Professor Pou Temara.

Pou Temara didn’t spend his early years in the limelight. He was way off in the Urewera bush for most of his first eight years absorbing an education pretty well unknown these days. But that has led on to his life as an academic and a tohunga renowned for his knowledge of te reo and tikanga Māori and widely recognised as an authority on whaikōrero, whakapapa, and karakia.

So he has routinely juggled a number of roles. Such as a lecturer and professor. As a television pioneer. On the Waitangi Tribunal. On Kīngi Tuheitia’s Council of 12. Lending Te Papa a hand. And, small wonder, nabbing a CNZM along the way. Here he is telling Dale his story.


Kia ora, Pou. I suppose those people at Wikipedia know what they’re doing, but I note that among all the academic credentials they list for you — diplomas and degrees, professor here and professor there — they made no reference to your years of employment at the Gear meatworks in Wellington.

Tēnā koe, Dale. Yes, I did work there for a good while when I was paying my way through Victoria University. And, naturally, I got to know some of your whānau there, Steve and Apa Watene.

Where Wikipedia was on the job, however, was in pointing out that, although you’re known as Pou, the name you were given when you were born in 1948 was William Te Rangiua Temara.

I was called William after a World War Two veteran who didn’t marry and, when my mother was carrying me, he approached my grandparents and asked them, if their daughter had a boy, would he be named William. So I carry his name. And Te Rangiua is the name of a tohunga who I remember well, even though I was only two-and-a-half when he died.

I understand that you were brought up by your grandparents.

Well, you know, Dale, in my generation, many of us were brought up by our grandparents, especially if you were a mātāmua, or first born, as I was. There were quite a few of us in Ruatāhuna and, many of them are still alive, who were brought up that way. It was just part of Māori tikanga in Tūhoe at that time.

There’s something special, isn’t there, about that relationship between koro and moko? What is that?

Grandparents often have a love of mokopuna that is more personal, more special than the love of a mother or father for their child. The love of a grandparent is encapsulated in one of the whakataukī: He mokopuna piri poho, a grandchild held close. It’s a relationship that’s imbued with teaching, and the passing on of the knowledge of the old. It trickles down and the child picks it up.

All my five siblings were brought up by my mother and father. And I am very, very different from them. In fact, I speak a different language. My reo Māori is richer because of the language of my grandparents. I grew up in another world altogether.

Professor Temara with Justice Williams and Deputy Chief Judge Fox taken at Te Manuka Tutahi Marae, Whakatane in September 2019 at a Symposium on Matauranga Maori in honour of Ta Hirini Mead.

With Justice Joe Williams and Caren Fox, deputy chief judge of the Māori Land Court, at Te Manuka Tutahi Marae, September 2019.

Much of this, I imagine, is just absorbed through osmosis — some of it in the kōrero shared around the table in your whare.

Yep. Much of it was learned that way, but a significant amount was taught as well, although I didn’t attend school until I was eight. That’s because, when I was about 10 months, we moved from civilised Ruatāhuna to the middle of the Urewera forest.

It’s a six-hour horse ride through the bush, up and down steep hills, crossing rivers, fording streams, until we get to this little clearing between Maungapōhatu and Rūātoki. There were only three of us — my grandparents, Tamahou Tinimene and Pareraututu, and me.

I was never comfortable in the company of my own age group until well into my married life. Those I sought for company and discussion were always kaumātua.

I didn’t feel comfortable with my own generation until my kaumātua friends were gone. When they died, I had no one else to talk to. So I had to train myself to be comfortable in the company of my own age group.

But my own age group weren’t on the same intellectual level as I was. When we debated with kaumātua, we debated kaumātua topics — topics that the youth had no business to be part of.

Back in Ruatāhuna, when I was eight, I attended Huiarau Māori School. But by then I knew things that even many kaumātua didn’t know.

I doubt that you’d be the same sort of man if you’d had a more conventional upbringing.

That’s right. For a long time, I missed the company of kaumātua. I’m not alone in having a preference for kaumātua. One was my good friend Ruka Broughton, who was a person very much like me. We kept away from our own age group. I don’t want to demean my own generation then, but we preferred the company of kaumātua.

Your reo is one of the reasons why you’re so highly regarded, Pou. And, when we look at the whole process of language revitalisation, we can recognise our debt to many Tūhoe people. You’re entitled to feel especially proud of that contribution.

I’ve always regarded myself as a teacher of the Māori language. And, with my colleagues at Te Panekiretanga, Te Wharehuia Milroy and Timoti Karetu, we regarded ourselves as being responsible for the retention, survival, and rejuvenation of the Māori language. And it mattered not that we were Tūhoe.

In fact, if you were to be part of our world, we felt that you needed to have this wide knowledge about language and about tikanga — because you had to surf the length and breadth of Aotearoa, from the top of the North Island down to the bottom of the South and all the tribes in between.

