Joan MetgeThe racism in Pukekohe more than 70 years ago made a deep and disturbing impression on Joan Metge when her family lived there for three years while her school teacher dad was first assistant at Pukekohe Primary during World War Two. That experience set her on a path to learn (and then teach) what she could about the Māori communities which were so close and yet so foreign to Pākehā. Her work has helped many New Zealanders become more attuned to, and embrace, the different ways we live our lives. It has led as well to widespread respect and affection for her – and to a range of awards and honours. Here Dame Joan tells Dale Husband about her background and about the path she has travelled.


I have always proudly carried the name of Pākehā because my Māori friends use it to identify those people, mostly of British descent, who have put down their roots in this country.

My parents, often, would use the term “Home” – and you heard the capital H when they talked of England. I used to challenge them about that. Silently at first and, later, quite openly. To me, this country, Aotearoa New  Zealand is home. I belong here and my identity is a marriage between my Scottish, Irish and English ancestry and my personal friendships with tangata whenua, with Māori. I claim that I belong here as much as they do, even if I can’t claim the same length of whakapapa connection.

Can you tell us a bit about your parents and their background?

My father was Cedric Leslie Metge. Centuries ago the Metge name was French. An ancestor fled France at the time of religious persecutions and went to Ireland where there was already a group of Huguenot refugees. And my grandfather came to New Zealand from a town called Navan, north-west of Dublin.

My mother was Alice Mary Rigg. Her mother came from Stroud in Gloucestershire. Her father must have been an upwardly mobile tradesman because he was adamant that none of his womenfolk were going to go out to work. She didn’t agree with that. She had a mind of her own. She wanted to be a nurse so, the day she was 21, she left home, went to London, did her nursing training there – and met my grandfather who came from Cumbria, near the Scottish border.

My parents met through teaching. My father was teaching at an Auckland school when my mother, who was several years younger, arrived as a trainee teacher “on section”.

In those days, you didn’t marry promptly. They were engaged for three years and didn’t marry until my father was appointed as the headmaster at Tauraroa School just south of Whangarei.

Seeing that both of my parents were teachers, my sister (Dorothy) and I grew up in a home focussed on learning. But higher education was almost an impossible dream in those days. So, when I finally got to university, I spent the first week there walking at least a foot off the ground.

Now I look at my grand nieces and nephews who take their right to go to university entirely for granted – and I think “you don’t know how lucky you are”.

I understand you spent your early years living in Pukekohe.

Actually, I spent my first 10 years in Auckland. These were the Depression years, so life was pretty constrained. My father’s salary took one cut, if not two, in that time. And, on the horizon, there were war clouds which finally broke just about the time we moved to Pukekohe.

When we finally got a house there, it was outside the town limits. Across the road it was all market gardens. And that was my first . . . well, I won’t say “encounter” with Māori, because it wasn’t really an encounter. But I saw those Māori workers in the gardens at a time when there were no trade unions for migrant workers.

They were seen as rather feckless drifters. And there were no by-laws to govern the obligations of owners to provide proper housing and so on.

So I had an early and shocking encounter with the way we can treat our fellow human beings. Most of the workers on the gardens were Māori. And it was sort of received wisdom among the Pākehā that they all came from elsewhere. But, years and years later, I found out that many of them were, in fact, the descendants of the previous owners of that territory.

It was in Pukekohe that I saw a very real social and economic divide between Māori and Pākehā. But, at the same time, I had the opportunity to make personal friendships.

My best friend at school was Eileen Yate who came from the gardens. Her mother was Māori, and her father, Willie Yate, was Chinese.

We had a Māori curate at the Anglican Church in Pukekohe and every time I have to define aroha I think of him. Aperahama Kena. He was the most outgoing, generous and loving man. And we also had occasional visits from Mutu Kapa from Te Aupouri in the Far North. He was the pastor for the Māori community in Tuakau. Whenever I think of the word mana, I think of him. He had an innate dignity, secure in his own identity. He treated everyone with great courtesy.

I think those Pukekohe years, in all sorts of ways, were crucial because they showed me that there was another world apart from the monocultural Pākehā world in which I’d grown up to that point.

We left Pukekohe and went to Matamata at the beginning of secondary school for me. And that was also very interesting because there were a number of small Māori communities in the surrounding country which, in many ways, were isolated from the rest of the population. So I didn’t really have any Māori friends in Matamata. But it did start me off with an interest in the history of the Waikato, especially the Land Wars and the outstanding leaders like Wiremu Tamihana and Rewi Maniapoto.

