The founder of the study of Māori language and culture at university level was Āpirana Ngata. The first Māori graduate of a New Zealand university (in 1893), Ngata was also steeped in Māori custom and oral literature. His father was an expert in tribal traditions and he passed his knowledge on to his son. Ngata became a member of the Polynesian Society while still a university student, and served as its president from 1938 to 1950. He compiled a large collection of traditional waiata, Ngā mōteatea, was a renowned haka leader, and gave a series of lectures on Ngāti Porou cultural traditions under the title Rauru-Nui-a-Toi.
Telling the stories
A Ngāti Kahungunu tohunga, Moihi Te Mātorohanga, agreed in 1865 to tell the stories of the elders, including stories of creation, accounts of the discovery and settlement of Aotearoa, genealogies of ancestors, and incidents from tribal histories. Among the listeners was Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury, who wrote down the teachings. In 1910 his manuscripts were sent to the Dominion Museum and copied by Elsdon Best. Best, S. Percy Smith and many subsequent writers on Māori religion and tribal tradition have drawn on these teachings in their own work.
Māori Ethnological Research Board
To ensure that Māori knowledge would have a place in academia, Ngata established the Māori Ethnological Research Board in 1923. His aim was to promote the study of Māori language, culture and traditions, and to publish the works of the ethnologists Elsdon Best, Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) and Henry Skinner. The board also published Te Wananga, a Māori counterpart to the Journal of the Polynesian Society. Te Wananga ran for three issues in 1929–30.
In 1926 Ngata proposed to the University of New Zealand that Māori language be included as a subject for the bachelor of arts degree. He hoped to ease the passage of the proposal by placing Māori in the category of foreign languages. When this proposal was placed before the senate of the university, opponents argued that there was no literature in Māori to support the programme. Ngata responded by citing a considerable body of literature including George Grey’s Nga mahi a nga tupuna and Nga moteatea, White’s Ancient history of the Maori, a range of Māori newspapers and the collected manuscripts of Te Mātorohanga, Te Whatahoro Jury, Pita Kapiti and Te Rangiuia.
Ngata’s contribution to the body of Māori literature was a collection of poetic songs and chants, which was published in 1924 as supplements to the Māori newspaper Te Toa Takitini. This collection was published later by the Polynesian Society, in three volumes, as Ngā mōteatea, with the first volume appearing in 1959.
The University of New Zealand’s Board of Studies approved Māori language as a degree subject, but the decision was not put into action. Ngata campaigned for the next 20 years to establish a lectureship in Māori but was not able to secure funding. In 1939, at the Young Māori Conference held at Auckland University College, a resolution was passed to establish a Māori social and cultural centre to promote Māori adult education through Auckland University College, Auckland Teachers’ College and Auckland Museum. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that implementation of this resolution was delayed until after the war.