There are battlers for the Māori language in many corners of the country — but maybe none more persistent or productive than Cathy Moana Dewes.

Since 1985, when she set up Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata, a few miles out of Rotorua, Cathy has been, among other things, the principal of a school that has produced generations of speakers and achievers.

She has seen her work as not just about the survival of the language but “the survival of the Māori people, culture, values and customs transmitted through the language.”

For her, it’s been a battle to “reclaim the language of the Māori soul”.

 Her talents and energy were recognised early on when she was head girl at Wellington Girls’ College, and the winner there of an award for all round excellence. There have been other honours since then, including an honorary doctorate from Waikato University and being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Māori.

Here she is with Dale, looking back on the path she’s been travelling.


Kia ora, Cathy. You’ve been making a big impact in Māori education for many years now, but I suppose it’s not at all surprising that teaching is the path you’ve taken given that both your parents, Koro and Kura, were teachers — your dad from Ngāti Porou and your mum from Te Arawa.

Yes, I’m the product of a marriage between Koro Te Kapunga Matemoana Dewes, who’s Ngāti Porou, and Parekura Thelma Raureti, from Te Arawa. On my Ngāti Porou side, I  have strong relationships with the Korohina and Rangihuna whānau from Te Araroa.

My Ngāti Porou ancestors were involved in all kinds of struggle, for land and for mana wāhine rights. The struggle for land then became a struggle for language and culture, which my dad picked up — and that has greatly influenced the direction I’ve chosen for my life.

Koro and Kura Dewes, from their Ardmore Teachers’ College days.

Mum is a descendant of Raureti Mokonuiarangi, who was a leader for Ngāti Rangitihi, especially in health, mana, mātauranga Māori and land rights in Te Arawa. He was a Māori Land Court interpreter, highly literate in both Māori and English. His wife, Te Aoerere, was from Mokoia Island.

It was Te Aoerere’s people who decreed that the children of Mokoia must attend school five days a week, so they dismantled and rebuilt a house on the mainland in order that the children were indeed able to do that.

I have very strong family associations with both these whakapapa on my Ngāti Porou and Te Arawa sides. And, through these links, I’ve learned my rights and my responsibilities for my people.

I also have a Pākehā side. My mother’s mother is of Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English descent. And, of course, my Dewes ancestor is of English descent. That Pākehā mix, I think, has contributed to my understanding of what I see as basic human rights and values.

People, no matter what their descent or ethnic origin, have a right to live their lives with respect, with dignity, and to be true to the culture to which they belong. I’ve chosen the Māori culture, as opposed to my Pākehā heritage, to be the dominant, identifying factor in my life. And the English and European mix in my bloodlines has assisted in affirming and confirming that commitment to my Māori language and culture.

And you’re right, teaching is in my blood, it’s strongly imprinted in my genes. Dad taught at Ruatoki, Tikitiki, St Stephen’s, Auckland University, and Victoria. Mum taught at various primary schools during her career, including Tikitiki, Bombay, Mt Roskill, Karori Normal, and Rerekohu.

The Dewes family in 1972. From left: Cathy with Te Kapunga, Kura, Koro, and brothers Whai and Campbell.

You’re a wonderful advocate for our reo. How did that come about?

As a pre-schooler, I was exposed to te reo in the community. The Māori language was everywhere in Rangitukia and Tikitiki, where my parents were teaching. It wasn’t in my home between Mum and Dad, but it was everywhere else. Often there were family and friends in our home and Dad would be speaking Māori with them.

He coached rugby and there was lots of interaction with Māori people. So I got to hear the reo and acquire some of the language, even though it wasn’t consciously taught or spoken at home.

In my early years, I spent some time in Matatā as well, where there was no reo Māori in my immediate environment. Then we moved to Bombay. Dad was a teacher at Tipene (St Stephen’s) and Mum taught at Bombay Primary, where I went to school.

That was a total Pākehā model of education. I didn’t even consider that Bombay might’ve had a Māori name before they named it Bombay. It never occurred to me that there was a Māori history and that Māori people might’ve been part of that landscape sometime in the past. So I got to experience first-hand the results of colonial imposition of the white man’s standards.

