Professor Meihana Durie, head of Te Pūtahi-a-Toi at Massey University.

Meihana Durie is from a family of achievers, but he’s not doing too badly himself — even in his sideline interests like filmmaking where he teamed up with his brother, Pere, and delivered an award-winning short film on Joe Warbrick who was on the 1888 New Zealand Natives rugby tour of Britain and Australia.

But Meihana’s prime achievements have been in education at Te Wānanga o Raukawa and at Massey University where he did his PhD and where he now heads Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, the School of Māori Knowledge.


Kia ora, Meihana. You carry some proud names. But I wonder if you might explain their background.

My full name is Meihana Kākatārau Durie. The name Meihana comes through our Rangitane side, from our tupuna, Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotū. He searched for peace in times of conflict but also sought to protect and return Rangitāne land to our people.

The name Kākatārau comes through our mum’s side, the Kohere whānau. The original Kākatārau was a committed defender of Ngāti Porou land and people.

And the Durie surname comes from a Scottish ancestor, Robert Durie, who migrated here from Scotland in the 1800s and married into our Ngāti Kauwhata and Ngāti Raukawa Te Au ki Te Tonga sides.

What about your siblings?

There are four of us children and I’m the third youngest. I have two older sisters, Awerangi and Hinemoana, who was born in Canada while our father was studying psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. I arrived after our whānau came home from Canada. Then there’s our pōtiki, Pere, the youngest in the whānau. And, of course, many tamariki and mokopuna.

Because your dad, Mason, and your Uncle Eddie are high profile men, many New Zealanders are aware of their roles in education and the law. But few of us know much about your mum.

Our mum, Arohia, was born and raised on the East Cape on Rangiata Station. Our grandfather Kākatārau was the kaitiaki of our land at East Cape and a farmer and horseman. And our grandmother, our taua, Lorraine, was a schoolteacher. She made her way all the way out to Rangiata Station from Te Waipounamu to teach at East Cape School. Taua comes from the Sinclair and Pohio whānau on our Ngāi Tahu side.

We maintain close connections to our Ngāti Porou side despite the fact we’ve grown up in the Rangitane and Ngāti Kauwhata area. Our Uncle Rei still runs the family farm out there on the tip of the East Cape at Horoera.

Mum’s brothers were all musicians, surfers, poets, and travellers, among other pastimes. When I turned five, my Uncle Ira gave me my first record. It was Band on the Run by Paul McCartney and Wings and I learned every song off by heart. That was the beginning of my lifelong interest in music.

We were fortunate that our grandfathers on both sides were kaitiaki of whānau land — working on and with it to sustain and preserve it for the future.

Meihana with his younger brother Pere.

Often our views and values are shaped by the kōrero we hear as kids around the kitchen table. And I imagine that may well have been true for you four as youngsters.

We were raised in Aorangi, a small community just outside of Feilding. And we grew up there on our marae Aorangi, because the place we call home is attached to the marae. Some of my earliest childhood memories are mucking around at the marae. Running around with our older cousins and other relations.

The marae was a big part, and remains a big part, of our lives. It brought us into lots of different hui. As children, you’re preoccupied with other things, but you can’t help but take in what’s happening around you. And, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, there always seemed to be lots of important things happening at the marae.

We also spent a lot of time with our relations in Raukawa, down in Ōtaki. And some of those hui, which we didn’t really realise at the time, were actually about advancing the big kaupapa of the time. Like the formation of Te Wānanga o Raukawa. And the establishment of Whakatupuranga Rua Mano, the tribal experiment that Uncle Whata Winiata and others initiated.

We went to a small primary school called Taonui. And all of the families from our school would go to the marae for different events, so being at the marae was normal for families across our community. That was a distinctive part of growing up in a rural area. The marae brought the wider community together.

Rugby was also a massive part of our whānau and community. We all played for Feilding Old Boys and our Uncle Ra was the coach of the Senior A’s.

Where did the reo sit in your clan?

Our reo journey has been interesting. Our koro on both sides were raised in the reo of their parents and grandparents. As we grew up, if our parents didn’t want us to understand what they were talking about, they’d switch to te reo Māori.

English was the main language at home. But we were always around te reo, and our koro, Matawha, often spoke to us in te reo. That had a huge influence on all of us.

And there was an influence from our mum’s side as well. Te reo o Ngāti Porou has always been important. So we were often around it. But, as we moved through the schooling system, I think all of us recognised that there was a gap in the provision of te reo.

My wife, Ilane, and I have raised our children in te reo and it was a conscious decision we made when our second daughter, Kirihautu, was born in London. Being so far away from home reaffirmed the importance of te reo to us. So, when we came home, they went to kōhanga reo and kura at Mana Tamariki.

