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Māori Studies – ngā tari Māori

by Ranginui Walker

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.

Pioneers of Māori studies


Formal study of Māori language and cultural traditions began through the efforts of early missionaries to communicate with Māori in order to convert them to Christianity.

Thomas Kendall of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS), one of the first three missionaries to settle in New Zealand, published the first book in Māori in 1815: A korao [kōrero] no New Zealand; or, the New Zealander's first book; being an attempt to compose some lessons for the instruction of the natives. In 1820 he and the chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato visited England to work with Cambridge University linguist Samuel Lee to produce the first Grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand. Kendall, after being dismissed as a missionary, lived with Tūngaroa, the daughter of Rākau, a tohunga of Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands. Through this connection he wrote an account of Māori cosmological thought, describing the symbolic significance of traditional carvings.

The richness of te reo

Many early missionaries to New Zealand had studied languages such as Greek and Latin, and readily appreciated the regular grammar and complex vocabulary of Māori. Missionary William Yate wrote, ‘The language is peculiarly soft and sweet, and in the longest speeches not a harsh sound ever strikes the ear … the language of New Zealand is remarkably rich, admits of a very varied phraseology, abounds in terms of peculiar nicety, and is capable of being reduced to the most precise grammatical principles.’1

French Catholic missionary Louis Servant also wrote a detailed and valuable account of early Māori society, published in English translation in 1973 as Customs and habits of the New Zealanders. Another CMS missionary (and later bishop), William Williams, published the first substantial Māori-to-English dictionary in 1844. Later editions were produced by his son and grandson, also Anglican bishops.

Te Rangikāheke

The first professional teacher of Māori studies was probably Wiremu Te Rangikāheke, a mission-educated scholar from the Ngāti Rangiwewehi tribe of Rotorua. From 1849 he worked closely with Governor George Grey, teaching him Māori language and customs. At times Te Rangikāheke was paid £36 a year, plus accommodation for himself and his family. He produced a large number of Māori-language manuscripts on most aspects of Māori culture, and contributed to Grey's manuscripts of songs and proverbs, including Ko nga moteatea, me nga hakirara o nga Maori (1853), and Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Maori (1854), and its English translation, Polynesian mythology (1855).

The Polynesian Society

In 1892 Stephenson Percy Smith and Edward Tregear, both senior civil servants and amateur scholars of Māori language, history and traditions, co-founded the Polynesian Society to study New Zealand Māori and other Pacific Island peoples and their cultures, past and present. Smith recruited a number of distinguished Māori as members, including Apirana Ngata, Māui Pōmare and Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck). All three had been trained in western systems of knowledge (Pōmare and Te Rangi Hīroa as doctors, and Ngata as a lawyer) and also in the traditional lore of their people. Te Rangi Hīroa eventually became a professor of anthropology at Yale University in the United States, and director of Hawaii’s Bishop ethnological museum.

The Journal of the Polynesian Society, published since 1892 (and still published in 2019), has been edited by leading figures in Māori studies, such as the self-taught ethnologist Elsdon Best. The society has also published important collections of traditional literature, including Ngata's collection of waiata, Ngā mōteatea (1928), and a new edition of George Grey’s Nga mahi a nga tupuna (1928).

Maggie Papakura

Mākereti Papakura, also known as Guide Maggie Papakura, of Te Arawa and English parentage, studied anthropology at Oxford University from 1926 to her death in 1930. Her thesis was published in 1938 as The old-time Maori, and was the first major publication by a Māori ethnologist.

    • Yate, William, An account of New Zealand and of the formation and progress of the Church Missionary Society’s mission in the northern island. 2nd ed. London: R. B. Seely and W. Burnside, 1835, p. 227. Back

First attempts at university teaching

Apirana Ngata

The founder of the study of Māori language and culture at university level was Apirana 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.

Māori literature

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.

Ngā mōteatea

Apirana 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.

