Rauru Kirikiri

As a boarder at St Stephen’s School in the 1960s, there was a night when Rau and a mate were nabbed, and then caned, for playing ping pong in the library when all the kids were supposed to be doing “prep”, their homework. Talk about sinfulness — and here was a young Anglican who once seemed destined for the church.

It was a rare fall from grace though. He was never caught and caned again. And there’s been a lifetime of achievement since. First of all picking off a BA and then an MA (in linguistics and anthropology) at Auckland University, lecturing there, and then representing New Zealand in diplomatic posts in Washington DC, London, Suva, Papua New Guinea.

That meant, at times, keeping company with our leaders overseas. David Lange in London. Jim Bolger in Washington DC. Te Atairangikaahu too.

And mixing with US celebrities, like Muhammad Ali and civil rights leader Andrew Young, the first African American US ambassador to the UN. And the movers and shakers in Fiji, including Sitiveni Rabuka before his military coups and his prime ministership. Heady times. And not just keeping company either — also frequently keeping order in the unlikely role as a referee on US rugby fields.

Then, back in New Zealand, he’s had significant roles in the Department of Māori Affairs, Treaty negotiations, environmental issues and pushing for a closer relationship between mātauranga Māori and western science.

Here, with Dale, he touches on some of the paths he’s taken.


Kia ora, Rau. My understanding is that your full name is Te Kawe Rauru Kirikiri and that, although you weren’t born in the lap of luxury, you definitely weren’t short of siblings.

That’s true. Both Mum and Dad had married previously and their spouses had passed away. I was their only child, and I was the youngest of 12 of my mother’s children and the youngest of five on my father’s side. I was born  in Te Kaha, on the east coast of the North Island, which makes me Te Whānau ā Apanui. Born in an old shed. In what you might call a manger if you were irreverent.

And, being the youngest, no doubt you were spoilt rotten.

Yes. Well, sort of. Yes and no. But apparently I was a bit of a brat. Really inquisitive. Always asking, why? And, what for? People have told me that I was a nosy little bugger — and some would say that I’ve carried on that way for the rest of my life.

After Te Kaha School, I’m told you went on to St Stephen’s in 1960. Was that a whānau tradition?

Not really, although Tipene wasn’t unknown to me. My two oldest brothers on my mother’s side had gone to Te Aute. But I had some cousins who’d been to Tip. Mum and a few of my cousins had gone to Hukarere. For a time it was common, almost obligatory, for kids who showed some promise to get a government scholarship to high schools like Tipene. That’s how I came to be there — and I have no regrets whatsoever.

Rau’s parents Meri and Reweri ‘Mutu’ in Te Kaha in the early 1960s.

Did you cry when you got there? St Stephen’s is a long way from home.

Not at all. I thrived. In fact, I remember those years as being some of the best times of my life. I recall, quite vividly, looking forward to going there, and I loved every minute of it. I think it was the making of me in lots of ways and helped foster my inquisitive mind.

At Tipene, I came across kids who extended me, although te reo was one of the downsides. At that time, te reo was becoming less and less used in the home and in schools. So, when I arrived, there were lots of boys who didn’t speak Māori. The ones who did were those from Tūhoe and a few from around the East Coast. The boys from up north mostly didn’t. So that was a disappointment for me. And it set me wondering how we were going to ensure that our reo keeps going. The answer, I suppose, is just to keep at it. There’s no other way. It’s no secret. You’ve just got to keep at it.

Reweri ‘Mutu’ Kirikiri.

You were lucky, though, weren’t you, in that you grew up in a whānau where reo Māori was the first language? And you had the benefit of being raised, for some time, by your old people.

Yes, that’s true. The whole community spoke Māori. As a child, although I don’t remember this, I was given to my grandmother, who was then in her late 80s, to help her speak English. She just spoke Māori. So they gave me to her. Her whare was just down the road, only 10 minutes away from home. And I lived there. But the irony was that, because she couldn’t speak English, we spoke Māori all the time. So I didn’t teach her any English. I failed in that.

At Tipene, I imagine there were, among the dozen or so teachers and among the roll of 200 or so boys, there were those who had an influence on you — or went on to become prominent New Zealanders.

Well, there were both. The headmaster, Joe Lewis, was outstanding. He was an excellent headmaster. He was Pākehā but he understood things Māori. And he understood kids. He’d come from Thames High School where he’d also been the headmaster and an excellent rugby coach of the First XV. He was one of those people who was at ease with anybody, including pakeke, politicians, parents, kids, and VIPs. Anyone at all.