So it was a responsibility for our students to learn that whole terrain and the people of the terrain, and the language of the terrain. And, when people wanted to enter our world and wanted to be taught by us, we’d always say: “Nau mai ki tō mātau ao. Welcome to our world. This is what you need to do. Learning about your own iwi is not going to be enough. You may start from there. But that is only a springboard to learning about other iwi and their language.”

We don’t teach the world the Tūhoe language, although some people say that is what we teach. But, no, we don’t. We teach pan-tribal te reo Māori.

With Professor Rangi Mātaamua and Professor Sir Derek Lardelli.

Let’s turn back for a moment to your school days.

Well, from eight to when I was 15, my grandfather and grandmother continued with my teaching. I was at Huiarau Māori School and I was always considered as the kaumātua of the primers. My classmates were five and I was eight. But, intellectually, I might’ve been 50. That’s just how things were and I felt lost around these pīpī heihei. I always looked forward to going home and being back in the company of my grandparents.

Then, at 15, I realised there were girls. Not that they became attracted to me, because I was a koroua. I delved into things that in the 1960s were not the issues that interested teenagers. It wasn’t good to be a kaumātua, so I learned to keep those things at arm’s length. And then I was off to boarding school at Wesley College.

That was another big adjustment. First, there I was as a child brought up deep in the Urerewa forest, and then coming back at eight to Ruatāhuna and to civilisation, as far as I was concerned.

Unlike our whare in the bush, we had a house with a floor. And the walls were ponga, the roof kānuka, and tapu reigned in our home. We didn’t eat inside our whare. There was a lean-to outside where we cooked and ate.

Then I moved on to Auckland, to what seemed to be the biggest city in the world. This was in the early 1960s. My mother and father lived in Auckland. I didn’t have any affinity with them as my mum and dad and I called them by their first names.

But they brought me up to Paerata, to Wesley College. And, when we got to the top of the Bombay hills, it was coming on dusk, and my father, with a sweep of his hand, said: “All of that is Auckland.” I looked and all I could see were lights everywhere. I was amazed.

When I arrived at Wesley, I just thought to myself: “This is the world. And, when I become an adult, the first thing I’m going to do is go back to Ruatāhana, give my grandfather a good hiding for putting me through all those Māori things — and then never go back again.”

Since then, I’ve traversed the world but I’ve never been back to live in Ruatāhuna permanently. I’ve got a bach back there and it’s where I go every now and then. But that’s just keeping the fires burning because I know, at the end, that’s where I’ll be permanently.

If I don’t keep those fires burning, then the people there are going to wonder: “Who is this person coming back to the marae to be buried. We’ve never seen him before.”

So Wesley College was my saviour. It introduced me to the wider world. Good teachers. Some amazing teachers.

You went on, in due course, to the meatworks and to Vic, studying Māori when it wasn’t all that fashionable. Did you notice any resistance from the academic hierarchy to your focus on Māori and to your habit of furnishing assignments and tests in te reo Māori? Was that a problem?

Yes, it was. And it is a problem in the universities, even today. I’ve been in universities for over 40 years and nothing has changed much.There’ve been slight improvements but, when my academic career started at Victoria University, I was really lucky to have Hirini Mead as the professor, as the chairperson of our department and as our mentor.

He was one of those people who knew how to work within the system. He knew the right language for that academic arena, whereas we would just come out with our Gear meatworks language — and that wasn’t appropriate or effective.

Hirini not only led those academic battles but he also gave us discipline of mind, discipline to plan, discipline to think, and discipline to defend ourselves when the odds were against us because the Māori language and tikanga weren’t given much credibility. We had to fight for every inch. So it really was difficult, although we were supported by some of our non-Māori colleagues.

Many didn’t accept us, though. I remember going into academic board meetings and marvelling at our mentors, especially Whata Winiata. He never took a backward step. Whata would stand there — and in his very quiet, calm and deliberate way — exchange verbal blows, sentence for sentence. That was his style.

I also have a lasting memory  of Hirini Mead attending the Professorial Board. I recall this able, talented, scholarly, almost god-like figure of a man, coming back from those meetings — and he’d be shaking. Then he’d ask if I had a strong drink that could settle his nerves. And, Dale, that fight continues today.

How did the big issues of the day affect you? Such as the land marches and language petitions.

Te Reo Māori Society at Vic was already established when I joined the university and they were a strong, hard group under Koro Dewes. And there were other warriors, like Hannah Jackson and later, Annette Sykes, who fought and marched for change. I have so much respect for them.

But I didn’t thrive on violence and clashes. That wasn’t in my nature. I was a bit of a coward. And, when things got hot, I’d take leave. And yet, on a marae, there’s no one I fear.

Over the years, you’ve been a big influence in the universities and wānanga as well on the marae. And you’ve been widely viewed as a tohunga.