The times that we had at places like our marae and at hui rangatahi through Whakatupuranga Rua Mano were incredibly valuable. And many of our kaumātua were the catalysts for our generation to champion the place of te reo in our work and community.

As Mason’s eldest son, perhaps you felt extra pressure to go down an academic path and follow in his footsteps.

I think all of us have been inspired, not just by the work of our father, but also by the work of our mother who became Professor of Māori Education at Massey. She was an advocate of Māori-centred education and kura kaupapa Māori teacher training. Mum also worked closely with some talented lecturers, Kahu and Mary-Jane Stirling, Peti Nohotima, and Henare Green, to name but a few.

We’ve always appreciated our parents’ work. But I don’t think there’s ever been any pressure on us to follow any particular pathway. We’ve always just done what we’ve wanted to do. And growing up alongside cousins, aunties and uncles, we got to see that anything was possible. Possibly, that’s been something quite distinctive in our upbringing.

Personally, I’ve never felt any compelling pressure to follow any particular footsteps. In fact, we were encouraged to pursue our interests and our curiosities. So that’s what we’ve tended to do. And we were lucky to have whānau, teachers, and friends who encouraged and fostered creativity. That’s been important to our whānau as well.

Then you were off to Te Aute College?

Yes. Just like my father, both great-grandfathers, and cousins and uncles. And that was a pivotal experience for me. Hugely influential, partly through learning about what other old boys had achieved but also being a part of this big, connected network of young Māori.

My own experience of schooling, however, was also one of frustration at times because of the curriculum. For example, having to take certain subjects at school didn’t make any sense to me — and sometimes not being able to study things of real interest. I was frustrated by that.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Te Aute. But I ended up leaving school at 16 or so and spending some time at the freezing works in Feilding. Then the works closed down and I decided, or rather was encouraged, to do a total immersion reo course at Wellington Polytech.

And because I’d been to Te Aute, the late Te Ariki Mei, who was the tumuaki at the time, suggested that I jump straight into the Level 3 course. So, although I had minimal reo, I took up the challenge and spent most of that year, which was my sixth form year, immersed in te reo Māori.

There were some outstanding exemplars of te reo Māori there — Haami Piripi and Moehau Reedy spring to mind. Despite being quite young, I was always encouraged by the pakeke in our class to keep going. Our kaiako was Hiria Hape from Ngāi Tūhoe. Hiria had a huge influence on my desire to develop my reo and was an outstanding teacher.

The following year, I went to Feilding High School and decided to re-engage in school. From there my path took me on to Te Kupenga o Te Mātauranga, to Massey and Te Wānanga o Raukawa — and more recently, full circle back to Massey, to Pūtahi-a-Toi.

The recurring theme in the journey that I’ve taken is that you don’t necessarily have to choose one path. I haven’t done that. I have a strong interest in filmmaking, for example, and initially wanted to study filmmaking in the States when I left school. But I was told I didn’t have the right qualifications. So I took another path. But that hasn’t prevented me and my brother from actually making a film.

So I guess the message for those who may be unsure about what they ought to be doing, is this: You can and should do anything that you put your mind to. Don’t be limited by having just one path, or by being told that you can’t do something that you aspire deeply towards.

Moving through secondary school, I was frustrated by a system and a curriculum that felt too confining. I now work alongside many Māori academics who create change through their research and engagement with our communities.

Adapting and evolving the system is vital so that our young people have more options. But learning is also important for our pakeke and kaumātua. Learning shouldn’t stop just because school finishes.

Meihana with his uncle Rei Kohere (left), dad Mason, and brother Pere.

I know it’s not a term we use, but I get the impression that your whānau are educational activists.

Well, education takes many shapes and forms. It’s not just about school or university. Education is a lifelong journey. For our people, my view is that it should ultimately bring about māramatanga or enlightenment. And it’s important not to allow the potential of our people to diminish or stagnate as the result of a system.

Wānanga-driven practices, for example, give emphasis to the role of kaumātua in education, observing young people in action and recognising their natural curiosities and inclinations. And then wrapping a curriculum around them, so that their pūmanawa, their true potential and strengths are actually amplified and enhanced.

I think there’s some space for us to be able to advance that proposition further. Education must evolve if outcomes for our people are to be more positive, more aligned and relevant. Kura Kaupapa Māori has been, in part, a kaupapa-driven response to an inflexible system that hasn’t been grounded in Māori values.

There are other new and groundbreaking models of Māori education now emerging such as Manukura, a hapū-driven kaupapa here in Palmerston North where teaching practices reflect a high-performance ethos shaped around Te Whare Tapa Whā.

