Margaret Shirley Mutu is a formidable foe of the government when it comes to Māori issues. Of course, she usually has the advantage over any government representatives because she knows what she’s talking about — and has a keen eye for injustice. And, when the issue is checking whether a government settlement adds up, she’s in a strong position too — she has a BSc in mathematics.

Her grasp of Māori rights and government failings is no surprise in view of her 40 years of study, research, teaching, lecturing and hands-on work with whānau, hapū and iwi. That focus led to her PhD, and to her role for some years now as Professor of Māori Studies at Auckland University. And, just this week, there was another indication of her status when the Royal Society of New Zealand presented her with the Pou Aranui award “for her sustained contribution to indigenous rights and scholarship in New Zealand.”

Here she chats with Dale about her early days and about what guides and drives her.


Kia ora Margaret. Some people describe you as principled and feisty. Not someone who can be manipulated. And it does appear that you’re not at all inclined to march to the beat of someone else’s drum. How has that come about?

I think it’s my background. My father was a returned serviceman, but his side of our family had spent six generations fighting to uphold the truth about our lands and our resources. So, from when I was a small child, I was taught that you had to do what’s right. And you never bow to anyone who says you have to do what they say just because they say so.

My mother, on the other hand, is Scottish. She was deeply affected by the racism and the human rights abuses that she saw my father having to put up with. She taught us, as very small children, not to let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do or have something because you are Māori. She’d say those people are ignorant. “Don’t listen to them.

That’s a very powerful message for a child to carry. And my brother and I carried that all our lives.

Tell us about your dad.

Dad was Tame or Tom Mutu (although our proper name is Motu-Ihaka) and he was brought up in the Northern Wairoa outside of Dargaville. But his parents and grandparents were from Ahipara, Karikari and Peria, in the very far north. They’d come down at the invitation of Te Uri o Hau because there were a group of Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kurī and Ngāi Takoto who had helped out Te Uri o Hau in their battles with Ngāpuhi.

So they had been tuku’d this whenua, land was given to them, around the Northern Wairoa. To this day, in the Northern Wairoa, there are half a dozen marae that are Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kurī and Ngāi Takoto. They’re all around Dargaville. And that was where Dad was brought up.

Life was hard for him. There was a lot of poverty when he was growing up. But he went away to the Second World War. He didn’t hang around and wait for the 28th Māori Battalion. He said they were too slow getting there and he was scared the war would be over by the time the Māori Battalion got going.

So he went off with the 11th Battalion. Most of them were wiped out or captured in Greece and Crete, but my father and a few others survived and joined the 21st Battalion. They were up in Alexandra, in Egypt, where he was wounded. He lost his leg and was invalided out to a London hospital.

It was when he was there in London that he realised that we didn’t have to carry on with the sort of life we’d been living back home where so many of our whānau had died of tuberculosis or the flu — and there was such poverty. He could see that there were alternative ways.

When he came back, he went home to Naumai, up in the Northern Wairoa. But he didn’t stay long, and he came down to Auckland looking for a better life. Looking for the quality of life he’d seen in London. In that time, a lot of his whānau moved to Auckland. So my whānau is one of the original urban Māori whānau. It’s funny how we’ve all trekked back home rather than staying with the urban Māori organisations.

Many of my father’s whānau were down here in Auckland so I spent a lot of time, as a child, with my aunties, uncles and nannies. And I only ever knew about kia aroha te tangata ki te tangata. We were loved to bits as children. We were spoilt by our nannies. If anyone told us off, another one would pick us up and cuddle us. And that was the world I knew.

Somewhere before that, your dad would’ve met your mum. And that must’ve led to some cuddles too.

Well, my mother was a nurse at Greenlane Hospital. She’d come out after the Second World War. And she was on duty when my father and a mate, who were in hospital, decided that hospital life was too boring. So they scarpered off down to Newmarket, to the RSA — and came back a little worse for wear.

My mother, being the on-duty sister, couldn’t leave until those two got back. And then she tore strips off them when they eventually returned. My father thought this was great — and that she was great. And he ended up marrying her.

But, when they got together, she was stunned at the level of racism that my father put up with. Like not being allowed to speak his own language within the hearing of non-speakers of Māori. So she insisted that he should not give in on that. She also insisted that he teach the reo to my brother and me. She was very, very clear that, if you didn’t have your reo, you’d lose your culture and your identity.

She was always strong on that. But she was also very strong on her English culture as well. So I was brought up in both worlds, valuing both the English language and the Māori language. English history, English culture. Māori history, Māori culture. They were both highly valued in our household. That was my upbringing.

Earlier you mentioned that your mum was Scottish.

