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Ranginui Walker, 1932-2016

He helped us understand the impact of New Zealand colonialism. He explained the nature of ongoing injustice. And he argued for a very different future.

Ranginui Walker in 2009: described as a “beacon of hope in a rapidly darkening land”. Photo/David White
Ranginui Walker in 2009: described as a “beacon of hope in a rapidly darkening land”. Photo/David White

My first meeting with Ranginui Walker was daunting. Hilda Phillips, a regular contributor to the Listener, had yet again argued that Walker was wrong because there were no “full-blooded Maori” left. I wrote a counter article dismissing such nonsense.

A few days later, I answered a knock on my office door at the University of Auckland to find the great man himself. He proceeded to let me know – in a very direct and uncompromising manner – why Pakeha should confront the racists in their midst. He had a point.

It was the mid-1970s. He was teaching a wide variety of courses – everything from how to run a meeting for Maori organisations through to a quick guide to Tikanga Maori for academics – at the Centre for Continuing Education. He was also beginning to make quite a name, firstly on the pages of the Listener and then as a media commentator and advocate for social justice.

He quickly gained a reputation as providing a very compelling critique of colonialism and its effects on Maori – and what was needed to rectify the situation. But it was not always like that.

Ranginui Joseph Isaac Walker was born near Opotiki in 1932. In many ways, his early life was typical of Maori in that period. Born in a rural community, he was influenced by traditional Maori values and his parents’ Catholicism. As he was to later note, he was to start out as a conservative.

Ranginui Walker and Deirdre Dodson in 1952, a year before they married. Photo/Walker family collection
Ranginui Walker and Deirdre Dodson in 1952, a year before they married. Photo/Walker family collection

He joined the postwar migration of Maori to urban New Zealand and trained as a teacher in Auckland. His last contri­bution that appears in this Listener tells of one of his first postings as a teacher. He had by now lost his ability to speak Maori and he felt awkward in the Maori environment that he discovered in a North Auckland community.

Once back in Auckland, this began to change as he continued his graduate studies. He began his BA in 1955 and completed it in 1962. His marks were very ordinary and he admitted that a “C” was okay by him. He went on to complete an MA (1965) and PhD (1970). The PhD on “Maori in a Metropolis” opened his eyes to the challenges faced by post-migration Maori. And he was to be influenced by radical authors such as Freire, Illich and Gramsci.

This growing anger at the marginalisation of Maori was confirmed when he began to get involved in Maori organisations. As soon as he finished his PhD, his uncle, Matt Te Hau, told him that he was to serve Maori by becoming the secretary for the Auckland District Maori Council. In contrast to many other Maori district councils, Auckland was to adopt a very critical approach to government policies.

The 1950s and 1960s had been a busy period – three degrees and a teaching qualification, marriage to Deirdre and the arrival of three children – Michael, Stuart and Wendy – and working full-time first as a teacher and then as a lecturer at the University of Auckland. But his politics had changed by 1970.

As both a member of the Maori council and using the resources of the Centre for Continuing Education, he helped organise the Young Maori Leaders Conference in Auckland in 1970. The ­Stormtroopers were invited to speak and their tales of police harassment helped galvanise attendees, including Syd and Hana Jackson. Late on the first day, a meeting was organised to discuss forming a group to raise public awareness. Walker was present and he suggested the name of Nga Tamatoa.

The 1953 wedding of Walker and Dodson. Photo/Walker family collection
The 1953 wedding of Walker and Dodson. Photo/Walker family collection


Nga Tamatoa confirmed that a Maori cultural and political renaissance was under way and Walker was at the epicentre. His contribution took on a new dimension once he began to write for the Listener.

Graham Butterworth began writing a column titled Korero in 1970 and Syd Jackson took on the task for seven months in 1972. But Jackson was not disciplined enough to meet deadlines. Walker took over in March 1973 and was to continue to write a regular column until 1990. He did not hold back.

He described New Zealand of the period as a “homogeneous repressive society ruled by a white male patriarchy”. An enduring theme was colonialism and the marginalisation of Maori. As he noted: “The historic process of colonisation involved colonial invasion by missionaries, exploitation of resources by privateers, conquistadores and traders, and political domination by colonial administrators.”

