Story: Cultural go-betweens

Page 5. Artistic and academic go-betweens

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New Zealand’s writers, artists and thinkers, Māori and non-Māori, have been among its most effective cultural go-betweens. Māori people’s early enthusiasm for literacy and other forms of Pākehā culture has helped to ensure that the country’s different peoples are most likely to encounter each other through books, music, electronic media and other forms of cultural life.

Wedding day

Māori serving in overseas wars often carried elements of their traditional culture with them for inspiration and reassurance. During the Second World War a member of the Māori Battalion’s A Company, made up of troops from Auckland and Northland, decided to marry a young nurse from Te Whānau-a-Apanui on the East Coast. During the campaign against Rommel’s forces in North Africa, the two were married in a traditional Māori taumau ceremony. Their officers – Pita Awatere for the bride and James Hēnare for the groom – wore heirloom feather cloaks as they performed the ceremony in front of hundreds of soldiers.


Towards the end of the 19th century the view that Māori were dying out prompted increased European interest in studying its traditions and culture. The English-born S. Percy Smith and Edward Tregear, who had each learned the Māori language while working as surveyors, formed the Polynesian Society in 1892 to study the connections between Māori and other Polynesian peoples. Many of the society’s findings were later overturned, but it played an important part in collecting, preserving and stimulating academic interest in traditional Māori culture.

Several Pākehā students of Māori, such as Elsdon Best, became leading figures within the Polynesian Society. While working in the Urewera at the end of the 19th century, Best met elders of the Tūhoe people who passed on their knowledge of tribal history and genealogy.

The half-Māori, half-Irish medical doctor Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) was also a keen member of the society. His research interests extended beyond his own people to include other Polynesian peoples, and he became visiting professor of anthropology at Yale University in the US and director of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum. Mākereti (Margaret) Thom, also known as Guide Maggie Papakura, of Te Arawa and English parentage, studied anthropology at Oxford University. Her thesis was later published as The old-time Maori, the first major publication by a Māori ethnologist.

New name

Mākereti Thom (‘Guide Maggie’) was working as a guide in the thermal area of Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, when she acquired the surname by which she became better known. One visitor to the geysers asked if she had a Māori surname. Mākereti glanced at a nearby geyser called Papakura and replied, ‘My name is Papakura, Maggie Papakura.’1 Members of her family also took this as their surname.

More recently, Pākehā academic Anne Salmond gained a specialist understanding of Māori traditional culture from the East Coast elders Eruera and Amiria Stirling. She has written a number of highly significant books on Māori customs and early Māori–European contacts. Salmond has described relationships between Māori and non- Māori between 1642 and 1815 as 'a swashbuckling period of cross-cultural trial and error.'2


The poet Hone Tuwhare and the fiction writer Witi Ihimaera were among the first Māori to reach a wide general readership for their work. They have since been joined by other popular writers such as Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme, Patricia Grace and Alan Duff.

Ranginui Walker, of the Whakatōhea people of Bay of Plenty, trained as a primary schoolteacher and eventually became head of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland. He was a leading spokesperson for Māori rights through his magazine columns and books, which explained to a mainly Pākehā audience issues of Māori land rights, cultural identity and political representation. Walker was the University of Auckland’s first Māori Pro-Vice Chancellor before his retirement in 1998 and later served on the Waitangi Tribunal. After his death in 2016 he was described as someone who could walk in both Māori and Pākehā worlds and act as an interpreter between them.

Several Pākehā writers have also dealt successfully with the intersections between Pākehā and Māori worlds. James K. Baxter was already a highly regarded poet when he decided to form a community based around the spiritual aspects of communal Māori life. At first in Auckland and then at the tiny Whanganui mission settlement of Jerusalem (Hiruhārama), Hēmi, as he became known, lived with young Māori and Pākehā from the margins of society. He was given a full Māori tangihanga at Jerusalem after his death in 1972 and is remembered for his personal and literary efforts to integrate elements of Māori and Pākehā society.

At the time of his death in 2004, Michael King was New Zealand’s best-known historian. The television series Tangata whenua and the book Moriori explored variations between Māori and Pākehā viewpoints and transformed New Zealanders’ understanding of aspects of their country. King believed that Pākehā like himself, whose families had lived in New Zealand for several generations, had developed a distinctive white New Zealand culture, different from the European culture of their ancestors. Some of those differences, he believed, were due to long interaction with Māori.

  1. Quoted in June Northcroft-Grant, 'Papakura, Makereti 1873–1930'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 9 March 2010). Back
  2. Quoted in 'Salmond, Anne'. New Zealand Book Council, (last accessed 22 May 2018). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Cultural go-betweens - Artistic and academic go-betweens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018