University delays

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 unable 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 War Memorial Museum. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that implementation of this resolution was delayed until after the war.

Māori studies at Auckland University

Maharaia Winiata

The eventual catalyst for Māori studies to become part of tertiary education was the migration of Māori to cities from tribal hinterlands, and the problems of social dislocation and youth offending that resulted. In 1946 a Māori adult education advisory subcommittee persuaded the Regional Council of Adult Education in Auckland to appoint a tutor to teach Māori arts, crafts, language and folklore to urban migrants. Maharaia Winiata, the first tutor-organiser for Māori adult education, was appointed in 1949.

Matiu Te Hau

Winiata used his tribal networks to establish classes in the southern half of the University of Auckland district, which encompassed Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. The demand for classes led to the appointment of Matiu Te Hau in 1952 to service the northern half of the district.

Responding to community needs

Te Hau and Winiata responded to community needs by establishing classes in Māori language, culture, health, education and land development. They also established a wānanga – a school of Māori arts and crafts – to teach carving and weaving skills that were then used in the renovation and decoration of ancestral houses in tribal areas.

Māori Leadership Conference

One of the most influential projects undertaken by Te Hau and Winiata was the revival of the Young Māori Leaders’ Conference at Auckland University in 1959. The conference drew in delegates from Māori communities in the top half of the North Island. Discussion focused on Māori language education, health, housing and land development.

Further community conferences

The stimulation the conference provided created a desire to spread its influence to the grassroots – Māori in rural communities. Conferences were subsequently held at Kaitāia, Ngāruawāhia, Whakatāne and Gisborne in 1960, and at Tauranga, Taupō, Rotorua and Wairoa in 1961. At these conferences university lecturers in law, anthropology, Māori studies and adult education were active participants, sharing information and recording discussions. Their presence enhanced the mana of the university in Māori esteem.

The long and the short of it

Bruce Biggs, New Zealand’s first Māori language lecturer, was of Māori descent but learned Māori as a second language. As a teacher, he was a leading proponent of double vowels (for example, ngaati) rather than macrons (as in ngāti) to denote long vowels in written Māori. This method became increasingly unpopular among other writers and readers of Māori, and the Māori Language Commission eventually established the macron as standard.

Bruce Biggs

In 1951 Professor Ralph Piddington, head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Auckland, appointed Bruce Biggs as lecturer in Māori language. The professor of French argued that Māori was not a language of scholarship because it was an oral and not a written language. In response Bruce Biggs fetched from the university library Māori textbooks including Ngā mōteatea, Nga mahi a ngā tupuna, Te paipera tapu and many others including Te haerenga o te manene, the Māori translation of The pilgrim’s progress.

Professor Piddington moved the motion for Māori language to be taught in the Anthropology Department. He argued that teaching the native tongue was essential to the discipline of anthropology. The successful passage of the motion finally brought into reality the university senate’s 1929 decision for Māori to be a subject for the bachelor of arts degree. In 1991 Māori studies at Auckland separated from anthropology to become an independent department.

First bachelor of arts in Māori language

At the outset, the core business of Māori studies at Auckland University was teaching te reo Māori (the Māori language). The programme was underpinned by knowledge about language learning that Biggs had gained from his PhD in linguistics at the University of Indiana in 1957. His model for teaching the language, as set out in his textbook Let’s learn Maori, was well suited to second-language learners of Māori.

Addition of Māori cultural studies

The admission of Māori language into the university paved the way for the introduction of the study of Māori culture. Māori studies came to include kawa o te marae (marae protocol), whaikōrero (oratory), waiata (songs and chants), myths, tribal traditions, material culture, and the arts of whakairo (carving), tukutuku (woven panels) and raranga (weaving).

Māori studies was later extended to include contemporary topics such as Māori politics, the Māori response to colonisation, Māori resource management, indigenous studies, the Treaty of Waitangi and the settlement of Māori land claims against the Crown.

