Tahu KukutaiAs a young woman, Tahu Kukutai switched from the media to the academic world where, as a demographer, she monitors the ebbs and flows of the people of Aotearoa. And she tells Dale Husband how she’s heartened by what she now sees in te ao Māori.


My dad Karu left Turangawaewae when he was a young man and ended up in Wellington, working in the post office. And that’s where he met my mum who was Aussie-born but whose father had migrated to Australia from Scotland.

She’d decided to go for a wander and ended up in Wellington where she was befriended by some Māori women who took her along to Ngati Poneke. I believe she was working at the post office where she spotted my father and left him a little note. So things went from there. They got married and had three kids – Arama, me and Hinu Te Aroha, all of us born in Wellington.

My dad’s mother, Ani Mapau Totorewa was Ngati Maniapoto – from the Ngati Kinokahu hapu at Te Kumi marae, near Te Kuiti. She was living at Turangawaewae which is where she’d met my koro.

When my brother, Arama, was born, she took the train down from Ngaruawahia to Wellington to pick him up. My dad told my mum that she’d have to “navigate” her way through that cultural context. Which she did. She decided that she didn’t want to give up her first-born, so she said “No”. My nan wanted to come to down to get me when I was born but my dad said better not.

So we all stayed in Wellington – and it wasn’t until I was nearly nine that we went up to live in Ngaruawahia. So that’s where I spent my childhood. That’s where I grew up.

Although my nanny is Maniapoto, she was born and raised at Parihaka. Both of her parents’ whanau had moved to Parihaka around the mid to late 1870s to support nga poropiti, Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai.

After the invasion of Parihaka, and the dispersal, a lot of people were sent back to the King Country. But some of our whanau stayed at Parihaka, and have remained there ever since at our whanau homestead, Te Riu o Waikato. So, because of that connection, we consider ourselves nga uri o Parihaka although we don’t have Taranaki whakapapa.

On my koro’s side we descend from the chief Kukutai who was the rangatira of Ngati Tipaa at Te Kohanga, near Port Waikato. He had seven or eight wives. My koro grew up at Te Kohanga. But then his mum and dad moved to Ngaruawahia. Te Puea took a whole bunch of people with her from Te Puaha to help establish Turangawaewae marae. And that’s where Dad was born. Right there in Te Puea’s whare, in Ngaruawahia, at the farm.

But we still have our whanau land back at Te Kohanga, just above Te Kotahitanga marae. It’s where I want to live again someday.

Chief Kukutai must have been a handsome dude to have had eight wives.

I’m sure he thought so.

How did your Scottish-Aussie mum cope with such a Māori whanau?

She was always very comfortable in te ao Māori. But it was a big cultural shift going from Wellington to Ngaruawahia. There was only one other Māori whanau at our school in Wellington. But, at Ngaruawahia Primary, more than half the kids were Māori.

What can you tell us about that McPhee family?

Well, my mum’s dad Henry McPhee was one of about seven kids so we have this big McPhee whanau over there in Australia. My grandmother’s family was of English descent. Grandad and nanny came over to Parihaka and to Turangawaewae. Grandad Henry enjoyed that because he knew the history of the “clearances” in the Scottish highlands – and he, like other Scots, had a strong sense of Scottish culture and identity. And of nationalism. And pride.

Ngaruawahia is a very Māori place. So I wonder what impact that had on you.

The town is very Māori in one way. But, as in some towns, you’ve got a Māori side and a Pakeha side of town. We lived on both at various times. As a kid, you can sense those differences. So, even though Turangawaewae was normal and natural for me, I was also attuned to some of the racial dynamics that prevailed in Ngaruawahia. I think Māori were seen by some Pakeha as second-class citizens. And, when you’re a kid, you know that.

Right now there’s some acknowledgement, even celebration, of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Tainui Treaty settlement and the apology for the raupatu, the confiscations. How does that sit with you?

Well, there’s been a massive shift since that signing. The relationship between Pakeha and Waikato Tainui has changed. One part of that has been political, but another has been economic.

I’m a firm believer that, once you become a major economic stakeholder and player, and once you start exercising some economic leadership, people have to listen. We’ve had more than 150 years of trying to get justice and reclaim autonomy. So it’s satisfying to see that changes are being made within our lifetime – and that my daughter’s generation will be in a much stronger position as the years go by. We know we’re in it for the long haul.

Did you grow up with a sense of resentment towards those who had benefitted from the confiscations?

No. Not at all. Because we didn’t talk about raupatu in our household. We didn’t grow up with stories of raupatu. I didn’t gain an understanding of that until much later in life. My nanny was all about mahia te mahi. And the things that mattered to our koro were Pai Marire and the Kingitanga. He just wanted us to have access to what he held dearly.

