Sometimes, says Rawiri Wright, you have to be brave and take a leap of faith. He’d been a teacher, a journalist, and a journalism tutor. But that leap, 30 years ago, took him, his wife and their kids into the world of kura kaupapa Māori, a world devoted to the regeneration of being Māori and all that goes with it.
And, as he explains here to Dale, there have been no regrets. It’s felt right in every way.
Kia ora, Rawiri. What say we start with your names and some details about your whānau and their background?
Tēnā koe, Dale. I’m David Rawiri Saxon Wright. I can remember asking Mum how come she and Dad named me David as well as Rawiri when they’re really the same name.
And she told me she wanted me to have a Māori name but she didn’t want me to have to struggle like she’d had to. Like lots of others in her whānau, she had her name anglicised. So, instead of people using her name, Maretira, they called her Molly. And that anglicising of names persisted into the late 1950s — and beyond.
Mum was born at Kāramuramu pā in Rotorua in 1930. That’s where Rotorua airport is now. The government took that land for the airport under the Public Works Act, in 1932, although they didn’t get around to building it for another 30 years.
But our people and others were moved off to Ruamata or to Te Ngae or Owhata. And my mum’s family went to Ohinemutu where my great-grandmother, Moetū Rāwhārangi Kiripaeahi, was still living. Mum and her parents lived there for four or five years before my koroua, Tamati Ruawai Hamutana, took them back to Rangiāhua, near Wairoa.
Through my mum, I whakapapa to Te Arawa, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Kahungunu.
And your dad?
He was born and bred in the Hawke’s Bay at what is now called Havelock North. His whakapapa goes back to England, Scotland and Wales. He was one of the first Pākehā to attend Te Aute College. Differences in race were never an issue for him. In fact, Dad was keener than Mum on us kids learning Māori.
There were reasons, though, for Mum being cautious. When she started school in Wairoa, she was never strapped for speaking Māori but she had vivid recollections of her elder brother and cousins being beaten. So she made a quiet promise to herself that she’d never get caught speaking Māori, and that had a flow-on effect on us growing up in Tokoroa in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
At that time, we were all led to believe that race relations in Aotearoa were fantastic and that New Zealanders were all one people. It was only later that we became aware of this myth about the country’s race relations. That’s when issues of institutional racism started to surface and it became clear that Māori had been, and still were, badly treated.
How did your mum and dad meet?
They were both in Hawke’s Bay then. My mum was married to Hikuwai Heke, a bulldozer driver from the north, and they had three children together. They were breaking in a lot of country in the Hawke’s Bay in those days. But there were no health and safety measures and Hikuwai eventually died of diesel poisoning.
My Dad was a shepherd at the time. He and Hikuwai were great mates and when Hikuwai was dying, he asked Dad to look after his family and Dad agreed. A couple of years down the track, that blossomed into romance and a second marriage for Mum. As a result, there were soon three more of us.
But we also had two elder sisters, who’d been born before Mum and Hikuwai got married. Having children out of wedlock was something frowned upon by Pākehā in those days and those two girls were taken off to an orphanage. I felt terribly sad for my mum and sisters about what had happened — and that whānau Māori weren’t given the chance to care for them.
Later, when Mum and Dad were married and things got sorted out, my sisters were “re-adopted”, came home, and we were a whānau again.
I understand that you went to high school in Tokoroa.
Well, I spent my first two high school years in Tokoroa, at Forest View High which had just opened. My older brother Kim had already been to Tipene (St Stephen’s) and I was keen to go there too. My time there (from 1976 to 1978) was when Scotty McPherson was the tumuaki, and the school had a huge influence on me.
It allowed me to get much better at Māori because of teachers like Awi Riddell and Charlie Timutimu. But just being with so many boys who were native speakers was a big influence too. In the dorms, for example, they’d slip into reo Māori and I was surprised I could follow the conversations no trouble, even though my oral skills weren’t great.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that my mum mentioned that I shouldn’t have been surprised at being able to understand so much because, when I was a baby and toddler, both my koroua lived with us at different times and they spoke only Māori to me and my little sister.
That whole Tipene atmosphere encouraged us to be proud to be Māori, which was fantastic. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left school. Shane Jones and I both applied to the Auckland University law school and I also applied for teacher training at Waikato. And I ended up going into teaching because that acceptance letter came back first.
Just before we move on from discussing Tipene, though, are you in favour of the efforts to re-establish the school, and Queen Vic as well? They’ve both been closed for some years now.