I do see myself as a modern tohunga. But there is a difference between tohunga of the era when I was learning, and tohunga of my era. I was brought up and taught to be the person responsible for the maintenance of certain things. Tikanga was one of them. There was to be no compromise on tikanga or the maintenance of tapu things.

But I have to say that my academic experience has helped me in balancing my life. There are events that I’ve been through or witnessed that you’d never believe. For instance, back in 1985, here I was sitting by a little stream, watching my koroua build an altar — and, in the dark, gathering leaves and mānuka, putting them on this altar, and doing a karakia. And then, for no apparent reason, the altar burst into flames.

I was already an academic then and I wondered whether I actually saw that or if there was a scientific rationale for it. Perhaps there was something in the make-up of the leaves that promoted combustion and made the leaves burst into flames? But the other part of my mind was saying: “Believe it, Temara. Just believe it.”

So there is tohunga knowledge beyond us. Unfortunately, many tohunga have died without passing on their knowledge. But, if it’s not shared, it becomes dead knowledge. So I ascribe to the view that I should leave behind my experiences as a tohunga for others to look at, for others to mock, to marvel at, for others to wonder about. I will leave that in writing.

You’ve been asked not to compromise tikanga. But we’ve been through a situation with Covid-19 where tikanga was compromised, although not necessarily by us. How did you feel about these changes? Were you supportive of, or hōhā about, the domineering attitude of Pākehā leaders?

Again, I had two reactions to this one. Tohunga and academic. My Māori side was really affected by what happened. I recall that, in my own Ruatāhuna community in 1918, there were no deaths from the Spanish flu — mainly because it was a closed-off community and they knew how to look after themselves.

People who felt sick went off into the bush and established themselves there until they were well — and then they came back and joined the community. We had our own style of social distancing then. We understood the need and that we had to take these measures in order for our people to survive.

But, here in 2020, with the threat of Covid-19, Māori realised what they were facing, and, in Tainui, there was a proclamation that there were to be no more hongi because of the danger that posed. No more kihikihi or awhiawhi, either. We had to suspend our tikanga.

Hohepa Kereopa, a tohunga and son of John Rangihau, had this to say in our wānanga: “If our tikanga is to survive, we must suspend our tapu tikanga until such time as we are strong and then we can take hold of our tikanga again.” That was good teaching for me. And it’s something I’ve lived by.

Pou (centre, front) with some of the tohunga he has taught.

So there is a flexibility in tikanga?

If tikanga doesn’t have a philosophy attached to it, then it is tikanga made by man and, therefore, it can be changed. For example, there’s a practice of women taking off their shoes and leaving them outside while men wear them inside. Or women sitting on the floor while men sit on the seats.Those are tikanga that have no philosophical basis at all, and therefore they can be changed.

It’s a bit harder with tikanga that have an underpinning philosophy. We need to be careful if we want to change them. I offer the view that we are always open to new tikanga if we can actually tie those tikanga to a philosophy. And one of the great philosophies that overrides everything is manaakitanga. If you can create a tikanga with a whakapapa that pins it to a philosophy of manaakitanga, then I see that as a good tikanga.

Some tikanga belong to another era. For instance, the tikanga in the greater part of Aotearoa doesn’t allow women to speak on the paepae. There’s a need to re-evaluate that. The current  numbers tell us that there are more wāhine Māori than Māori men speaking te reo Māori.

So we have a difficulty with speaking rights. If you’re at the koroneihana in Ngāruawahia, there might be 36 speakers and, by the 20th speaker, you find that everyone is talking about the same thing and parroting the sentiments of the others.

That becomes a bit of a problem because Kīngi Tuheitia has several reasons for getting all his people together. One is to celebrate the Kīngitanga, but another is to hear some new ideas — and you can’t provide him with new ideas if your kōrero on the marae are all the same.

I’m talking from both my worlds — the tohunga and the academic. Keep in mind that I come from Tūhoe and we don’t allow women to speak but, when women speak, I find that refreshing. Naturally, they may talk about issues that are important to women, but they are responsible for all the things we hold dearly — for the teaching of our language, for our social services, being in charge of health boards. These are led by women who should have a platform in our Māori world where they can launch their ideas and kōrero.

So there you are. I’ll probably come in for criticism from traditionalists who don’t want our culture to change. But change is good. I refer my students to the Pākehā whakataukī: “When you’ve finished changing, you’re finished.”


(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

William Te Rangiua (Pou) Temara’s formal education began at Huiarau Māori School in Ruatāhuna, then Wesley College near Pukekohe, followed by teacher training at the Wellington College of Education and, next, at Victoria University where he became a senior lecturer in 1986 and where he graduated with an MA with distinction in 1991. In 2003, he became an associate professor at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi and, since then, he has been a professor of te reo, tikanga and philosophy at Waikato University.

Among his other roles have been as a member of the Waitangi Tribunal since 2008, a member of Kīngi Tuheitia’s Council of 12, one of the three directors on Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo, a recipient of an honorary PhD from Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in 2013, and being invested as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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