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Maori Studies staff in 1991. Standing (from left): Mark Laws, Maureen Bruce, Godfrey Pohatu, Meredith ?, Michael Reilly, Mereana Smith. Seated: Lorraine Johnson, Toroa Pohatu. They are photographed at the Mataatua wharenui at Otago Museum, often used for Maori Studies events prior to its return to Ngati Awa in Whakatane in 1996. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4185/016, S14-561a.

Maori Studies staff in 1991. Standing (from left): Mark Laws, Maureen Bruce, Godfrey Pohatu, Meredith ?, Michael Reilly, Mereana Smith. Seated: Lorraine Johnson, Toroa Pohatu. They are photographed at the Mataatua wharenui at Otago Museum, often used for Maori Studies events prior to its return to Ngati Awa in Whakatane in 1996. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4185/016, S14-561a.

Maori Studies was slow to get started at Otago, but once underway it grew rapidly and became a key part of the university. This month – 27 March to be precise – marks 25 years since Maori Studies officially became a full university department and in May it will celebrate this anniversary in style.

As I described in a previous post, the Department of University Extension began community classes in te reo Maori in 1957. These classes proved popular and expanded over the years; a considerable number of those involved were students, who did not have any options for including te reo Maori in an Otago degree. It was demand from students that finally got the university talking about offering Maori as an undergraduate course.

In 1971 the Faculty of Arts set up a committee “to examine the case for establishing courses in Maori”. After consulting widely, the committee recommended in 1972 that Otago should establish a Maori programme: after all, studying the language was “both an opportunity and a responsibility for all New Zealand universities” and there was “a genuine and wide interest” in such a course from students. The faculty approved in principle, but promptly shelved further action until 1975, when the next government five-yearly funding block grant began.

The committee believed it was important that “the first member of staff appointed in Maori be of very high academic quality and that the appointment be made at the level of senior lecturer at least.” The focus on academic qualifications had unfortunate consequences. In June 1975 the academic staffing committee decided that neither of the two applicants for the position was suitable. Conscious that Maori language teachers with higher academic qualifications were rare and in hot demand as Maori courses expanded all over the country, the staffing committee took an alternative approach. Ray Harlow, who had a PhD and had already lectured in the Department of Classics, was an able linguist who currently taught in Germany and planned to study Polynesian languages and literature at the University of Munich. Otago offered him a post-doctoral fellowship to study for a year in Germany, followed by a year at the University of Auckland, studying Maori with Prof Bruce Biggs. After his two years of study was complete, they expected to offer him a position lecturing in Maori.

Unsurprisingly, the news that Otago’s first Maori lecturer was to be a Pakeha who had, as yet, a limited knowledge of te reo, caused a public outcry, with letters appearing in the press around the country.The delay of another two years was also a frustration for those campaigning for a Maori course. The university Maori Club – one of the original advocates for an undergraduate course – was particularly critical of the delay and of the appointment of a person without standing within the Maori community, but it was not alone. Over a thousand people signed a petition protesting that the course would no longer commence in 1976. The university also received a delegation of the Maori Graduates Association, consisting of a high-powered group of Maori academics, professionals and students.

In a concession to Maori concerns the university brought forward its original intention to appoint a second lecturer; this time it hoped to attract “a suitably qualified native-speaker of Maori” and the Maori Graduates Association agreed to encourage applications. However, finding somebody proved difficult. In 1979 the Dean of Arts reported that the position had been offered to three people over the past four years but all had declined; Otago still had no undergraduate course in Maori.

Harlow returned to Otago in 1977 and taught linguistics. In 1980 the Faculty of Arts decided it could delay no longer. Having failed to find another suitable lecturer, it introduced a half-unit in Maori language for beginners in 1981, taught by Harlow. This was “an interim measure pending the introduction of a full unit in Maori when a native-speaking lecturer can be appointed.” It’s important to note that nobody had any personal objection to Harlow. When he left for a position as lecturer in Maori Studies at Waikato at the end of 1989 the Maori Centre newsletter noted he had been “an ardent supporter of nga mea Maori generally on campus and at the multitribal Arai-te-Uru Marae.” He was also an able linguist, recognised in his appointment to Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori, the Maori Language Commission.

So, the Maori programme finally got underway in 1981, with the class limited to 32 students for the first four years. A new phase of development began with the arrival of Godfrey Pohatu as lecturer in 1986. After ten years of trying the university had finally found its first Maori lecturer of Maori. Pohatu was an experienced teacher who was part-way through a Master of Education degree at Canterbury; he went on to complete a PhD at Otago in 1998. He was also very active in Maori cultural groups and became a well-known composer of waiata. After all the years of delay there were big expectations of Pohatu; he was fortunate to have great support from his wife, Toroa, who was also an experienced teacher and cultural performer, fluent in te reo Maori.

Toroa Pohatu joined her husband as a lecturer in the Maori programme in 1988. The additional staffing was much needed, for the number of students grew rapidly; there were 212 first-years to be taught that year. A cultural paper – introducing basic cultural concepts, mythology, arts and crafts – was added to the language paper in 1987, meaning students could now complete a full stage one unit in Maori. The same year saw the birth of Te Kapa Haka o Te Whare Wananga o Otakou, a Maori cultural group tutored by the Pohatus which had considerable success at Maori performing arts festivals. The Maoritanga paper quickly proved popular with a wide range of students seeking a basic understanding of the Maori world, and it remains one of Otago’s largest papers. Stage 2 papers started in 1989 and in 1990, with the arrival of Stage 3 papers, it became possible to major in Maori Studies.

At Auckland, Massey, Victoria and Canterbury universities, Maori studies commenced within anthropology departments. At Otago, though anthropology was a department where Maori students felt particularly welcomed, the subject of Maori studies had a different path. Rather than being attached to a particular department, Maori started out as a ‘section’ within the arts faculty, directly responsible to the dean of arts and with an advisory committee of the faculty. This allowed it to develop independently and rapidly, but not entirely unsupported. In 1990 – the year when Stage 3 papers were first offered and Otago’s first Maori studies majors completed their degrees – it gained formal recognition as an independent university department.

After these long and tricky beginnings, 1990 was clearly a major milestone for Maori Studies at Otago – something worth celebrating in 2015! The department – which evolved into Te Tumu, the School of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies – has had various ups and downs since 1990, but enters its second quarter-century in a flourishing state with many great achievements behind it. Do you have any memories to share of the early years of Maori Studies at Otago?

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