Story: Walker, Ranginui Joseph Isaac

Creating a platform

Ranginui Walker was a forceful and articulate spokesman for Māori concerns and aspirations from the 1970s until the 2010s. In this 1978 radio interview with Selwyn Muru, Walker combines observations about his own life with broader social commentary about the impact of colonisation and the place of Māori in New Zealand society.

Audio transcript

SELWYN MANU: Rangi, a new phenomenon amongst the Māori people is that of returning fairly late in life to study at university and succeed in the competitive academic world. What’s the reason behind this?

RANGINUI WALKER: Well, in my case, I didn’t have university entrance, and so I couldn’t attend university till I’d turned 21, that is to come in under provisional matriculation, so I’m one of those few people who came into university after the age of 21, in fact, I was about 22 at the time, going on 23. I was teaching in a rural Māori community district high school, and I could see rural Māori district high schools as a possible future career, and I felt that I needed a degree to make a success of that field. So I made up my mind to return to Auckland, which I did, to undertake a Bachelor of Arts degree.

SELWYN MANU: Many of course, Rangi, began at university in their youth, failed miserably, and after settling down some years later returned to cope with the challenges of the university. Do you think our people have a tendency to rebel, and sow their oats, and much later settle down to the task to the task at hand?

RANGINUI WALKER: I think there’s some truth in that, but in my own personal experience, I already, I felt that I had the ability to cope at an earlier age. But, you know, circumstances were such that I trained to be a teacher, and I went out into the country and did my country service, and then came back to the city, but I think that certainly was a supportive thing, in that, by that time I was married, I wasn’t interested in going to parties or hotels, I’d done that bit as a young student at the teachers’ college, and so it had no attraction for me. I’d also given up playing rugby at the age of 22, and so the things of youth were put aside. I certainly didn’t frequent pubs, billiard saloons. It was a matter of providing for my family, building a home, surviving, going to lectures at the university, taking on part time teaching jobs, for instance, I taught Māori studies, Māori language at Queen Victoria, and in that way supplemented my income so that I could get myself through to university, and it was a hectic life. Imagine holding a day job down, attending university lectures in the afternoon, and teaching night school.

SELWYN MANU: Do you think many of our people missed out because they were on a lower socioeconomic, at a lower socioeconomic level, and they weren’t able to afford fees and things like that?

RANGINUI WALKER: I don’t know how much of it is due to economics. I think a lot of it has to do with growing up with one’s determination, with one’s self concept. See, I always had a high regard for myself, I thought that I was important, that I was capable, that I had ability, and that I had to realise that the potential that was in me, so those were my driving forces, and where there’s a will, there’s a way. I worked summer vacations in the freezing works, I did the usual things that students do, in order to make the extra money to provide for my own education. I didn’t have any grants, any help from the Department of Māori Affairs, or the Department of Education, no scholarships, I’d paid my whole way entirely, right through my first degree, right through my master’s. By that time I was lecturing at the teacher’s college, right up until PhD, and it was only in my last year of my research, I had done two years research on my PhD on my own, that I was awarded the Queen Elizabeth the Second arts scholarship, that is, that’s worth about $2,000 a year. Now, I didn’t really need that assistance, because I’d got, you know, 14 years of part time study and paid off on my own account. However, it was a nice feeling to get that scholarship, it was a recognition of one’s worth, and so I was able to finish my PhD, and that was the only year that I ever had full time, was in my last year.

SELWYN MANU: But you must feel good that you did it all off your own bat?

RANGINUI WALKER: Certainly, it gives you a tremendous sense of achievement. But of course, one didn’t entirely do it all on one’s own, in that I had a wife who supported me, who made the path smooth and easy for me, and of course, with little children growing up, she kept them out of my hair, you know, ‘quiet, Daddy’s tired, he’s resting’, or ‘shh, daddy’s studying’, and of course, you know, the children learned to respect this, and I had this privacy, but the problem, the trouble was, of course, that they grew up and I missed an important part of their growing up, and, you know, it’s the sacrifice that one makes. But of course, in a way, it is also a contribution to the future, in that having created a platform for myself, my own children have grown up in an atmosphere of books, in an atmosphere of reading and studying, and so going to school, doing homework at night, came as second nature to them, because they’d seen their father as their model doing exactly that, and supported by the mother of course. The consequence of that is that all three of them are now at university, one’s at med school, in his fifth year, and one is finishing a Master of Science in marine biology, specifically studying the kina, which is of importance to our people, and the daughter has just joined med school this year, this is her first year of med school, and I think it’s that discipline in the family, the model that the family provides, and the emphasis placed on study by the mother as part of the children’s socialisation, so although, you know, I lost out, and to a certain extent my children lost out, in the sort of, the kind of things that you enjoy watching children cut their first teeth, learn how to play with their toys, and so on, it’s made up for in other ways and course, once I succeeded in climbing some of these Pākehā mountains then life became a bit easier. For instance, no sooner had I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree, that was in in 1962, I was appointed to the teachers’ college as a lecturer there, and with a higher salary, prior to that, I’d just been a scale one primary assistant teacher. Now with that greater security that gave us, I was able to do more things with my children, by that time they were seven or eight years of age, like getting a boat, taking them to the beach, going fishing, and eventually getting a beach cottage where we spent all our summer vacations, and that to a large extent made up for what I’ve missed out in their earlier childhood. We spent a lot of their formative years doing things like skin diving, fishing, exploring together in the sort of, the rural, the farm environment, and now I’m glad I was able to give that experience to my children, because that’s those are the experiences I had when I was a kid growing up in Ōpōtiki.

