland Māori community; increasingly it was a major player on the national stage. Walker was at the heart of these activities. He helped shape a much more progressive direction for urban Māori and Māori councils, in contrast to the conservativism of rural Māori councils. His work with the Auckland Council meant connecting with groups such as the Māori Organisation on Human Rights and later Te Matakite ō Aotearoa, important players in a growing Māori activism. The council also served as a platform for Walker’s views on matters such as the governance of Māori, colonialism, the reinvigoration of tikanga Māori and the role of the state.

A key moment in Walker’s emerging political engagement with Māori issues came in 1970, when he organised a Young Māori Leaders Conference, under the auspices of the Māori Council, as part of his role at Continuing Education. The focus was to be the urbanisation and disengagement of Māori. Some attendees, including Syd and Hana Jackson, grew frustrated and discussed the possibility of forming a new group, independent of the government-sponsored Māori council system, to raise public awareness of Māori issues. Walker was present and suggested the name ‘Ngā Tamatoa’, although others have also claimed authorship. As Walker admitted: ‘I was a conservative, part of the system … and they [Ngā Tamatoa] were talking liberation, brown power, Black Power rhetoric…. To me, it was a learning experience running that conference’.3 He contrasted this with the approach of organisations like the Māori Council which limited their objections to letter-writing, petitions and other traditional modes of complaint. The growing Māori protest movement helped politicise Walker.

In 1979, Walker ran a seminar in Ngāruawāhia to help revive a struggling Māori warden organisation. He extracted $50,000 from the Minister of Māori Affairs, Ben Couch, to rebuild the Māori warden system. By this time, Kara Puketapu had established the self-help community approach of Tū Tangata, which helped make Māori wardens more relevant.

Commentator and communicator

Walker provided a critical voice on the turbulent politics of identity and justice from the 1970s through to the 1990s. He was an excellent communicator in print, television and radio, and an important interpreter of events and Māori ambitions. Walker was a regular feature of media coverage of Māori issues, a forceful and articulate commentator, and it was impossible not to be aware of his views. This sometimes brought him into direct confrontation with authority figures such as Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and members of his cabinet.

Walker publicly condemned the political attacks on Pasifika migrants and their characterisation as ‘overstayers’, and supported groups such as the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD) and their critiques of Pākehā racism. He defended the occupation of Bastion Point/Takaparawhāu, and supported the Māori and Pacific student activist group He Taua during the 1979 haka party incident at the University of Auckland. He was also involved in opposition to the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, and explained to New Zealanders at large why the 1984 hīkoi to Waitangi was important. He was a major influence on how these issues were understood by New Zealanders.

His regular columns in the New Zealand Listener (1973–90), one of the nation’s most popular magazines, and Metro magazine (1993–97), gave Walker an important public platform. His experiences with a variety of important issues and communities enabled him to write with the authority of an insider. He covered many contemporary topics affecting Māori, including the actions of police, the remarks of politicians, the performance of public institutions, and inaccurate or sensational media reporting on Māori issues. He especially articulated the ongoing relevance and significance of the Treaty of Waitangi and the impacts of colonialism on Māori. The columns provided, in the words of Listener editor David Beatson, a ‘splinter-sharp perspective’, which both ‘offended and informed’, but served as ‘one of the few beacons of hope in a rapidly darkening landscape.’4 The columns were highly engaging explanations of the significance of Māori concerns and ambitions.

Walker soon began supplementing his columns and academic writing with longer pieces intended for book publication. He produced notable essays on Māori culture and tradition for Michael King’s edited collections Te ao hurihuri (1975) and Tihei mauri ora (1978), and some of his Listener columns were published in Nga tau tohetohe: Years of anger (1987). A selection of his Metro articles and other pieces were collected in Ngā pepa a Ranginui: The Walker papers (1996). However, it was Ka whawhai tonu matou: Struggle without end (1990, revised edition 2004), his first full-length non-anthology book, that confirmed his reputation as a writer, historian and commentator on colonialism and tino rangatiratanga politics. It presented a Māori perspective on the nation’s history, passing from pre-European Māori history and mythologies through colonialism to the political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. It portrayed the nineteenth-century colonisation of New Zealand as a deliberate and, at times, violent usurpation, and emphasised ongoing Māori resistance in the face of military force and government action. Ka whawhai tonu matou remains his most enduring contribution to New Zealand scholarship and one of the outstanding books of New Zealand history and politics.

Walker took a close interest in the changing ways in which the state, and key institutions, understood and interacted with Māori. He was critical of what the state became under the deregulating Labour government of the 1980s and the impact its reforms had on Māori. He devoted a lot of print space to the successes and failures of the Waitangi Tribunal, the transition from the Department of Māori Affairs to Te Puni Kōkiri, legislative changes such as the State-owned Enterprises Act 1986, and the newly introduced fisheries management and ownership system. By the late 1980s, Walker was pessimistic about the ability of Māori to capitalise on whatever options were on the table as the result of the devolution of some state powers and responsibilities to Māori authorities: ‘Given the impoverishment of Maori people and the previous history of Maori councils … because of under-funding, the present plan [to devolve to rūnanga] looks like a recipe for confusion and disaster’.5 He wavered between seeking more appropriate policies and better management inside the state, and advocating for independent, Māori-controlled organisations.