Our home environment at St Stephen’s did include some Māori interaction with other teachers. Like Ra and Tangi Ihaka, Scotty and Betty McPherson, George and Pare Marsden. But it wasn’t a major factor for me during the three years we lived there.

It wasn’t until Dad landed a job at Victoria University that I began to embrace te reo Māori. There, I’d hear him talking and joking with his mates, having down-time together. And there were formal occasions, too, like with the graduates’ association. That’s when I came to hear the issues that were, and still are, facing Māori. At that time, the big issue was establishing a chair of Māori language at Victoria University.

Koro, Cathy, Whai in the back. Te Kapunga, Kura, and Campbell in the front row.

By then, you must’ve been at high school.

Yes, I was. And, as a seventh former at Wellington Girls’ College, I had plenty of free study time. I was doing lots of languages — French, German, Italian and Latin as well as English. And I was doing Indonesian after school just out of interest.

But Māori wasn’t being taught. So I went to the principal and asked her if I could study Māori through the Correspondence School. I said I’d use my free time to do that. However, she said “no”.

And that had me feeling a mixture of frustration, perhaps rage, and indignation that this old Pākehā woman would have so much power over me.

When I went to Victoria University, I became very active politically in the struggle that Dad had already started. That was to make a space for Māori language within the university environment. And I began learning Māori with Dad as my lecturer.

Then I and my fellow students decided that, as part of the struggle to make a space for te reo Māori within the university, and in this world, we needed to become fluent speakers of Māori. And the only way we’d be able to do that was to speak Māori to one another.

We set up a sort of club and called ourselves Te Reo Māori Society. One aspect of our constitution was to politicise te reo Māori, and the other was to get together every week and practise speaking Māori to improve our conversational Māori.

At the same time, we were learning formally in classes conducted by Dad. I’m really grateful for the intelligence my father applied to his teaching methodology. He impressed upon me the importance of learning by listening. That’s largely, he said, how we acquire the language, given that 80 percent of what we learn is acquired. It’s caught rather than taught.

He also exposed us to some great exponents of te reo Māori and some great minds from within the Māori world. Great thinkers like Māori Marsden, Arnold Reedy, Te Ouenuku Rene, Eruera and Amiria Stirling, and Pine Taiapa. He pulled them in so we could hear both the language and the knowledge from these experts, these carriers of the treasures of the people. And we got to sit at their feet and hear their talk.

Have you been back to Vic since you graduated?

As a matter of fact, last year I was asked to go back to Victoria University on Māori Language Day and tell the students about my reo journey. I told them that one of my favourite songs during that time was Nina Simone’s To be Young, Gifted and Black.

The words of that song are just so true. And the one line I really, really like, and talk about a lot within the Aho Matua schooling model, is this: “When you’re young, gifted and black, your soul’s intact”.

That puts the focus on spiritual development, cultivating our Māori language and identity, creating a space for soul to be alive and well in our society.

One thing I’ve noted and admire about you, Cathy, is that you stand your ground — whether that’s as a schoolgirl at Wellington College, or with Te Reo Society, fronting up to parliament, or speaking on the marae. Were you something of a radical in your youth?

Yes. And I still am. Recently, I’ve been cleaning up files and what-not, and found papers eaten by silverfish and mildewed because they got wet. And I’ve found letters, which I’d totally forgotten about, between me and Hana Te Hemara, leading up to the presentation, in 1972, of the Māori Language petition, where she was telling me what she was doing in Auckland and suggesting what we might do in Wellington.

I actually didn’t attend the presentation on the steps of Parliament Buildings because I had a six-week-old baby and I didn’t want to take him out in the cold because I didn’t know how long it was going to take. So he and I and my younger brother Campbell stayed at the Ngāti Poneke hall and prepared lunch for the group when they finished the presentation.

After that, of course, there were the submissions to prepare for Māori Language Day, Māori Language Week, and broadcasting. I’ve got copies of correspondence between Te Huinga Rangatahi, Te Reo Māori Society, the Māori Affairs Department, and so on.

