The go-between

by Caren Wilton / 13 October, 2007
Guide Maggie, Maggie Papakura, Margaret Staples-Browne, Margaret Dennan: the woman we can also call Makereti had more aliases than a super-spy, reflecting her ability to move between Maori and Pakeha worlds.

When European tourists visited New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a trip to Rotorua and its "hot lakes" was usually on the cards. They were often shown the sights by Maori guides - among them a number of high-profile women.

One of them was the woman known as Guide Maggie or Maggie Papakura. Born in 1873 to a Te Arawa mother and an English father who had been fighting for the Crown in the New Zealand Wars, she lived at a time of great upheaval for Maori, with postwar land confiscations, divided communities and a falling population.

"In her lifetime, the Maori population was so low that people thought they were dying out," says Paul Diamond, journalist, historian and author of a new book about Papakura, Makereti: Taking Maori to the World. "But then there was this recovery - so her life spans this fascinating period of huge transition."

Themes of transition and change, as well as the juggling of two cultures, seem to have played themselves out in the persona and life of Papakura - or Makereti, as Diamond calls her. Her series of names alone is enough to give a writer pause: born Margaret Pattison Thom, she was known as Makereti, a transliteration of Margaret. Married in 1891, she became Margaret Dennan. She guided tourists as Guide Maggie, apparently adding Papakura on a whim when a visitor asked her Maori surname - and then became Margaret Staples-Browne after remarriage to an English country gentleman.

"Maggie Papakura was a name for a persona, a stage name for the guiding part of her life," says Diamond. "She really distanced herself from it later, so I chose to call her Makereti in the book. She had all these names that hint at multiple identities, but Makereti was the one constant."

After a childhood steeped in Maori culture, living in a dirt-floor totara whare and learning her whakapapa from her great-aunt and great-uncle, Makereti was sent to Hukarere College in Napier - this at a time when very few Maori and only upper- and middle-class Pakeha reached secondary school. Her fluent English allowed her to become a tourist guide at Whakarewarewa, guiding celebrities including the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901. After their visit, she was something of a celebrity herself, using her public status to speak out on behalf of Maori, and working to support Apirana Ngata and the Young Maori Party.

Makereti garnered a huge amount of press attention in her guiding years - "she was a very clever woman who knew how to use the media," says Diamond - and the book features a rich selection of photos. "She was a beautiful woman - she was photographed by all the great photographers of the time." A follow-up exhibition at the Turnbull Library will showcase the photos and associated material.

Makereti was also an entrepreneur, taking a concert troupe to perform at exhibitions in Australia and England, complete with a carved village they assembled on-site. The group even paddled a waka on the Thames in the Henley regatta, and Makereti renewed her acquaintance with Richard Staples-Browne, a member of the landed gentry whom she had earlier met at Whakarewarewa, and who was to become her second husband in 1912.

"To just look at her as this Maori icon - well, there's so much more to her," says Diamond. "She was as English as she was Maori." He sees her as "a real go-between, an ambassador" who spent much of her life moving between the two cultures, and explaining each to the other.

The Staples-Brownes lived in several grand country houses in Oxfordshire, but the marriage eventually failed. Makereti moved to Oxford, where she studied anthropology at Oxford University, researching traditional Maori culture. "The whole discipline of anthropology was new, and anthropology about yourself was even newer," says Diamond. "What they did in those days was to put on their pith helmets and study some African tribe - to study yourself was really, really new. She really was breaking new ground."

Her thesis about early Maori life - unfinished at the time of her sudden death in 1930 - was published posthumously as The Old-Time Maori. It drew criticism over the reliability of its information, which mixed Makereti's own memories with stories that her great-uncle had told her and material from Cook's journals. Diamond thinks that the book, which was reprinted by New Women's Press in 1986, is most valuable as a record of the Maori culture of Makereti's time.

"We really do owe her a lot for the importance that she put on documenting the culture and communicating it to the world," he says. "At the time, there was very much this sense that it was passing."

Diamond became intrigued with Makereti's story on a visit to the Rotorua Museum, where he read that she had married an Englishman, died in England and was buried there. "You think, wow, that's unusual, for a Maori at that time to be buried in England."

On a journalism scholarship to Oxford University in 2002, he made a radio documentary about Makereti. Some of the taonga from her collection are held in the Pitt Rivers Museum at the university, and Diamond went and looked at the kete and carvings when he felt homesick.

His book begins with the extraordinary image of a carpenter in an Oxfordshire village turning over the slab of wood he'd been using as a workbench to find that its underside was an intricate Maori carving. It was just one of a number of carvings fulfilling prosaic functions in the English countryside after Makereti's death - some of them built into a pigpen, others used as fence posts. Most were returned to New Zealand in the 40s, but the occasional piece was discovered as late as 1999.

Diamond - the son of a Maori father (Ngati Haua/Te Rarawa/Ngapuhi) and a Pakeha mother - agrees with historian Judith Binney that there's more work to be done looking at the lives of early part-Maori "go-betweens". "When you're Maori and European, it is great to be able to move in these two worlds, but sometimes you don't feel like you belong in either. Was that how she felt? How did she negotiate those different spaces that she was able to move into?"

He says that attitudes to mixed Maori-Pakeha heritage are changing. "I think if you'd tried to write this book in the 80s, it would have been different - more about asserting your Maoriness. But in the work I've done as a reporter, I've seen Maori all over the place being much more relaxed about looking at all elements of their whakapapa. And that contemporary phenomenon is having an impact on the way we see our history - it's opening up this part of our history that we didn't understand as well as we might have."

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