So he’d come and pick us up in his clapped out car – and he was the worst driver in Ngarauawahia, ask anyone. He’d pick up me, my brother Arama, my cousin Trina (who now runs Radio Tainui) and my cousin Hemi (who’s a surveyor with the local council), bundle us up in the car, and take us over to the marae, where there were a few houses but which is now all papakainga housing.

We’d play bullrush and run around the bamboo forest and then he’d ring the church bell and we’d go in there and do our Pai Marire. That was his way of connecting us to the place. It wasn’t stories of injustice. That was for us to find out later.

He did a good job, didn’t he? But then you moved on to high school. Where was that?

I went to Hamilton Girls’ High – which was a great school but I eventually got really bored. So I left in the 7th form and then did a tv course at the polytech in Tauranga. That was run by Chas Toogood. Then I was about to start on a TVNZ internship, when I got a letter telling me they’d ditched the scheme. So I had to come up with a Plan B – which is where my mum was handy because she’s not one to sit around waiting for things to happen. She found there was a Māori journalism course at Waiariki Polytech in Rotorua. Nek minnit, there I was, a journalism student in a course run by Rawiri Wright. Rawiri and Chas both taught me a lot.

I imagine that’s proved to be quite beneficial in your subsequent mahi.

Yes, it has been. But I’m pretty sure that I was a hopeless journalist. I didn’t like asking people what I felt to be intrusive questions. Also, I was never really satisfied writing only a couple of paragraphs. I always wanted to ask more and write more.

My first job was with the Auckland Star, an afternoon paper, which croaked a couple of years after I was there. That was an unsettling work-place at times because there was racism in the newsroom. Not overt. But it was there, mainly through the Pakeha editorial staff just being ignorant. So they wrote or rewrote stories that fitted with the narrow frame of what they saw as Māori news. When you’re a young Māori journalist you don’t have the critical tools, or the confidence, to be able to counter that, especially when you’re marginalised.

But I worked with some really great people and still have good friends from those days. And I left having learned a lot. But it wasn’t going to be a life-long career for me.

Later, though, I remember you worked for a while at Mana Māori Media – and interviewed some high profile personalities. Like Alex Haley, the American author who wrote Roots. And also Donald Woods, the South African anti-apartheid campaigner who’d befriended Steve Biko.

Yes. That’s true. I look back now and wonder what they must’ve have thought of this young, inexperienced reporter asking all sorts of questions on these heavy subjects. But they really were very gracious.

And then there was a Ph D at Stanford University in California. How did that come about?

Actually, I’d shot off to England and was having a great old time – and I was on the verge of a three-month African safari. But I came home to help my dad look after my koro who was sick. And that led on to me enrolling at Waikato University to do a history degree. One of the papers was on population studies which I enjoyed – and Professor Ian Pool, who’s really the father of demography in New Zealand, persuaded me to do my Masters degree in demography.

The next step was a PhD and I was really lucky to be accepted by Stanford (along with offers from four other American universities) – so that’s where I spent the next five years.

When you were studying history, what were you focussing on?

It was mainly mediaeval history. At one stage I knew an awful lot about monastic orders. Later on, I got into New Zealand history, which I really loved – and ended up being a tutor in New Zealand history.

Now I’m fortunate to be able to blend both history and demography in my job. I do a lot of contemporary demography … research on what the Māori population looks like now and in the future, as well as work with iwi. But I also get to do historical demography. At the moment I’m working on a big comparative project funded by the Swedish Research Council looking at the impact of colonisation on indigenous health.

I imagine there aren’t many Māori in the business of demography.

The Population Studies Centre, which Ian Pool was directing for decades, trained a lot of Māori students. He was pretty good at that. He had a passion for Māori demography. But, once those students got to Masters level, they’d be snapped up by the public sector. There aren’t many who’ve gone through to the PhD stage. So I’m probably the only academic-based Māori demographer now.

I’m trying to change that by having students of my own and by giving them opportunities to research, write and publish – and not just turn up to class. So hopefully the situation will change in the next few years.

Where’s home for you and your bloke these days?

That’s Hamilton, near my work at Waikato University. My husband, who’s from the Te Paa whanau in Ahipara, is a detective there too, although he was a fine arts student at Elam and is still an artist at heart.

It seems that Waikato Tainui are in pretty good hands these days. Do you have a sense of optimism about the future of Māori?

Yes I do. I spend a lot of time going back through historical demographic records of Māori. In 1896, we got down to 42,000 people. Yet estimates just this week have us at over 700,000 in Aotearoa with another 160,000 or so overseas. How could you not be optimistic?

There are challenges, but also a helluva lot of opportunities and potential. When I look at my nieces and my nephews and at my girl and my cousins, I see the opportunities that we’ve had and that my nanny and koro never had, despite their struggles. How could you not be grateful?

That’s not to say that there aren’t stark inequalities. So we can’t be complacent. But we can reflect on our hard-won successes. And those of us in privileged positions have an obligation to do what we can.


© E-Tangata, 2015

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