Professor Linda Tuhiwai Te Rina Smith now operates from Waikato University, but her influence extends well beyond New Zealand. She has seen and examined how, in the ongoing process of colonisation, Māori and other indigenous people have been suffering from mainstream education systems that undermine their confidence, their pride and their identity. For many years, she has been in the business of challenging and changing that. Here she chats with Dale Husband about her background and about the need for a better deal for Māori in education.
One of the many interesting things about you is your middle name, Tuhiwai. What’s the story behind that?
The name Tuhiwai was given to me when I was an adult. It was a name exchange between my family and the Anderson whānau of Te Kuiti. My father is from Te Teko and is a cousin of Graham Anderson.
After the death of my grandmother Paranihia Moko, Graham Anderson’s whānau came and asked my father if they could name their new mokopuna after her. My father said: “See that young woman over there? She’s always wanted a Māori name. You need to give her a name.” So they gave me the name of their grandmother, Tuhiwai.
Tuhiwai is a relation of mine, so I also whakapapa to her. Now that I work in the Waikato, I’ve discovered a whole lot of descendants of Tuhiwai in Kāwhia.
My maiden name was Mead because my father is Hirini Moko Mead of Ngāti Awa. And the maiden name of June, my mother, was Walker. She’s Ngāti Porou from Ruatōria.
Receiving the name Tuhiwai felt good because it wasn’t just a random choice. There was a relationship, a connection. I had agreed to it. And it reconnects my ties to that side of our whakapapa.
Let’s go back to your growing up? Where was that? Te Teko? Ruatōria?
No. I was born in Whakatāne, but my parents were teachers, so we moved around quite a bit. My father taught in Rūātoki, and we spent many years in Waimarama in the Hawke’s Bay. Next it was Whatawhata near Hamilton, and then Auckland.
I used to envy all my cousins because they went to just one primary school, and only one secondary school.
For secondary school, I chose Waikato Diocesan for a couple of years. But then I went to the US when my father was doing his PhD. First, I went to high school in Illinois and then college for a wee while in Salem, Massachusetts. When I came back to Aotearoa, I did a bursary year at Auckland Girls’ Grammar.
My parents didn’t seem, in my view, to actively manage my education. I felt I had a lot of autonomy and freedom to choose my pathway. I remember complaining that they never came to report nights — and my mother would say: “Why? We know what you’re doing. We know what you’re good at. Why would we come to listen to those teachers?”
I wonder if that American experience helped you to learn to stand on your own two feet – helped build your confidence.
I did learn to be independent and to have a good measure of myself. You may not believe this but, before I left New Zealand, I was intensely shy, reserved and quiet. I wouldn’t put up my hand to ask a question. I was very respectful. I lacked confidence.
Initially, when I went from Waikato Diocesan to a co-ed school in the US, I used to stand up when a teacher entered the room. Then a teacher pulled me aside and said: “You don’t ever need to do that. You’re a learner, and you’ve got to stick up for yourself in this environment.”
That experience changed my trajectory, I think. So when I came back into a school setting in New Zealand, I just couldn’t believe how passive New Zealand students, especially Māori students, were.
I came back to what was the seventh form and they were fussing about things that weren’t of any interest to me. So I asked if I could form a politics club. I got hauled before the principal – and I was asked why I didn’t just be like everyone else and join in the other clubs.
So it’s no surprise that, when I went on to Auckland University, I joined Ngā Tamatoa. In fact, I was one of the founding members. Being out in the world and having my horizons widened — and also learning that I had a mind which I could exercise — well, that was very empowering for me.
Can you tell us something about the US high school that you attended?
It was Carbondale Community High School in southern Illinois. At that time, we were really poor. So my mother made my graduation dress out of cheap curtain material — and I couldn’t afford to go to the school ball or engage in a number of the social activities that American kids did.
I hung out with the poor white kids from the trailer park down the road from where we lived. And I had a couple of other mates from working class families. Then, the day I graduated, many of the boys got their draft notices to go to Vietnam. They were recruited into the army. The rich boys went on to university and joined the National Guard and that sort of thing, so they were able to defer any service in Vietnam.
For me, it was a really interesting experience — and it gave me an understanding of, and a feel for, American education. One of the things I came to appreciate was the loyalty in the US to the military.
You could go into a lot of poor communities — American Indian and African American — and they’d always have American flags there. And that loyalty reminds me of the Māori situation here where a lot of our men have found jobs in the military and have put their lives on the line for a country that can also be quite racist to Māori.
Now, those Ngā Tamatoa days when you were a university student. How was all that?