Māori studies expands to other universities

Victoria University of Wellington

The example set by the University of Auckland in teaching Māori studies made it easier for other institutions to follow suit. In 1964 Victoria University of Wellington responded to student demand for Māori studies by recruiting Joan Metge as senior lecturer in the new Department of Anthropology. Pending the appointment of a professor, Metge was tasked with starting Māori studies under the aegis of anthropology. In 1965 Wiremu (Bill) Parker was seconded from teaching university extension to teach the first Māori language paper, while Metge taught a course on Māori society and culture.

Ruka Broughton

As a young boy Ruka Broughton (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru) became the student of a tohunga named Rākei Kīngi, who passed on his knowledge of whakapapa (genealogy), waiata, karakia and combat techniques. Broughton later became an Anglican priest, although he maintained his activities as a tohunga. In 1979 he was appointed a lecturer in Māori at Victoria University, and revived interest in traditional karakia. He also composed waiata such as ‘Kāore taku raru’, about his impending death, which was adopted by Te Herenga Waka, the Victoria University marae, as its signature waiata.

Koro Dewes

In 1966 Parker was sent back to the extension department because he did not have a degree. He was replaced by Te Kapunga (Koro) Dewes, who had an MA from Auckland. Dewes led a programme on te kawa o te marae (marae protocol) that produced fluent speakers of Māori capable of delivering a mihi (formal speech of welcome on a marae) and whaikōrero (a speech in reply). Because it based its teaching on Māori-language immersion, Victoria became the university of choice for students wanting to become fluent speakers of Māori. Dewes promoted the idea of Māori studies becoming a mini-department separate from the Anthropology Department.

Hirini Mead

In 1975 the university appointed Hirini Mead to a chair in Māori studies. Mead’s tenure saw Māori Studies become a department in its own right (in 1978). In 1979 Victoria University began to offer a masters programme in Māori Studies. Mead also instituted a Māori graduation ceremony and oversaw the development of Te Herenga Waka, which was the first marae on a university campus when it opened in 1986.

The earth moves

In March 1974 the newly appointed lecturer in Māori, Te Awaroa Nēpia, attended his first Faculty of Arts meeting at the University of Canterbury. His appointment had followed years of lobbying by students and staff. As he stood to respond to his welcome, Nēpia began with a mihi (greeting) in the Māori language. At that moment the building shook with a small earthquake. The arrival of Māori studies was indeed a shock!

University of Canterbury

In 1974 Te Awaroa (Bill) Nēpia was appointed as the sole Māori lecturer at Canterbury. He modelled his language teaching on the programme established by Dewes at Victoria. Unable to recruit qualified Māori staff, Nēpia appointed Margaret Orbell, an anthropologist, to teach and develop scholarship in Māori literature. When Nēpia died in 1987 there were no suitable Māori candidates to fill the vacancy. Orbell was appointed head of Māori studies.

In 1990 Te Matawhānui, the Māori University Teachers Association, signalled to Canterbury University that it wanted a Māori head of department for Māori studies. The request was satisfied with the appointment of Roger Maaka in 1991.

Massey University

In 1971 Hugh Kāwharu was appointed to a chair in anthropology at Massey University. He established Māori studies as a section of anthropology and recruited native speakers to teach the language. The programme leader, Āpirana Mahuika, followed the Dewes model of Māori-language immersion. Other native speakers such as Taiarahia Black consolidated the programme to the point where the university decided to establish a chair in Māori studies. Mason Durie was appointed to the chair in 1988, and Māori studies became an independent department.

University of Waikato

The University of Waikato followed a different strategy from the other universities. James Ritchie promoted the establishment of a Māori studies research centre, and Te Kotahi (Robert) Mahuta was appointed director of the centre in 1972. The Māori studies section concentrated on teaching oral fluency in the language and knowledge of tikanga (Māori customs), while a separate centre focused on research.