Much to the chagrin of some of my old Tipene mates, my answer is no. Those schools served their purpose in their time, but the Māori leaders of tomorrow, men and women, are now coming from the kura kaupapa Māori movement.
Many of the kura kaupapa Māori graduates are already making their mark in all sorts of fields, and the energy going into the attempts to rekindle institutions based on a romantic notion of the past would be better used elsewhere.
Okay, back now to the applications you made to study teaching or law.
Well, in my excitement, I signed the teaching acceptance form straightaway and said yes. Then, just bloody two days later, an acceptance form came from Auckland University. I didn’t know at that time that I still could’ve said no to Waikato and gone to study law in Auckland. But education has mostly been my life since and I don’t regret that.
I did two years at Waikato and did a final year of teacher training at Auckland and then, by 1982, I was in my first year at Kedgley Intermediate in South Auckland on the border of Papatoetoe and Māngere, with 25 predominantly Māori and Pacific Island students in my classroom. They were just bundles of energy and I knew almost immediately that three years at training college had done very little to prepare me for these tamariki, with their energy and their desire to be who they were.
So, as a teacher, I was guided by what they were interested in. I adopted an intuitive or instinctive approach and we had a ball. But I felt there was something missing in the school system. It was working for the Pākehā kids but not for the others. So I said: “I’m outa here.”
And away I went. First, I got into journalism where I spent the better part of 15 years, first as a working journo at the Taranaki Herald and the Evening Post in Wellington and then training Māori journalists at Waiariki Polytechnic in Rotorua.
The appeal of journalism was that I could see there was a need for more stories about Māori — and especially a need for positive rather than the negative headlines we were seeing week after week.
You made your move into the media before the Waiariki journalism course was set up in 1985. And I understand one of your steps was doing a five-month course at what was then the Auckland Technical Institute.
That’s right. And it was a useful stepping stone. There was a significant minus in that it was so Pākehā in its design and delivery. But still, it led on to a job as a reporter for the Taranaki Herald where George Koea was in charge. He was the first Māori editor of a provincial daily newspaper and he was a great boss.
As was the custom for cub reporters on their first day at work, I was called into his office for what I’d been advised by the older journos would be a two-minute session where I’d be told to do whatever the chief reporter told me to do and that would be it.
But George was like an old uncle to me and we talked for more than 40 minutes. Like, for instance, about dress (“Always wear a tie”) because, he said, it’s hard enough being a journalist in Taranaki but even harder when they know you’re Māori. So he said I shouldn’t give anyone a chance to pull me up on an issue as petty as dress.
He also gave me a friendly lecture on my role. It was to be, first and foremost, a reporter. I was to get the facts, the news and the opinions. I wasn’t there to save the Māori race or the iwi of Taranaki. But I needed to be tough enough to encounter racism and to deal with it with decorum, professionalism and humility — and not to allow myself to be angered by what others said about us or our people.
Back in the newsroom, the Pākehā were astonished that George and I had talked for so long. None of them had ever had that experience. That told me they hardly knew a thing about him — where he’d come from, what he’d had to contend with over the years, or what his thoughts were as a Māori in an almost exclusively white profession.
But lying ahead of you, there was still a role for you in kura kaupapa Māori, wasn’t there?
Yes. There was a turning point, a career switch, 30 years ago. Renee, my wife, and I were at a tangihanga in Te Teko for one of Renee’s cousins. After the burial and hākari, we got talking with Cathy Dewes, another of Renee’s cousins, about the school she had set up at Ruamata marae in Rotorua.
That’s when I realised that her kura kaupapa Māori was supplying what was missing from the Kedgley classrooms — and missing from the lives of other Māori kids in mainstream schools all around the country. For me, suddenly the lights went on. At Ruamata, there was the reo, mātauranga Māori, wairua Māori and tirohanga Māori.
So we embraced that kaupapa with Cathy and Te Whānau o Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata and haven’t looked back since. The protester, activist spark in me was rekindled in all sorts of ways — and burns still.
Our six tamariki all attended Ruamata for varying lengths of time and it was there we really got to learn about Te Aho Matua (the power of aroha and the importance of wairua). We also got to see kura kaupapa Māori as a unique, valid, and essential education option for Māori and for Aotearoa.
Were there any early experiences that helped steer you in this direction?
Well, I can recall a particular day back in 1966 or 1967, when I was still at primary school in Tokoroa and the headmaster came into our room and told us that, because the school was growing, they’d have to move some of us to another room.
We didn’t really understand what was going on. But then we saw a truck bringing a prefab on to the site. And the headmaster came and read the list of names of those who’d be moving.