Walker had dismissed the Māori political party, Mana Motuhake, when it emerged in the late 1970s, but felt that the MMP voting system, introduced in 1996, held the promise of greater Māori representation in Parliament. The New Zealand First party won all five Māori seats in 1996, but Walker considered the party too conservative and was concerned by its coalition with the National Party in government. He condemned Māori MPs who appeared to be using public money for their own gain, or who displayed a flawed understanding of tikanga or kawa.

Walker also played a growing role in education, notably as a member and then chair of the degree accreditation and auditing panel within the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (he was a strong supporter of second-chance education). He accepted this role both to extend his work in the educational sector and to represent the interests of various Māori communities in terms of educational provision. He audited Manukau Institute of Technology in 1999 (he went on to become its Amorangi and a member of its council) and the University of Otago in 2001. As an accreditation panel member, Walker was able to ask questions about how the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi were being implemented by the institution, about resourcing and policy, and about the appropriate provision of education for Māori. He was a strong supporter of Kawa Whakaruruhau/Cultural Safety in nursing education and played a role in improving cultural awareness in medical education, especially at the Auckland Medical School. He was uncompromising in terms of what was required to meet the educational needs of Māori, but also in his insistence on high standards, as a number of Māori educational institutions found out. He was not restrained in his criticisms, no matter the audience.

Later life

The University of Auckland appointed Walker an associate professor in the newly created Māori Studies Department in 1986, and promoted him to full professor and department head in 1993. In 1997, as he was about to retire, he was offered the position of Pro Vice-Chancellor (Māori) at the University of Auckland, the first of its kind. He served in this role for two years, retiring from the university in 1998 with the title of professor emeritus. The government recognised his achievements by making him a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001, and awarding him the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in 2009. The University of Auckland named him a Distinguished Alumnus in 2012.

From the 1990s, Walker played a greater role in his own iwi, Te Whakatōhea, especially in seeking to settle the iwi’s raupatu claim. He became a negotiator for the Whakatōhea raupatu land claim in 1994 and from 1996 to 1998, and was a member of the Whakatōhea Trust Board. After his retirement, he was able to spend more time on iwi matters but became frustrated at what seemed to him petty politics. He clashed with others on several occasions over a range of matters. He produced a history of the iwi, Ōpōtiki-Mai-Tawhiti: capital of Whakatōhea, in 2007.

Walker began to wind down his commitments during the first decade of the twenty-first century, although his work ethic meant that this was never a complete withdrawal. He continued to be in demand for his analysis of social and cultural currents in Aotearoa New Zealand, and to speak out on public issues. During the foreshore and seabed debate of 2003–04, the Listener published one of his most powerful pieces of writing. In an open letter to the leaders of the political parties (other than Winston Peters, a fellow descendant from the Mataatua waka), he wrote: ‘I have been here a thousand years. You arrived only yesterday.’6 He addressed them as a proud member of Te Whakatōhea, and provided them with a history of the loss of whenua and mana experienced by the iwi.

In retirement he wrote biographies of Apirana Ngata (He tipua, 2001) and his old friend Paki Harrison (Tohunga whakairo, 2008). He was appointed a member of the Waitangi Tribunal in 2003, serving on the Wairarapa ki Tararua, Whanganui and Te Paparahi o Te Raki (Northland) district inquiry panels. He spent more time with his whānau, and retreated to his bach at Whananaki, Northland, whenever he could, to enjoy fishing and boating.

Walker’s marriage to Deirdre was hugely important, as she provided advice and support. But as Deirdre pointed out, he was not especially sensitive to gender issues, an assessment backed up by their daughter. He was a demanding father and often quite distant, especially as a busy professional and public life took his time and energy. Deirdre provided the empathetic personal touch with family and friends.

Walker died in Auckland on 29 February 2016, aged 83, survived by Deirdre and their children. His tangi was held at Ōrākei Marae before he was cremated in a private ceremony at Purewa cemetery. As Te Kahautu Maxwell (Whakatōhea) commented at the tangi: ‘He gave his life and soul to fight for our rights … and to change the thoughts of Pākehā … to better understand the treaty’.7

  1. H. Sadler. ‘Dr Ranginui Walker, 1932–2016’. Wellington City Libraries blog, 10 March 2016 https://www.wcl.govt.nz/blog/index.php/2016/03/10/dr-ranginui-walker-1932-2016/. Back
  2. R. Walker. ‘Māori conceptions of leadership and self-determination.’ Unpublished paper, no date, quoted in P. Spoonley. Mata toa: the life and times of Ranginui Walker. Auckland, 2009: 60. Back
  3. Quoted in Spoonley. Mata toa: 80. Back
  4. D. Beatson, foreword to R. Walker. Nga tau tohetohe: years of anger. Auckland, 1987: 9. Back
  5. R. Walker. ‘Runanga: recipe for confusion.’ New Zealand Listener. 25 July 1987: 74. Back
  6. R. Walker. ‘Dear Crown.’ New Zealand Listener, 4–10 October 2003: 34. Back
  7. Quoted in ‘Ranginui Walker farewelled at Orakei Marae in Auckland’. Stuff, 4 March 2016. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/77554489/ranginui-walker-farewelled-at-orakei-marae-in-auckland. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Spoonley. 'Walker, Ranginui Joseph Isaac', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2024. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6w8/walker-ranginui-joseph-isaac (accessed 14 June 2024)