Yes. Her name was Penelope Brough-Robertson and she was a descendant from a clan that names themselves after Robert the Bruce. They actually looked after Robert the Bruce when he needed shelter while he was fighting the English. So, of course, my mother had very strong views about the English and the way they treated the Scots.

My brother was John. He was younger than me and we were very close. I was the bookworm and he was the one who loved to play. He kept playing and, when we got older, he didn’t do as well at school as I did. Then he ended up in a motorbike gang — and we lost him at 19. He and I were very close, right up until he died.

He was marvellous. In those days the gangs were absolutely ostracised and they tried to legislate them out of being. I was at university, and university students were always acceptable. Bikies weren’t. But my brother and I used to have these great parties with the university students and bikies. And we’d have great times in the weekends when we used to go all over the place.

Let’s turn now to the influence that having a shared heritage has had on many of us. We carry the genes of both the colonisers and the oppressed. How have you come to terms with that?

My mother was one of these people who could see the gross injustices that had been visited on my father’s people. And, if anyone gave me a strong determination not to put up with the racism and the rubbish that gets dished out to our Māori people, it was my mother.

As a Scot, she knew of the centuries of ill-treatment of her people by the English. And she could see that what the English had done to the Scots was not dissimilar to what they’d done to Māori. Although, of course, with Māori, there was the racism on top of it as well.

As far as she was concerned, though, justice was justice — and everybody should have access to it. And she could see that my father’s people had no access to justice. My father was a person who hated causing any ruffle. He always respected people.

I was 10 when he died, and I remember a lovely card coming from one of his commanders in the army saying he was a prince amongst men, because he treated everybody with the greatest of respect. And that’s how he taught us to behave. “Even if they’re horrible to you, treat them with respect.”

My mother used to get angry when people openly discriminated against my father — and she’d do so because he wouldn’t raise his voice to them. My mother couldn’t stand to see it. I knew my mother’s world very well. And I knew the way that they thought — and that they were good at building myths, making out that they were somehow superior, and that, somehow, the country belonged to them.

My father had no time for their dishonesty and lack of integrity. He’d just say: “They have never, ever, come and fought us in open battle and won fairly and squarely. They’ve always done it surreptitiously and underhandedly and that means it will never be sustainable.” He always held that view. My mother was the battler. My father wanted peace, and he wanted everybody to love everybody. So, I have both of those in me.

You have all that northern Māori and Scottish whakapapa. But you grew up in Auckland.

Mt Roskill as a matter of fact — although we spent some time in Mt Eden. It took Dad a long while to get a house, even though he was a returned serviceman. Just think about that. My father, a returned serviceman, couldn’t get a house. That was because he was Māori. In the end it was my Scottish mother who got a house for us.

That was in Mt Roskill, in the state housing area. So I went to Waikowhai Primary School and then on to Mt Roskill Intermediate. I lasted there only one year because, when my father died, the headmaster thought it was best for me to go to boarding school. So I was off to Rangiātea Methodist Māori Girls hostel in New Plymouth and to New Plymouth Girls’ High.

Next it was varsity for you. And I notice it was mathematics that you were studying. But I imagine there were other student activities that caught your attention?

I arrived there in 1970. And it was great. Every Thursday, 1pm, in the quad, we’d have these incredible debates about anything and everything. Tim Shadbolt was there then. And Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. And we were really privileged to have these great discussions. Everyone had their say. And yes, we’d go on our protest marches. Against the Vietnam war, for instance. And later, even more heated, when the issue was Springbok tours.

That was a result of our university community being very aware of injustices being perpetrated. And yet, in all of that, the Māori side of it was sort of kept to one side. That was a difficulty I often struggled with because I was in a science faculty. There were no other Māori there. There were a few in the arts faculty but I rarely got to see them.

Although you did your degree in mathematics, you soon got into tribal mahi. I wonder what prompted that.

Well, it was my own whānau. My father, even when I was a child, would say there were huge injustices to do with our land. Never gave me the details. He just said, there’s a lot of land that should be ours that isn’t ours — and one day you must sort that out. My mother was of the same mind.

I’d just finished my degree, in my early 20s, when one of my cousins came to me and said: “Cuzzie, we need you back home.” I said: “What for?” And he said: “Nah, just come to the hui.” So I went to the hui and there’s all of my aunties, some of them I hadn’t seen for a long time. And there was a very huge concern because the Mangōnui County Council was about to try and steal our land at Karikari. And we had to stop it.

The whānau thought I could do it. I said: “I’m not quite sure what I can do with a degree in mathematics?” They said: “It doesn’t matter. You understand Pākehā. You’ve got a mother who is Pākehā. You’ve got a Pākehā degree. So you should know how to beat these Pākehā.”

