Story: Māori Studies – ngā tari Māori

The first to study Māori language and culture were European missionaries. Māori studies was taught in universities from the mid-20th century, generally as part of anthropology. In the 2000s Māori studies departments study not only Māori language and traditional culture, but also contemporary issues such as Treaty of Waitangi claims.

Story by Ranginui Walker
Main image: Mākereti (Maggie) Papakura, around 1910

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Pioneers of Māori studies

The first people to formally study Māori language and culture were European missionaries. In 1820 missionary Thomas Kendall and chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato worked with a linguist to produce the first book on the grammar and vocabulary of the Māori language.

In 1892 the Polynesian Society was founded to study the culture of Māori and other Pacific peoples. Prominent Māori, including Apirana Ngata, Māui Pōmare and Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck), were members of the society and studied Māori culture and traditions. In 1938 Mākereti Papakura’s The old-time Maori was the first major publication by a Māori ethnologist.

Apirana Ngata was the first Māori graduate of a New Zealand university (in 1893). He compiled a large collection of traditional waiata, published as Ngā mōteatea, and in 1923 he established the Māori Ethnological Research Board to promote the study of Māori language and culture.

Māori studies at the University of Auckland 

Māori language and culture was taught at University of Auckland adult education classes from the late 1940s. In 1951 Bruce Biggs was appointed as the first lecturer in Māori language at the university. Māori studies was part of anthropology, but it became a separate department in 1991.

At first only Māori language was taught, and then Māori studies came to include traditional culture. Later, contemporary topics such as Māori politics and Treaty of Waitangi claims were also included.

Other universities

Victoria University of Wellington began teaching Māori language and culture in the mid-1960s, again as part of anthropology. Under the leadership of Koro Dewes Māori language was taught using an immersion method. This made Victoria the popular choice for students wanting to become fluent Māori speakers. Māori studies became a separate department in 1978. The marae, Te Herenga Waka, opened in 1986 and was the first marae on a university campus.

Māori studies also came out of anthropology at Canterbury and Massey universities, and both shared Victoria’s immersion method of teaching Māori language.

Waikato University set up a Māori studies research centre in 1972, with a dual focus of teaching and research.

Otago University introduced Māori studies in 1983, and Lincoln University did so in 1995.

Teachers’ colleges

Teachers’ colleges around the country began teaching Māori studies from the 1960s.


Māori academic Mason Durie has said that it isn’t the role of university Māori studies to teach people to be Māori, and that role belongs to wānanga (Māori tertiary institutions) such as Te Wānanga o Raukawa and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

How to cite this page:

Ranginui Walker, 'Māori Studies – ngā tari Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Ranginui Walker, published 22 October 2014