Hekia Parata was our Huinga Rangatahi chair and she led us, in a special delegation, to Kara Puketapu, who was the Secretary for Māori Affairs. And we said: “Look. We found a clause in the Māori Affairs Act which gives you authority to actively promote te reo Māori. Here it is.” And we showed him the clause.

It wasn’t long after that, that kōhanga reo was born. I’m not saying that we were the ones who showed him the way. There were probably lots of people telling him the same thing. But we were there, stirring it up, stimulating the conversation, and saying: “Yes, we have a right to our language. And here’s how we want you to do it.”

Then you were part of the action that led to reo Māori getting its foot, or its toe anyway, into television.

Yes, I vividly recall meetings with various people where we were working out a strategy to get five minutes of daily news in Māori on prime-time viewing. This eventually became Te Karere. I remember meeting with an expert from the BBC who advised us that, if we were going to focus on Māori within broadcasting, we needed to train the Māori who were going to do it.

So we advocated and won a training programme for producers and directors. Robert Pouwhare, Lee Tamahori, and Brian McDonald were part of the first intake who went on to become producers and directors.

But there were untold submissions. Honestly, Dale, too many submissions. I had submissions coming out of my eyeballs. Hundreds of thousands of words written to persuade the powers that be, the decision-makers, that we have a right to our language within our society.

So I’ve been in the struggle for 50 years. It started when I was 17. Someone said to me: “You should write your biography.” But I don’t want to do that. I don’t have the time. Why should I tell my story? What we need to do is concentrate on winning the war.

Well, there is a story to be told. A chain of significant events — the civil rights movement, the struggle for Māori identity, the Land March, the challenge for broadcasting, setting up the kōhanga reo and kura. And they’ve needed champions such as your dad. Koro was a champion and you’ve followed in his footsteps. So you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about attention being on you. Or about people wanting you to write a book.

Well, anyway, when the suggestion came that I should write my story, I thought: “Nah”. Then, if I was going to write something about myself, I began wondering what I’d call it.

And the title that came to mind was “What the F***?

But I’m not sure the written word would convey the spirit of that question. It’s just that it’s 50 years on in the battle for the reo, and we’re pretty much still in the same hole. And WTF captures the depth of my frustration.

Cathy (centre, back), her children, brothers, and other whānau, on the steps of Parliament Buildings. Youngest son Morehu is holding a photo of his father Rawiri, eldest daughter Pirihita is holding a photo of Koro Dewes, and cousin Thomas Rangihuna is holding the now famous “Hana’s petition to Parliament” photo with Te Ouenuku Rene leading the way.

We’re making progress, though, aren’t we, Cathy? It’s true that there’s a long way to go, but there’ve been significant changes during your working life. Now let’s talk about Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata. Just past the Rotorua Airport. A school that you set up and have led and guided for over 30 years. I’m sure you’ve had great satisfaction from that. It’s been a wonderful achievement.

Yes, it has been satisfying. In my Ruamata community, we now have four generations of Māori speakers who started with nothing. With no reo. And that success is something we can hold up for the world to see. But we should recognise that a key player in the success has been the Ataarangi teaching method. The Ataarangi movement is greatly undervalued but it can create communities of Māori speakers.

We need to keep supporting and resourcing Ataarangi because it’s a tool that can help all of us. You and I can go to university and learn Māori there. And that’s fine for us. But the majority of our population don’t go to university. We don’t like school.

Whereas Ataarangi can take the language to all our people, including the academics, lawyers, corporate staff, and the teachers. It can teach the language to anyone, including Pākehā. It’s an essential tool in learning the language. And it’s greatly undervalued.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of our Māori kids are at kura kaupapa. Even so, the kura are very important, especially for their leadership role. But I imagine there are challenges for these schools.

You may not be aware, Dale, but a couple of years ago when National was in power and had Hekia Parata was the Minister of Education, she turned off the funding for our national organisation, Te Rūnanga Nui. That’s because, as a movement, we were refusing to send in assessment data. At that time, many of my Aho Matua whānau wanted all-out war and I had to use all my persuasive power to pull us back. To hold our ranks!

