Students of Māori studies often have emotional responses to the content of the subjects they’re taught, says Dr Maria Bargh, the new head of Te Kawa a Māui (School of Māori Studies) at Victoria University. Whether it’s the Treaty or the New Zealand Wars or the management of resources like water, the reaction is often one of anger: “Why wasn’t I told?”
Breaking down that ignorance of our history (and its influence on the politics of today) is an obvious spinoff of Māori Studies, but it doesn’t stop there. As Maria tells Dale Husband in this interview, she hopes the school will help to produce, and arm, the next generation of critical thinkers to be the conscience of society.
Kia ora Maria. We’ll turn to your Māori side in a moment but your surname suggests an interesting background.
Yes. The Bargh name is from England and was originally De Burgh. They were Huguenots who fled from France to England. And, for some reason, they changed their name to Bargh. My father is Brian Bargh and his great-grandfather came out to New Zealand in the mid-to-late-1800s. We’re also descendants of Higginsons.
And your Māori side?
We’re from Te Arawa. We’re Ngāti Kea, Ngāti Tuara from Horohoro — out of Rotorua on the road towards Atiamuri. The Horohoro mountain is there. And Kearoa marae. Pokaitu is the awa that flows past the marae. So that’s the connection there. We’re also from Ngāti Awa, although we haven’t had as much to do with that side. Kuia and Koro, my grandparents, live right next to the marae at Horohoro.
Kuia is Hepora Raharuhi Young. She was a teacher at Rotorua Boys’ High. And she also was involved with the Waitangi Tribunal and the Law Commission in the later years of her life. Her father, Raharuhi Pururu, was one of the rangatira of our hapū.
Back in the days of Apirana Ngata, our koroua Raharuhi volunteered the land at Horohoro for the first land development scheme. Raharuhi was worried about holding on to the land. He wanted to make sure that we could retain all of our hapū land so he volunteered the land down at Horohoro for the land development scheme.
The land development scheme had its challenges and a lot of the land at the south end of Horohoro was sold off, unfortunately. It went to Pākehā farmers. But down that end of the bluff is Rongomaipāpā marae. And that was set up for the Kahungunu people. As part of the land development scheme, Apirana Ngata brought some Ngāti Kahungunu people, who were renowned for their farming prowess, over from Wairoa to help Te Arawa. And our hapū thought they needed a marae where they could spend time together.
So Rongomaipāpā is at the south end of the Horohoro Bluff and it’s really for the Kahungunu people that came. Many of them got homesick and went back to Wairoa. But there are still intermarriages and connections there. Kuia was a teacher. Koro was a teacher too, but he’s also been a dairy farmer for many, many years at Horohoro on our family land there.
It feels like you’re following in their footsteps somewhat, Maria. Your mum too. So could you tell us about your mum and dad, Robyn and Brian? Were they academically inclined as well before they ended up in publishing, as the founders of Huia Publishers?
Well, originally, they were more on the hippy side of things. They were very environmentally aware. And my brother, Kapua, and I grew up in Blenheim and Palmerston North. Robyn and Brian were very concerned about environmental matters. They were members of Forest and Bird. And they lent a hand in various environmental protests.
So that was the context we grew up in. Then we moved to Papua New Guinea when I was three. Lived there until I was six. Brian was testing water for the Catchment Board in Papua New Guinea. We lived in Port Moresby but we’d go up into the highlands testing water and things like that.
I’ve got a soft spot for PNG too, having travelled there as a young guy. But I’m conscious that it was a fairly rugged place back in the ‘80s when we visited. It could be quite threatening, especially for wahine. Did it leave an imprint on the type of person you’ve become?
It definitely left an imprint on me. We lived in a house in a normal suburb in Port Moresby, whereas many of the other expats lived in communities with big fences and alarm systems. I remember being frightened of the “rascals”. They came at night on a number of occasions. But everything turned out okay.
We also knew about the mines and the pollution from them, and the tailings — and why the water needed to be tested. Even as a kid, that was lurking in my mind while I was playing in the dirt and looking for tadpoles in the puddles. You don’t necessarily understand what it’s all about as a kid. But, once you grow up and learn about the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and the large resource extraction type projects, that gives you a different view on those things.
And what were your moves when the family came back from PNG?
Well, we lived in Stratford for a while and then Robyn got a job at the Ministry of Justice in Wellington, and Brian, eventually, worked for the Treaty of Waitangi research unit which was the forerunner of the Office of Treaty Settlements.
So I went to Ngaio School, and then Onslow College. Also, I went on a student exchange to Brazil which shaped my thinking about inequality and injustice. Then it was politics and English literature at Victoria University.