The research centre produced a series of papers on the socio-economic and demographic profile of the tribes in the Waikato region. These papers culminated in the Tainui report of 1983, which examined the socio-economic status of Tainui and prepared the ground for negotiations to settle the Tainui Treaty of Waitangi claim against the Crown.

University of Otago

The University of Otago introduced Māori studies in 1983. A review in 1995 indicated that there was a shortage of qualified teaching staff. The university responded by appointing Tania Ka’ai as professor of Māori studies. The language programme of the new department was subsequently strengthened by the appointment of John Moorfield.

Lincoln University 

In 1995 Lincoln University launched a Māori studies degree with a dual focus on tikanga Māori and training for employment in areas such as policy analysis, research, business management, environmental planning and tourism. The first director of the university's Centre for Māori Studies and Research was the Reverend Maurice Manawaroa Gray.

Staff qualifications

In 1999 only three of the seven departments of Māori studies were headed by people with a PhD. In addition to teaching students, all Māori studies departments were focused on staff development and training. It became a requirement for the appointment of junior staff that they enrol for an advanced degree (a masters or doctorate).

Teachers’ colleges and wānanga

Auckland Teachers’ College

The struggle to establish Māori studies in universities was matched by a similar struggle in teachers’ colleges. The first to make a move was Auckland Teachers’ College, with the appointment of Harry Lambert in 1961. After he left in 1962, his successors strengthened the curriculum and increased student enrolments over the next five years. Māori studies then became a department in its own right under Vernon Penfold.

Wellington Teachers’ College

In 1963 Wellington Teachers’ College took a more staged approach to the introduction of Māori studies by appointing Barry Mitcalfe to teach Polynesian studies in the Department of Social Studies. Five years later that position was supplemented by the appointment of Tipene O’Regan to teach New Zealand studies. Mitcalfe and O’Regan shared the Māori-Polynesian studies portfolio between them. When Mitcalfe left in 1972, O’Regan redesigned the Māori studies programme and was appointed senior lecturer in Māori studies and social studies.

Palmerston North Teachers’ College

Palmerston North Teachers’ College did not see any need to appoint a lecturer in Māori studies until late in the 1960s. The catalyst for change was young teachers trained at the college who found themselves teaching Māori children in South Auckland schools. They complained that their training had not equipped them to teach in a multi-cultural school.

Christchurch Teachers’ College

The principal of Christchurch Teachers’ College, Colin Knight, resisted appointing a lecturer in Māori studies until well into the 1980s because he believed that Māori and non-Maori New Zealanders should be regarded as one people.

The difference of wānanga

In 1999 the Waitangi Tribunal ruled on a claim that the Crown had failed to properly fund the three tertiary education wānanga then operating. The claim argued that the wānanga provided a form of education that differed from that available in Māori studies departments at other tertiary institutions. The tribunal found that ‘Māori studies focuses on studying Māori society from a Pākehā perspective, while mātauranga Māori is about studying the universe from a Māori perspective.’1 It recommended that the Crown make a one-off payment to each of the wānanga.

Tribal wānanga

Opposition to the establishment of Māori studies in the academy was circumvented by the strategy of sheltering it within anthropology. Māori academic Mason Durie thought that locating Māori studies within the confines of established disciplinary boundaries was academically unsound. It was also politically untenable, so separation was inevitable.

Despite that separation, Māori studies became caught in a dilemma that it is neither a traditional wānanga (school of learning) nor an exclusively Western-oriented school of learning. For this reason, Durie argued, it was not the business of Māori studies to teach students how to be Māori. That was the prerogative of tribal wānanga such as Te Wānanga o Raukawa at Ōtaki, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi at Whakatāne and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, based in Te Awamutu.

    • The Wānanga capital establishment report (Wai 718). Wellington: Waitangi Tribunal, 1999, p. 21. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ranginui Walker, 'Māori Studies – ngā tari Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Ranginui Walker, published 22 October 2014