Sadly, a lot of Pākehā have grown up in circumstances where they haven’t made Māori friends, where they haven’t been to their houses, or visited marae. But the contact has become more commonplace, hasn’t it? And bi-cultural relationships may not sit quite so comfortably in many other parts of the world.

We like to boast about having the best race relations in the world. And it’s true that we have come a long way in my lifetime. But, during my growing up in Pukekohe, things were very far from perfect.

The middle-class Pākehā living in Pukekohe were good-hearted in many ways, but they were involved with their own lives and with fighting the war. The problem, now as then, is that when we know only one culture and one language we live in that world, like fish live in water, taking it for granted that this is the way that things are, and this is the way things ought to be – and we have a shocking history of imposing that very ethno-centric and, ultimately, very arrogant view on other people.

My life has been a process of finding out to what extent we have done that to Māori. I can remember reading Dick Scott’s book The Parihaka Story (the first version of Ask That Mountain) and I was utterly shocked at what had happened in my own country which I had believed till then had always adhered to the rule of law and to justice.

As I said, we have come an unimaginably long way from where we were when I was young, but it’s important that we acknowledge what has happened in the past.

Part of the reward of making Māori friends is finding out there are two sides to our history. There’s the bad side but also the good side, the friendships, the partnerships, the long-standing relationships – and, of course, the marriages that have arisen as a consequence.

As you look back now on the life you’ve led and on the research you’ve done, how do you feel about having taken the opportunities to see and understand some of the dynamics of a Māori world that few of your contemporaries have shared?

Well, at Pukekohe I had the feeling that there was a whole world, a Māori world, of which I only had glimpses. And not only did I want to know something about that, but I realised that other Pakeha like me, needed to know much more, because we were ignorant. That was the motivation that took me to university.

I went there to study anthropology. But, although it was on the books, anthropology wasn’t actually being taught. So I ended up doing degrees in geography. I saw that as laying the groundwork for personal encounters which would open up the Māori world, and for finding out what was going on in the present.

At that time there was a lot of talk about Māori urban migration, and almost everybody – Māori elders and politicians anyway – talked about it in negative terms, using words like “drift” as if the migrants didn’t have good reasons for migrating.

There was an awful lot of people making generalisations and I wanted to get to the heart of it. But nobody was talking to Māori, to the people involved, to those actually moving to the city.

So my first research was done in Auckland, in the central city streets lined with apartment houses and in a rural community up north. And I didn’t look beyond that immediate task. I just saw it as something that needed to be done. And I found that it was confronting and difficult, but very rewarding.

I couldn’t have managed it without scholarships. Then I went overseas to London and wrote it all up as a PhD thesis, under the eye of Raymond Firth, a New Zealander who had come from a South Auckland farm (called Otara) where Otara was later established.

I could have stayed in England and been an academic, but I’ve never seen myself as an academic. I’ve always seen the pursuit of knowledge as a means to an end. And, when I came back, I was unemployed for several years. I survived with the help of a Carnegie scholarship to do some social science research, and then got a job in Adult Education, a branch of the university concerned with outreach to the general community.

And there I was privileged to work with Matiu Te Hau, Maharaia Winiata and, later on, Koro Dewes.

I was teaching courses on Māori society and culture – not as an expert on those subjects but as a sort of conduit where I could pass on what I’d learned to other Pākehā.

No doubt there was some Māori opposition to the role you were playing?

Yes. There were Māori who felt that Pākehā should keep their noses out of Māori research. But my argument has been that I (and other Pākehā) know what we need to tell other Pākehā because we know what they don’t know.

The opposition and challenges I faced from a few Māori were more than outweighed by the co-operation and aroha of the many. The more I have listened and learned, the more I have come to understand the anger and to appreciate the patience and graciousness of the majority.


© E-Tangata, 2015

Dame Alice Joan Metge
Born Feb 21, 1930

MA, University of Auckland, 1952
Ph D,  London School of Economics, 1958
Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1987
Te Rangi Hiroa Medal for social science research, 1997
Asia Pacific Mediation Forum Peace Prize, 2006

Her books include: 
A New Maori Migration 1964
Talking Past Each Other 1978
In and Out of Touch 1986 
Korero Tahi: Talking Together 2001
Tuamaka: The Challenge of Difference in Aotearoa New Zealand 2010
Tauira: Maori Methods of Learning and Teaching 2015

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