Even now, his uncompromising and critical tone is abundantly apparent. He went on to repeatedly come back to a number of themes: the significance – and abrogation – of the Treaty of Waitangi, the failings of the media when it came to providing a Maori perspective, the actions of the state (especially the police) in dealing with Maori and the need to resolve historic grievances relating to land and culture.

The young couple in 1951. Photo/Walker family collection
The young couple in 1951. Photo/Walker family collection

He did not always get it right. When the Auckland Star ran a front-page headline “Kill a White” that related to an incident at the University of Auckland marae in 1988, Walker opined that marae protocol had been breached. Two of those involved, Hana Te Hemara Jackson and Atareta Poananga met him to express their disappointment. He apologised for discussing the matter in the media before talking to those involved.

David Beatson, then Listener editor, commented at the time that Walker brought a “splinter-sharp perspective” to the issues that he wrote about, that he “offended and informed” and that he was a “beacon of hope in a rapidly darkening land”.

Looking back at these columns, they provide a commentary on the key events of the time, from the local – the dispute over the Raglan golf course – through to the Land March, the Springbok rugby tour and the hikoi to Waitangi. The columns were an influential source of information on Maori-Pakeha or Maori-state relations for many. And he was not shy about voicing his concerns and criticism of Maori organisations or leaders.

The Listener columns required a discipline from Walker that he was more than capable of meeting. His work ethic was impressive. But he also showed an ability to communicate complex issues or events in an easily digestible form. This was confirmed by his increasing radio and television appearances. And then came his books, seven in total.

His book on Apirana Ngata adds to our understanding of an early 20th-century leader. It is a large, wandering book (it was even larger before editing). The book on Whakatohea provides insight – from his perspective – on iwi politics and his role in them. But the one that stands out is Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou. This was published in 1990 and did a lot to confirm Walker’s reputation as a commentator on Maori experiences and ambitions. For me, it remains the most significant book on these events and issues.

And he continued to write for the Listener. In October 2003, he penned one of his most powerful columns as an “An Open Letter to Helen, Bill, Richard, Peter, Jeanette and Jim”. It followed his concern over the foreshore and seabed debate and begins: “I have been here a thousand years. You arrived only yesterday.” And ends “You ask who am I? I am Te Whakatohea ki Opotiki”. It is an incredible piece of writing worth a revisit.

Walker during military training. Photo/Walker family collection
Walker during military training. Photo/Walker family collection


Walker filled several roles throughout his life. He was an educator and writer, an activist and a member of a range of organisations from the Waitangi Tribunal to NZQA, a critic and participant in his iwi, and a proud New Zealander who wanted his country to be a better place for all.

His family provided him with a lot of joy, even if the many demands on him meant he was away from them at times. Deirdre was an important factor in all that he did. They were a powerful combination – she was often at his side and provided a sounding board and a key influence. At times, she was more radical than he was.

Walker described himself as one of the “second wave of graduates” – the first being Ngata, Peter Buck and Maui Pomare early in the 20th century, the second involved Patu Hohepa, Sid Mead and later Pita Sharples. I would add Mason Durie. He was part of a generation that provided leadership and a public voice on behalf of Maori.

In Mata Toa, I wrote: “… Walker can claim a degree of success in dislodging at least some of the values and attitudes of a colonial New Zealand. He has helped revise what we understand to have happened through a process of European colonialism. He has explained the nature of ongoing injustice. And he has argued for a very different future.”

In Walker’s life, 1970 proved to be a turning point: the completion of the PhD, the beginning of his involvement in the Auckland District Maori Council and the formation of Nga Tamatoa. It was also a turning point for New Zealand, and much was to change during the hectic and turbulent years of the 1970s and 1980s. Walker was at the very centre of these changes and he was an articulate and assertive contributor. New Zealand is a much poorer place for his passing.

Haere, haere, haere.

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley is Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Massey University. Spoonley is author of Mata Toa, The Life and Times of Ranginui Walker.

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