Many student clubs and societies have come and gone over the years, and some have survived through many generations of students. One which has had quite an impact on the lives of its members, and also on the wider university community, is the Otago University Maori Club. The club began in 1960, with law student Te Pakaka Tawhai as the first president; medical student Mason Durie was secretary. Durie, who went on to a very significant career in Maori health and became Professor of Maori Research and Development at Massey University, comments that they founded the club “although there were relatively few Maori students, or perhaps because there were so few” (Maori Medical Practioners Association, Te Paruhi a nga Takuta, 2013, p.99). There were perhaps thirty Maori studying at Otago at the time, and even fewer in the early 1970s.
Not all Maori students participated, but for those who did the Maori Club became an important network. From the beginning, kapa haka was one of its strengths – medical student Bruce Gregory was one of the first haka leaders. Club members performed at various functions, including the capping show. But the social element was just as important to the club as its cultural activities. “We had good parties,” recalls Prof John Broughton, who arrived at Otago as a dental student in 1974. Mere Montgomery (nee Meanata), who was very active in the club in the mid-1970s, recalls that the social side – and especially the food – attracted many students. By that time the Maori Club was one of the largest on campus, with about 80 members. Only 15 or so of those were actually Maori; it welcomed any student who had an interest in learning about things Maori, from haka and waiata to the gathering of kai moana for hangi. Maori, Pakeha, Pasifika and even a turbaned international student were all part of the community. Friendships made through the Maori Club survived after university and some members met their life partners there, with a spate of weddings in the 1970s.
The Maori Club was also a place for developing links with Maori beyond the university. Members of the local Maori community provided considerable support and hospitality to students. For instance, the Otepoti branch of the Maori Women’s Welfare League put on regular dinners for students, while Edna Parata cared for the club’s performing gear. Strong links were built with Otakou Marae and later the urban marae, Araiteuru, which some club members helped to build. Local Maori leaders such as Magda Wallscott, Edna Wesley, the Ellisons and the Pickerings welcomed Maori students from the north and helped them retain their sense of Maoritanga while far from home. The Maori Club also built links with students beyond Otago through the national Maori University Students Association. Members travelled to – and occasionally hosted – national hui where they met future Maori leaders from all over the country, and also gained inspiration from Maori graduates of the past.
Beyond the social and the cultural, the Maori Club also had its political side – it provided a voice for Maori on campus. Promoting the Maori language was an important activity for the club, which became involved in the campaign for an undergraduate Maori course at Otago. Club members also played an important part in Te Ra Nui o te Reo Maori – Maori Language Day – from its beginnings in 1973. On the first day, in 1973, they arranged for two speakers from Maori activist group Nga Tamatoa and also Koro Dewes, Maori language lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, to visit Otago. The following year marked the beginning of an annual Maori Club hui at Otakou marae on Te Ra Nui o te Reo Maori. Some club members were dedicated political activists, like Mere Meanata, who had been involved in the Polynesian Panthers in Auckland and established a Dunedin branch when she came to Otago in 1973. The Panthers ran a homework centre for children from low income families (of all ethnic backgrounds), organised legal advice and visited prisoners. A few other Maori Club members joined her in the Panthers’ social justice activities.
Politics could be divisive at times. For example, not all club members supported the staff member who wanted all University of Otago staff and students to abandon work for a day to hold a hui about the Bastion Point protests – for some, getting on with their academic work was more of a priority. By the 1990s, the Maori Club had split into two groups, one with a focus on kapa haka and the other with more political goals (of course, some people belonged to both groups). Today, the stated aim of Te Roopu Maori is “the advancement of Maori through the halls of academia in every area of science, health, commerce, technology and social science.”
I am grateful to John Broughton and Mere Montgomery for sharing their memories of Maori Club in the 1970s, and to Mere for the wonderful photographs. Do you have any other memories to share of the Otago University Maori Club?