We’ve been saying since 1989 — when Tuki Nepe, Pita Sharples, Graham Smith, Rahera Shortland, Tony Waho, Katerina Mataira, and I debated and wrote the working party report on Kura Kaupapa Māori — that we need our own curriculum and assessment practices and processes. We know that to be the truth. We want by Māori for Māori. We are a tino rangatiratanga model of education. We have a Treaty and a basic human right to our unique schooling type.

So we stood our ground and have been trying to persuade the government that they need to resource us. We have our own experts, and we can debate, research, and design our own assessment processes and everything else that a Māori education which derives from mātauranga Māori would entail.

But it’s been a struggle for years. Hopefully, this new government is going to support our case and acknowledge that our Te Aho Matua curriculum should be recognised as a bona fide curriculum of Aotearoa.

We had considered suing the previous minister, but we dropped that idea and instead we pitched our sights on the 2017 election and the Labour Party promise to dump national standards. We were very happy when they won the election. And now we’re awaiting a significant change which ought to accommodate our very unique approach to assessment.

Let’s turn now to another issue where you’ve been active and forthright. That’s the role of wāhine in politics, including tribal politics. I assume that it’s inevitable that there’ll be more and more change and that the day is coming when there’ll be a thumbs-up all around for women to be speaking on the marae?

Yes. There will be a thumbs-up one day. But what it requires is for the women to say: “No More. We’re not taking this from you guys any more. I have a right to speak on my marae.”

The men tell us women here in Te Arawa that they’re concerned for our health and wellbeing and our exposure to mākutu, if we stand on the marae. But we need to assure the women that we’ve got ways to protect ourselves if there’s a real threat that the men are going to point the bone at us.

When that threat was made to me, when I was standing for the Arawa trust board, I was very quickly on the phone to my dad to ask what I should do. He gave me an appropriate karakia. I also rang Katerina Mataira and she gave me a daily ritual to protect myself and my family.

Having an ure shouldn’t be a factor in entitling people to stand on the marae. And we know that, in Ngāti Porou, in Kahungunu, and in the north, women are able to speak on the marae. But women need to come forward and do that. And then Te Arawa and Tūhoe and others will see the examples and follow suit. But it may be that it won’t be until my daughters’ generation that we make the change.

Cathy and Rawiri Rangitauira with their six children. Front row, from left: Tenga, Pirihita, Parekura. Back: Te Kapunga, Kanapu, Morehu.

Meanwhile, what personal goals do you have, Cathy? What have you set for yourself in the years ahead?

When Rawiri, my husband, died four years ago, I thought: “Oh. I can go now, too. I’ve done enough. I’ve completed my work. I’ve children who all speak Māori — and are marrying people who’re either speaking or learning Māori. I have 13 of my 14 grandchildren who are all in the kaupapa, either in kōhanga or kura Aho Matua.  And I’m positive the kura kaupapa movement is going to continue to grow.”

So I was ready to go. But then I was persuaded that I needed to think about my children and grandchildren before I moved across to the other side. So I thought I’d give them another 21 years, and then I’ll go. My challenge now is just to continue to support the growth of kura Aho Matua and keep promoting the value of Ataarangi. That’s how we’ll get the quantity and the quality of Māori speakers who are Māori in every way.

And by the way, Dale, my fourteenth moko is taking Māori as an NCEA Level 1 subject this year. That’s what Hana Te Hemara’s petition was all about. Offering Māori as an optional subject in all high schools where Māori were a significant proportion of the school roll.

We have what we call Poutiria Te Reo Mauriora, which is a vision of kōhanga, kura, wharekura and wānanga — all part of one community, with one governing body.

That’s a major project that we’re now working on. Our goal is that all Māori children should have access to their language and be able to live as Māori within Aotearoa. We have a right to be Māori in Aotearoa. That’s the ultimate goal. And, of course, there are short-term goals and political processes in order to achieve that.

We have a right to be Māori in our own land.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


© E-Tangata, 2018

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