SELWYN MANU: Just listening to you, Rangi, seems to destroy the misconception that Māoris are not interested in education.

RANGINUI WALKER: Well, I don’t know where they get this idea from that Māoris are not interested in education, they fully understand that if one wants to become socially mobile, upwardly mobile, then education is the way through which you achieve higher ranking in society. All my people in Ōpōtiki, the Whakatōhea, understood this implicitly. It’s the putting into action, somehow, that they miss out, the lack of understanding between parents and teachers. Now, my parents took the view, and my parents were farmers, and I think my father had had a standard six education and that was all, and the same with my mother, they took the view that I was a clever child, and, but it was up to the teachers to find something that would suit me in life, to find my future vocation for me. As far as they were concerned, they knew nothing, because they themselves had been under-educated, and so here was I, making my way through primary school, secondary school, teachers’ college and eventually university, with very, you know, mainly on my own, with spiritual support from them, but very little practical support, because they didn’t know how to give that kind of support. Now, there may have been something peculiar in my own personality that I was able to do it, but as far as teachers are concerned, I think they have an important role in acting in loco parentis to the child and giving a child, an able Māori child, guidance, support, encouragement, acting in loco parentis, I think this is where the school misses out. They don’t realise how little Māori people know about the backup that’s necessary for educational success.

SELWYN MANU: It seems, Rangi, a resurgence of interest in education hits the Māori people in cycles, when we look back at the Apirana Ngata era, there were people like Sir Peter Buck, Dr. Maui Pōmare, Dr. Wī Repa and so on, and all of a sudden in your era there’s yourself, Dr. Hohepa, Dr. Hirini Mead, Dr. Hugh Kawharu and Bob Mahuta, Tamati Reedy and Api Mahuika completing theirs. It’s been said that when articulate spokesmen are needed most in Māoridom, they seem to rise up within their ranks.

RANGINUI WALKER: Yes, there all there are all sorts of complicating factors. I’d like to say at the outset, that I deplore the constant harping back by the Pākehā to the leaders of the past, ‘where are the Māori leaders are today?’, and they will use Buck, Ngata, Pōmare as the models. Now, I believe firmly in horses for courses. Those men were leaders for their times, but, unfortunately, there wasn’t a continuous base to follow on after them. And then of course, the war interrupted, and many of our finest and best were killed overseas. So there was this gap, and we were the post war people coming through the education system, and so there’s been the sudden widening of our academic bases, where we’ve got more qualified people now, not only in the academic fields, but in the professional fields. It’s certainly not as wide as we would like, there was a big gap between us and Pākehās, but at least that base is there now, and we can provide a certain degree of continuity, in that the next generation follows on in our footsteps, and thus the base will get wider. You’ve got to have a wide, semi-skilled technological base and professional base before you can get full social parity with the Pākehā, and I think this is the achievement that we, the first urban migrants, are building for the future. And of course, it was easy for a few to stand up as mighty kauri in a forest which had been chopped down, but today, there are many, many saplings growing up, and there are different kinds of forests, and they’re all making a tremendous contribution to our people, and I think today, the leadership is much more diverse, and it has to be because the problems are more diverse as a consequence of the urban migration.

SELWYN MANU: Do you see the Māori quest for higher academic achievement as part of a worldwide attempt by ethnic minorities, to gain equality with their masters, in order perhaps, to determine their own destinies?

RANGINUI WALKER: I think that is an important part of the motivation. I think a person has to go through a cycle of being put down, of being denigrated by the majority group, and develop a certain gut feeling of hate, in order to compete, because make no mistake, the Pākehā world is a competitive world, and if you can knock out some of your competitors by relegating them to minority group status, as has happened to the Māori, then that makes your situation much easier, and it’s, you know, it’s no accident, wherever you look around the world, wherever colonists have gone, that there is a stratification on colour lines, with whites at the top, then the lighter skinned, and then the dark ones at the bottom. That’s part of that social stratification, that the minority group becomes part of the proletarian base of the society. So, a person, in order to become competitive with the majority group, or the host society, he has to develop a certain anger within him in order to compete, and show, and prove that he is as good as the other person, and then having got there, some of us lose our way, some of us become indoctrinated and assimilated. Others go back to their Māori side, to the minority group side, and contribute their skills back to the people. Now that’s a universal problem in human society. As soon as people become upwardly mobile, whatever their social origins, they tend to be alienated from those grassroots. Now, this is a phenomenon that hits Pākehās as well, a boy coming from the wrong side of the tracks, for instance, once he enters professional ranks, then all his education brainwashes him to accept professional ethics standards, and this takes him away from his own origins. It’s an alienating thing. The same happens to Māori people. So there are many who are assimilated, who pass into the mainstream, and don’t turn back, but there are others who do turn back and make a contribution, and I think that is a compliment to the strength of Māori socialisation practices, which emphasises the group rather than the individual.

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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, (accessed 13 June 2024)