Te Wānanga o Raukawa, which grew out of Whakatupuranga Rua Mano, represented a reformulation of customary whare wānanga. So the precedent is already there.

Sometimes I wonder if the competition among the tertiary institutions for students is unhelpful.

I’ve worked in two systems in the last couple of decades. One has been the whare wānanga system which is underpinned by a philosophy shaped around mātauranga Māori. The other one, of course, is the university system, which is driven partly by academic outputs and research.

Both of those systems are important for our people. Both experiences are valuable. Having an assocation with both, I don’t necessarily view them as being in competition.

We’re not all going to become academics, are we? So is there a chance that we, as Māori, have been pushing education when, if we look around, we see that it’s tradies nowadays who’re making the big bucks. Just try to get yourself a plumber.

You’re right. Not everyone is cut out for a pathway in academia. Nor should we expect everyone to move into leadership roles. In fact, we can often place too much pressure on our young people to aspire to places within the academy and to positions of leadership. It is the community, the whānau, hapū, iwi who determine these things.

Among the interesting steps you’ve taken along the way has been your PhD. Will you outline that project, please?

What I wanted to explore was the place of kawa, or Māori ritual, in contemporary times. The research found that there is a place for new rituals, new kawa to help regulate the way we, as Māori, engage with our world. It showed that when kawa is used to guide Māori communities, the community flourishes.

In modern times, kawa is very specific to the marae. But the research reinforced what our people already knew, that, in earlier times, kawa and ritual was prevalent across all elements of life and this regulated and sustained our oranga, our wellbeing.

It’s not saying that we need to return to the ancient rituals of the past. But the findings suggested that we should think carefully about how we might apply kawa to guide us in navigating this complex universe in which we live.

Our world is evolving rapidly and we haven’t found the best ways to nurture and nourish what is most critical to us. Mana, mauri, and tapu. We should be aware that, within kaupapa and mātauranga Māori, there are likely to be some enduring solutions.

Thank you, Meihana. Turning now to that recent controversy when Don Brash, who’s not known for any deep understanding of the Treaty, was discouraged from speaking at Massey. One of the reasons for Don not to be welcomed was that Massey is aspiring to be a Treaty-based university. But what does that mean?

Well, first of all, it’s important to recognise that the university has taken a courageous step in giving greater cognisance to the place of Te Tiriti o Waitangi within the academy.

And that means recognising meaningful partnerships with Māori. And protecting and uplifiting Māori knowledge. But also ensuring that Māori knowledge is neither compromised nor diminished in any way. And participating in broader discussions around the place of te Tiriti in Aotearoa.

We also understand that we need greater levels of Māori participation within the university. We must continue to support initiatives that increase numbers of Māori PhD graduates. We need to ensure that we’re reaching out to Māori communities who may have been marginalised from education and from opportunities to be engaged within the university experience. We must find meaningful ways to bring our people from those communities into this space.

Those are some of the critical conversations that our university is having at present. And they’re not always easy. They will take time.

I find that a principled stance. But, unfortunately, there’s been a practice with some of our talkback radio stations to hire hosts with strong right-wing viewpoints and little grasp of the Treaty. At times they’re so anti-Māori that I’ve thought the Human Rights Commission, the Race Relations Commissioner, should be stepping in.

The face of the media in this country has evolved rapidly, particularly in recent years. And, too often, there are discussions on Māori issues that don’t include a Māori voice. It’s critical that we champion quality journalism where Māori are concerned. We have some outstanding champions and advocates of kaupapa Māori across te ao Māori. And it’s important that they are heard.

The often negative media coverage on the sovereignty of Māori is something that we’ve had to grapple with for a long time. Critically, there needs to be a more balanced media representation of things Māori. We’re living in a time where Māori are emerging as exemplars of positive change across the world in diverse fields such as the environment, health, education, television, business, film, language, sport, you name it. And they deserve more attention.

Meihana, Ilane and their daughters (from left): Kirihautu, Te Atahaia, Dahnyelle, and Hineteahurangi.

I understand that you, you lucky guy, have four daughters. What sort of Aotearoa are you hoping that they and their children and mokopuna will inherit from us?

Our tamariki have had the benefit of being raised in an era where te reo Māori is more accessible and, of course, they have an incredible role model in their māmā, Ilane, who has forged her own pathway in education, working with Māori secondary school students in our rohe. Their generation represents a part of the changing face of Māori education. They’ve been fortunate to be part of kaupapa that have immersed them in the ways of our people but prepared them for the future.

I’d like to see a future for them and for all of their whanaunga and peers, where they can fulfil their aspirations but remain grounded in kaupapa. Being who they are and bringing what they can to the world.

Meihana, it’s been a pleasure.

Thank you, Dale, for your patai.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

© E-Tangata, 2018

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