Among my contemporaries were Taura Eruera — and Syd and Hana Jackson who had big public profiles. Then there was Larry Parr and Pauline Kingi too, Josie Keelan in Wellington, Orewa Barrett Ohia in Te Awamutu. We also had people like Pat Hohepa and Rangi Walker who would support some of our activities.
It was an interesting group. But there were difficult times and occasionally we were spat on by Māori people who thought we were being outrageous. We’d be told that we were being disrespectful, that it wasn’t our place to be protesting, and that we were disturbing the peace.
But I think there’s a tendency to romanticise that era of early activism in the 1970s. People may think Ngā Tamatoa had a cast of thousands, but actually it was a very small organisation. People came in and out. But it was still able to voice particular concerns and to articulate them in a way that caught attention — and it was able to mobilise Māori.
At that time, there were other things going on. The gay and lesbian movement. Feminist movement. Anti-war movement. Anti-racist movement. But in Ngā Tamatoa, we were staunch because we thought this was a Māori movement and we needed to keep that grounded in who we were, our identity, our whenua, our history and our rights. So one of our messages was about the Treaty of Waitangi and another was about te reo.
I suppose that this period of Māori revitalisation gave an impetus to the academic journey that you’re still on, with a focus on indigenous concepts, and on what First Nations people can offer the global community.
Yes. Absolutely. I think it gave me a drive that made me engage in academic studies with a purpose. I wasn’t just rolling along to university thinking: “Oh well, I’ll end up being a teacher of history.” I was looking for particular kinds of knowledge.
When I couldn’t find it in the university, I’d read more radical texts. Malcolm X for example. Or Frantz Fanon. They helped radicalise my mind. But, more than that, it gave me a purpose and showed me why education is important.
One of my roles in Ngā Tamatoa was to go and talk to hostile audiences, mostly in secondary schools, but also in the communities, about why the Treaty was important. And, really, that’s where I cut my teeth as a communicator. I had to stand up and learn how to give a message. Not get all emotionally tied up in it. Try not to cry when they said mean things about Māori people and racist things about us.
I had to learn not only how you can give a message, and provide information that’s factually correct, but also how you tell the Māori story in a way that people get what we were about. We didn’t think we were radical. We just thought we were asserting what was our right and what had been promised to us.
So to get a backlash, which is still happening in New Zealand, wasn’t surprising, but it was so venomous, so hostile and so aggressive.
Ngā Tamatoa was actually a pacifist group. We did protests. We did lots of speeches. We did petitions. We would show up at events and put up placards. But we didn’t believe in violence. We believed in communicating. And yet people could be very violent to us.
We often did things where the men had to stand in front of us because people were so hostile. And it wasn’t just Pākehā people. There were lots of Māori who were hostile as well.
Those Ngā Tamatoa days, it seems, must have strengthened your belief that education is the way forward for Māori.
Yes. I see education as THE platform for the future for us. Education, to me, sets individuals free. It gives individuals choices. And, because I believe that, I see education as an important fight. And we have to make sure that it works for us because, for one hundred and something years, schools haven’t worked for us. Nor have the universities.
I see my current role as changing the way our institutions work with Māori. Transforming those institutions. Transforming the curriculum. Ensuring that, when Māori come to university, they don’t have to leave their Māori identity at the door. Or they don’t have to put a hard shell around that identity to protect it — so they can engage successfully as a Māori.
The role of education institutions is to harness that identity, give it a bit of discipline, but develop it rather than crush it. When they crush our spirits, as they still do for many of our young people, that’s what keeps me engaged in the struggle to transform these places.
As an academic, you’ve been doing research, lecturing here and overseas — and you’ve been writing too about the impact of colonisation on us and other indigenous people. I understand that you feel it’s essential for Māori to know our own story.
I think it’s really important that we should all know the barriers, the struggles, the achievements and triumphs of our tīpuna in coping with colonisation. It’s really important to know why we’re in the predicament we’re in and to know that there’s a back story which is full of history that we were not taught in schools. Full of particular histories of our people as iwi, hapū and as whānau.
I think a significant part of decolonisation is knowing our story and rediscovering ourselves. Not just saying we are a proud people because we can do kapa haka and perform, but knowing fundamentally that we are a proud and accomplished people who navigated the Pacific, who designed technologies, who created great systems and who valued knowledge. And that’s where we come from.
Those are the platforms that take us forward. And our people need to know that. Not in an arrogant way. But knowing it deeply so that we can say: “This is what gives me a place here. This means I can achieve.”
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.