We said: “Yeah. That’s cool.” But, when we went to our “new” classroom, we could see it was just the kind of cold, leaky, dingy, fibrolite building that most of us were already familiar with. And, when I looked around, it was only the Māori kids who were going. All the Pākehā kids were staying behind. So was the teacher who we all loved.
I knew in my heart that something wasn’t right, something was going on. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was significant. And that has always stuck with me.
Another event that was etched in my mind came through television in 1968 when we were watching the Mexico Olympics. It was the medal ceremony after the 200-metres sprint final. An American, Tommie Smith, was the winner, an Australian, Peter Norman was second, and John Carlos, another American, was third.
As the US anthem was played, the Americans bowed their heads and raised their right fists, in black gloves, in the air as their way of drawing attention to the inequality in their country. And the Aussie stood with them, solidly in support.
I didn’t understand the significance at the time, but I thought: “Man, this is really, really important.” And the image has stayed with me. And that event was just one of many that television brought us, showing us the huge changes going on in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The moon landing, the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Cold War, the Cuba crisis. So it was an amazing time to be growing up.
And it wasn’t just what was going on overseas because there were events here that were close enough at hand for us to take part in. Like joining in Whina Cooper’s Land March in 1975. And, when we were at Tipene, going in to Bastion Point every second Sunday to take part in the karakia, talk with the protesters and support the occupation.
Then, in the 1980s, there were more developments, like with the changes to the Waitangi Tribunal and the growing Māori nationalism and the rise of Ngā Tamatoa. There were other significant events, too, like Bob Marley’s 1980 visit and the 1981 Springbok tour.
I was watching some footage about those protests on TV the other day and it still makes me proud to say: “I was there. We were there.” We were protesting against not only the arrival of the team from that racist regime but also confronting racism in our own country, although many people didn’t get that at the time.
And, with the growing awareness of tino rangatiratanga and its flag, all these things made a huge impression on us growing up as teenagers and shaped what we might do with lives. We were reflecting on history and becoming more and more aware of our responsibilities.
We felt the responsibility and had the desire to make Aotearoa a better place for our kids and mokopuna, so that they could actually BE Māori — that it was natural and normal to be Māori, to speak Māori, behave as Māori, anywhere, any time.
That’s what we’ve loved about kura kaupapa Māori because it has brought us strength and helped us navigate a pathway through all those years through to today.
Thank you, Rawiri. There’s a richness in what you’ve just shared. During the urbanisation in the ‘50s and ‘60s, our language and some of our ways were pushed aside. But now we’re finding our feet and we’re recognising that tikanga Māori plays a massive role in developing our cultural pride and self-esteem. Perhaps we have hit on a formula that can see us into the future?
I believe absolutely that Kura Kaupapa Māori Aho Matua is the way forward for us to revitalise and regenerate ourselves as Māori. That’s why Renee and I have dedicated our lives to working for that kaupapa. We have tried to impress upon our kids that it’s possible to be Māori in every sense, without giving away anything about being Māori, and still be a fully functioning person of the universe, but with a dual worldview.
Renee and I both had to learn Māori as young adults. We weren’t born with it or into it. It wasn’t our fault we didn’t speak Māori as kids. Nor was it the fault of our parents because they were also victims of the times they grew up in.
But, having come to that realisation, we also realised that if we wanted a Kura Kaupapa Māori Aho Matua education for our kids, then we had to learn Māori ourselves. So we did.
If we look at the bracket that Ngā Tūmanako presented to the world at the recent Te Matatini festival, that was te aho matua, that was te reo Māori, that was tikanga Māori on display. Almost all those performers and many other performers, too, are kura kaupapa Māori graduates and whānau, so they continue to spread the message that it’s cool to be Māori and it’s cool to speak Māori.
They used to say: “Why Learn Māori? It’s not going to help you get a job.” But that’s last century’s argument. The argument today is in favour of speaking Māori because people who are bilingual or trilingual have far greater employment opportunities. Add some educational qualifications to that and you can go anywhere. You can do anything in the world and retain your essence of being a native to New Zealand.
You would’ve taught a number of people who’re now young parents. And our generation can take pride in seeing this dimension unfolding in front of us. It must have been satisfying for you, Rawiri, to see this pride displayed at Te Matatini?
Yes, immensely satisfying and humbling. At Te Matatini, a number of former students who’re now in their 30s came up and gave me a big hug. I mightn’t have seen them for 10 or 15 years, but it felt just like yesterday. There they are doing their own thing in the world, contributing and giving back — it’s fantastic.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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