They’re great, you know, the whānau. But it was a steep learning curve. Very steep. Because I had to learn the whole lot. So I did. And we did manage to stop the council from stealing our land at Karikari, for rates, for unpaid rates. Then, once I started working on that, all the rest of my kaumātua and kuia pulled me in to do more work.

It wasn’t only there. It was in the Northern Wairoa as well. They kept pulling me in. It was about dealing with Pākehā. My father was the only one who married a Pākehā in our whānau. So I was the one who got pulled in by the whānau. And they’ve never let me go.

I’ve been an admirer of your stance — and, for instance, of your unwillingness to hurry the settlement of Ngāti Kahu’s claims.  But I guess that’s made you a hero to some and a villain to others.

I had a very solid training in this stuff from my own whānau, from my own hapū. Particularly from my father’s brother, Te Wirihana Mutu, from Māori Marsden, Mira Szaszy (who was one of my lecturers at training college), from McCully Matiu (my father’s cousin) and several of our kuia and kaumātua at home.

When my whānau first pulled me in, they put me through rigorous training. And they taught me how to listen to the people. Because often, our young ones (especially the university-trained) think they know everything. And they want to jump straight in. The fact, though, is that, a lot of the time, they know nothing.

I started that training in my 20s and I’m still learning 40 years later. I was told that you’ve got to listen to the people and to what they instruct you to do. So that’s what I’ve always done. There have often been individuals who have run counter to what the hapū and the iwi are saying. But what my kaumātua taught me was to know who the people are and to listen carefully. To watch what the people are doing. And the people will tell you what to do.

We have at times had a vociferous minority, who will make trouble. These days they’ll run to the media. But they are just a minority. I’ve said to them: “Please, don’t fight your fights out there in the media. That is, effectively, the Pākehā world. Come back to the hui. That’s where the decisions are made.”

I remember one time back in the early ’90s when we had a very vociferous lot who wanted the mandate to represent Ngāti Kahu. And they kept on about it. They just kept talking and talking. In the end, my uncle broke protocol, broke tikanga, and said we would vote. We never vote in Ngāti Kahu. Everything is done by consensus.

But, he said, on this occasion, we should vote. And everybody agreed. Yes, they said, we could break the impasse this time by voting. Came to the next hui, the vote was held and it was 71 to 4. For me it showed that the minority really hadn’t let the others talk. But when the others, the majority, did get their say, the vote was overwhelming.

Ever since then, we — particularly those of us who were around that time — watch closely to see where the people are coming from. We especially keep an eye on those who work for government departments. We often find that those people come back and try to hog the floor, hog the hui. But we need to listen to those who have been there all the time, who genuinely represent their whānau and their hapū.

And you let the talk go on. Then, when all the talk is done, the resolution is put. Resolutions in Ngāti Kahu are done by consensus. So, if a resolution isn’t accepted unanimously, it lies on the floor and is brought up at the next hui. The media may perceive that there are people from home who attack me. But, if you come back home and see what happens there, you’ll learn that those people rarely come to hui.

And, when they do, they are a tiny but vociferous minority who learn that they can’t impose their views, or the government’s views, on the people. So they use the media to try to have a go at me. All that does is produce a very swift reaction from the hapū and marae who remind them of the decisions Ngāti Kahu has made.

Some of your critics have been saying that you’ve cost Ngāti Kahu millions — or that you’ve put them at the back of the claims queue, perhaps for decades. How do you answer that?

The decision of the hapū of Ngāti Kahu was really clear. The settlement that we were being pressured to accept meant that 10 of our 14 hapū would’ve got almost nothing. And they were clear that we could not accept it. So those hapū are the ones who made that decision. Not me. It was their decision.

And the hapū who were being offered more substantial amounts of land back also said no. They preferred to stay with their own whanaunga who were being done over. And they said we’ll fight this through the courts because we can still go for binding recommendations. So it’s not as if we’ve just pushed the government offer to one side. Not at all.

What the hapū decided was that we’d give the government every chance to do what was right. And, if that required us to go through the courts and use the courts to get the government to do what was right — then that’s what we’d do. That was the decision of those hapū.

Now, in terms of money, yes, there were various ones who wanted money. But, when they realised it was a choice between money and land, then it became no choice. That’s because the reality was that, although we were being offered $21.4m if we settled, we’d have to use all of that $21.4m to buy our land back. There’d be no money left to develop the land or for anything else — and no compensation.

So the Ngāti Kahu decision was very thoroughly considered. It wasn’t political. Or emotional. It was based on fact. Initially, there were a few of our people who were looking at the money. But, when they realised they would, in effect, get no money, they didn’t want the settlement. Those few individuals still jumping up about the money haven’t been at the hui to hear the financial analysis reports.


© E-Tangata, 2015

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