He was firm but very fair. I defy any old boy to dispute that. And he’s still remembered fondly by the boys that went through in my time. We were also fortunate that there were a number of key Māori teachers on the staff in some of those years. Like Api Mahuika, Koro Dewes, Scotty McPherson, Rawhiti Ihaka, and Awi Riddell. They all went on and did great things.

When you had a footing and background with people like that, you’d have to be an idiot not to thrive. Those are the sort of people I remember fondly. But I can go back to my days at Te Kaha and the teachers there as well, because Roka Paora and others were significant influences when we were young kids.

Tama and Kahu in Washington, around 1977.

Sons Tama and Kahu in Washington, around 1977.

Perhaps there was a stage when you thought of being a teacher yourself.

I was smart enough to realise, almost from the outset, that I wasn’t going to be a good teacher. I was too impatient. I wanted to get the answers straight away. I just didn’t understand why people couldn’t learn from one instruction. Having to repeat stuff wasn’t my preference. You either did it straight away or it was never going to happen. But, also, there was a drudgery around teaching that didn’t appeal to me. So I went in another direction. In several directions, as a matter of fact.

You’re one of the many Tipene guys who married a Queen Vic girl. You and your wife, Roimata, met in your high school days, and that sort of union has me wondering whether that has given you and other couples an especially strong sense of your cultural identity.

We grew up in the days of Ngā Tamatoa. We were at Auckland University with both Syd and Hana Jackson. And there was a lot happening at that time. The protest about the All Black rugby tour to South Africa in 1970 was just one of them. And, for a number of us, it was natural to lend a hand with the pro-Māori issues. It’s what you did. It was there to do, and you did it.

You shared the pride in being Māori. It was always there. There was no great epiphany. No thunderbolt striking us. It was how you lived your life. You didn’t have to stand up and wave a flag and say: “I’m proud to be Māori.”

Roimata and I, I think, were attracted to each other, partly because we were on that pathway. Or you could say we were on the same waka. Whereas, with a number of other Māori with a Pākehā spouse, the commitment to things Māori wasn’t so natural or certain. There’d come a time when there’d be a choice about going down the Māori line or not. And that could cause some tension — and a capsize.

Rau and his boys.

Being tūturu Māori, though, has been at times a disadvantage in some professions. Mainstream Pākehā haven’t been all that welcoming to displays of strong commitments to things Māori. Or declaring your opposition to the ‘81 Springbok rugby tour. And I understand you had to think a bit about that when you were considering working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At the time, there was a lot of misunderstanding, or just plain ignorance, about apartheid and the Springbok issues. And yes there was what might have been a difficult Foreign Affairs interview for me. So, before the interview, I asked Professor Pat Hohepa, who was one of my teachers at university: “How should I handle this?” And he said: “Just be honest.”

He predicted that they’d ask me a couple of questions around sporting issues. And his advice was that I should tell them just what I felt. Which is exactly what I did. And I think that set me in good stead because, later on, they said: “We like your honesty.” Not just the honesty, but the way I’d explained that I had personal, Māori cultural convictions which I couldn’t put to one side — and if it was going to be a problem for other people, well, that was their problem, not mine.

Had you harboured ambitions to work for Foreign Affairs, to head to far-flung places, or was this an opportunity that emerged somewhere out of the blue?

When the Foreign Affairs opportunity arose, I was teaching at Auckland University and I wasn’t sure what I was putting myself in for. For the most part, it sounded like something quite romantic. Travel around the world and all that sort of stuff — which is what you do in that job, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

I note you had a number of different postings, different destinations, but how long did they all amount to?

It was about 15 years. Four years in the States, a couple of years in Fiji, three years in London, plus all the bits in between back here in New Zealand. The general pattern was that you’d get posted somewhere, then you’d come back to New Zealand for two, three, or four years, then you’d be away again on another posting. It was backwards and forwards.

Were you required to leave your taha Māori at the door? Or was it a tool of Foreign Affairs? Did you ever feel like you had to put your sense of culture or identity on the backburner in that role?

Not at all. In fact, that was seen as one of my strengths when I was recruited. There were only two other Māori at the time. They were Witi Ihimaera and Tia (or John) Barrett who has since passed away. There was a general feeling within Foreign Affairs at the time that we needed to be doing more.