But it quickly became apparent that politics was my passion. I’d always been passionate about that. Even at Raroa Intermediate. One of my good friends there was Meipara Poata and we’d spend lunchtimes discussing David Lange and parliament and Māori rights and things like that. Even as an 11-year-old, those things were on my mind.
And then, when I got to university, I joined up with Ngā Tauira and studied politics. Those were the days of Annette Sykes, Mike Smith and Mereana Pittman doing decolonisation hui around the country. So, I went to a few of those. And I was thinking about tino rangatiratanga and how we could advance that.
You studied in Canberra as well, didn’t you?
Well, I became interested in Pacific issues. And, after I became the kaihautū of Te Mana Akonga (the National Māori University Students’ Association), Annette Sykes encouraged me to go to Geneva to a Peoples Global Action meeting against free trade and the World Trade Organisation. And there I met all sorts of activists from around the world — people from Mexico, farmers from India, and all sorts of indigenous and non-indigenous activists.
And that reconfirmed for me that neo-liberalism is a set of policies and practices having a really negative impact on all sorts of people around the world. In particular, indigenous people. I’d gone to Japan to teach English for a while. But I was looking at universities that weren’t too far from Aotearoa. I knew that if I stayed at home, I’d keep doing tino rangatiratanga stuff and there was no way I’d finish a PhD. So, I decided it’d be best if I went overseas. And that’s what I did.
I went to the Australian National University in Canberra to do a thesis examining neo-liberal practices. I took three years to do that and then came back home to support Māori aspirations. I was pretty exhausted — luckily, Hirini Mead took me under his wing. There was the Ngāti Awa research and archive office still operating in Wellington for Ngāti Awa ki Poneke and Hirini helped me sit in on some of the negotiations in the final stages of the Ngāti Awa settlement.
That was also a real eye-opener for me. And then I worked for a year in Whakatane at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi. Gary Hook was the CEO at the time.
Indigenous whakaaro and matauranga are undervalued. But perhaps that experience changed the way you viewed tertiary education that makes a priority of Māori thinking — and of indigenous global thinking too.
It did. But just because we’re Māori and we want to promote tino rangatiratanga and our Māori aspirations, that doesn’t mean we can’t use ideas and philosophies from other places. So I found that quite challenging. But then I came back to Wellington and moved from the politics department at Vic to a permanent position in Māori Studies. And I’ve been there ever since.
Now, let’s talk about Māori politics. We’ve been through a Māori renaissance, with protest marches, kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, Māori broadcasting and Treaty settlements. But there’ve been other developments such as the Māori Party and the Mana movement. What do you make of the political scene?
Well, not that many Māori study in politics departments. But Māori politics happens in places that are different from where Pākehā politics is going on. On the marae, of course. And in various other iwi and pan-iwi settings. Māori are engaged in politics in many areas of their lives. In economics, too. And there are hugely influential people who aren’t in parliament, like Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson, who are strong political forces. Those people are really important as well.
I see that just recently you’ve taken up the role as head of Māori Studies at Victoria University. And I get the impression that you’re encouraging your tauira to think outside the square?
Yeah. And also I’d like to encourage them to think about being a critic and conscience of society. I teach Māori resource management and Māori politics. Those are the two main areas. Water, for example, is a current issue. But these issues have been around since the early settlers started sending big logs down rivers and busting up all of the fishing equipment that Māori had on those rivers.
There’ve been submissions, letters and petitions from Māori to the government or to Pākehā saying: “Actually, we have different ways of thinking about water. And we’re the kaitiaki.” So I try to encourage the students to think about the long history, the many decades of work that Māori have put into pushing for alternative constitutional models or other ways of managing resources.
That often sets something going in the students. We find a lot of our students in Māori Studies talking about having really emotional reactions to the content of the subjects we teach. That’s whether it’s about the Treaty, or the New Zealand Wars or resources like water.
Afterwards they often say: “I’m really angry now because I had no idea about any of that.” And it leads us back to what is taught in schools. Being taught New Zealand history and Māori history is something that’s really important — for Pākehā students as well because, after the classes, they say: “I never realised it was quite like that. Nobody told me. Why wasn’t I told?” They want to be supportive but don’t know how.
I wonder whether it’s time for decolonisation seminars for the colonisers. Or for the kids of the colonisers. We don’t seem to have anything much like that these days?
Well, there’ve been Pākehā Treaty workers trying for many years. But they haven’t gained that much traction. And we’ve had a couple of PhD theses at Vic focusing on the idea of Pākehā as allies. And there are more younger Pākehā students coming into Māori studies and asking what the appropriate role is for Pākehā in doing research about Māori — working with Māori.
And that’s an encouraging sign. Particularly in the face of a whole lot of government policies that suggest that some of our politicians have never read any New Zealand history at all.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.