There’d been other Māori before us — Peter Gordon and Kara Puketapu — so we didn’t start a revolution. But our work did lead to a more assertive approach by Māori who came into Foreign Affairs after us. Like Hekia Parata and Atareta Poananga.

My US posting was in Washington DC where I was the press officer. In the media field, in my time there, there was an increasing interest in the Māori voice on radio and television. And one of our achievements was setting up Connie Lawn who, although she was American, became a regular and longtime Radio New Zealand correspondent from Washington.

Another aspect of our work was promoting New Zealand as a tourist destination. We worked with Air New Zealand on that project, especially with Morrie Davis, the CEO. That’s where my taha Māori was of some value, even though there were critics who thought the Māori element was being abused. Or cheapened in some people’s eyes.

Kirikiri family reunion. Rau and Roimata (front right) with their three sons (Tama, Kahu and Peta), daughters-in-law and three of five mokopuna.

Fiji must’ve been interesting too, partly because of the parallels between their country and Aotearoa. There’s the struggle by the indigenous Fijians to hold on to their land and their role as tangata whenua. I just wonder what you think we as Māori might have learned from the Fijian model?

I’m glad you put it that way rather than asking what the Fijians might’ve learned from our model, because I don’t think they would’ve learned much at all from us.

One of the ongoing issues in the Māori world, for some time, has been around Kīngitanga. There’s been a bit of ambivalence among Māori about its value and what it does for us. You could’ve said the same thing about Fiji where they’ve had a similar but slightly different hierarchy. I was privileged to be there at a key time in their hierarchal history, because you still had Ratu Mara and Ratu Penaia Ganilau, who was then the governor-general. They kind of ruled with an iron hand in that old hierarchy.

In many ways, with our rangatira, that’s how we used to be in the olden days. I think in more recent times, the rangatiratanga stuff has been abused in the Māori world. The Crown has been instrumental in things like misinterpreting what rangatiratanga is, what kaitiakitanga is, and so forth.

And maybe you could say the same thing to a certain extent in Fiji. But I think, as a people nowadays, we still have to cling to and hold on to some sort of kīngitanga because that’s a key for both of our cultures. The trick is how we can best manage that sense of rangatiratanga, and I fervently hope it never goes away.

With moko Ariana.

After your 15 years with Foreign Affairs here and overseas, you took on a number of important roles to do with environmental issues. How was it that the environment came on to your agenda?

Well, environment has always been on my mind. When I was at university, I was going to do a science degree. In fact, I ended up doing an arts degree more or less by accident. Of the Tipene old boys going to university that year — Hone Green, Frank Solomon, Johnnie Walker, Ron Paint — I was the only one doing science. I didn’t want to be left out, so I thought: “Blow it. I’ll follow these guys.” So, I did anthropology.

And, many years later, after my time in the public service, a recruitment agency asked me if I was interested in a job going at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research at Lincoln University. So I said: “Yes. I’m interested.” I wasn’t a scientist. But it was that mātauranga Māori aspect that drew me to environmental management. The linking together of mātauranga Māori and science had been an issue dear to my heart, from well before that. And it still is.

As a resource consent commissioner, my work is largely around tikanga Māori and mātauranga Māori and how that works with science. I say they do work together. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. So, that’s the link.

In a sense, you’ve been acting as a bridge between two worlds. I imagine you’ve had a good deal of frustration dealing with people who’ve had little understanding of te ao Māori. But there’s probably been more and more satisfaction as so many non-Māori New Zealanders are now warming to Māori worldviews and getting a stronger sense of themselves as New Zealanders.

I think the number has grown over the years and continues to. The scenario at the moment is a hell of a lot different, for me, from what it was 40 or 50 years ago. Back then, we were having to push the proverbial uphill. Nowadays, the challenge isn’t nearly as great. That comes from a mixture of things like being more familiar with te reo.

And  you’re getting more people coming through the system with some knowledge of te ao Māori already. They’re kind of hungry for it. I see this in some of the work my boys do. Two of them are closely involved in te reo and education and it’s kind of what they see, what they hear. They have people coming through who want to know. Pākehā coming through who want to know.

That takes away part of the effort that I needed to make when I first started out. Part of it’s already done for me. So, my focus is more clearly on those things I want to do, rather than trying to get people up to speed. It’s an encouraging development.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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