Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku reflects on her journey from pā life in Rotorua to activism and academia in her new memoir out this week. (Photo supplied)

Emeritus professor Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku was the first wāhine Māori to earn a PhD in a New Zealand university.

But growing up in Rotorua in the 1950s, whānau dismissed her dreams of higher education. To them, she was just a show-off, always getting into trouble, talking back, and running away.

Now, in a new memoir about identity and belonging, Ngāhuia describes how she transformed herself from a restless working-class girl to an activist, scholar and founding member of Ngā Tamatoa and the women’s and gay liberation movements.

In this extract from her book Hine Toa, she recalls a defining moment at Auckland Law School.

 

The year 1969 was one of hard, grinding work, framed by protest against America in Vietnam, coloured by more immediate local inequities, and flavoured by theatrical fancies. I managed to focus on my studies, still determined to get through — and get through well.

I scored above average marks in arts subjects, particularly English, and consistently made C– or lower in law subjects like Torts and Contract Law. This puzzled me, and it disturbed Dianne (my Law School friend).

This time, we raised it directly with the lecturers. We were supported by Miss Ringwood, a volunteer tutor and lawyer committed to social justice. She helped students with assignments and was perplexed by my low grades, as Dianne had been when we worked together on our essays and were graded so differently.

But every inquiry was blanked or deferred. The tutors continued to snigger at us. Miss Ringwood suggested that it was a structural problem somehow too big and too deep for us to move; she called it racism. She confronted some of the senior staff, who declared that this was New Zealand, and everyone, even the likes of me, got a fair go.

And we knew that was a lie. In the live performance of mooting, judged by objective outsiders, I gained the second highest score — my only moment of triumph in that school. This was perceived as an anomaly and quickly dismissed.

Miss Ringwood’s continuing support and my ongoing study with Dianne saw me make it through the terms process and to the final examinations. But by the third term of 1969, I realised that the Law School would never let me thrive, that everything about it was hostile. I believed them when they told me, without words, that I had no right to be there. I went out fighting.

That year, America landed a spacecraft on the moon, and their agent planted a tin flag. In a Land Law lecture, we listened to the live broadcast; we were exultant and intellectually enthralled. After weeks of desiccated English statutes, here we were, living and listening to history!

Humans about to colonise and control another heavenly body, to exploit, occupy, command and dominate through brute force, technology and self-serving legislation, like Land Law.

Once the moondust settled, I thought about the long-term impact of that metal pennant thrust into the thin crust of a faraway fabled world; I contemplated what that gesture meant. Blind and righteous greed; the bold enactment of those same predatory values disseminated in our lectures.

Throughout the course, I’d become increasingly disruptive. I couldn’t understand why everything led back to the Mother Country, to the laws of the Empire, when New Zealand had its own laws and legal challenges and crunchy litigious stuff that was about this land, these islands.

Ngāhuia’s memoir was released this week. (Image supplied)

The new Māori Affairs Amendment Act was causing havoc in the courts — I understood that from my mother Erana’s passing, as her estate was immense, complicated, and extensive, with substantial interests throughout the region. People in the pā gossiped about Aunt Te Aho’s set of extremely expensive lawyers brought in from Auckland to systematise and confirm her older sister’s holdings. As the mātāmua, firstborn, Erana inherited the majority share of her parents’ ancestral lands and heritage items. This reinforced what I knew; Māori land was a critically important concern.

The lecturer, a drooping caricature, deemed any verbal engagement with me as distasteful — my questions were irrelevant, though they certainly amused the class. Even the other females, all of them except Dianne, snickered softly. I was behaving like an Unruly Native, a living textbook case in their lecture room.

I persisted, asking why we only considered the English system in tutorials and wrote detailed essays about that model. What about issues affecting our own country? Why did we have to digest all this foreign historic material?

I decided law, for all my schoolgirl hopes and dreams and plans, was not for me, at least not the law they were teaching at Auckland. I would go to a subject where I could get A passes if I worked as hard as the other clever swots from the drama club. I knew I could keep up with them, so I decided to leave the Law School. On my own terms.

Case law about the Treaty of Waitangi was limited in 1969, and the different judgements and decisions following the “Māori Wars” were difficult to access. But I burrowed away, mining as much information as possible, unearthing every reference and article on record. I consumed and analysed, unpacked, and revisited every word.

For the Land Law finals, I put aside the set examination questions, but my head was down and my pen was racing for those three intense, invigorating hours. I cited case law and significant decisions, some verbatim, to reinforce my argument in 40 feverish pages of text. None of it was relevant to the examination, but every phrase exhorted a response.

I made two assertions. The first was that the Treaty of Waitangi was the Magna Carta of our country and should be regarded accordingly, rather than derided as an aspirational curiosity. The second was that Māori land issues would become a massive income source for the profession in years to come, and that students, particularly Māori, needed to be prepared for this development now. Rotorua was an outstanding exemplar.

My conclusion was brazen and boldly provocative: by ignoring these issues, the Law School was perpetuating the biases and brutality of a racist colonial government.

I handed in two booklets of packed exam script in their sour yellow covers, and I danced out the door, delighted with myself. I’d had my say, and I expected nothing to come of it. I formally withdrew from the degree.

 

Hine Toa: A story of bravery, a memoir by Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku, is published by HarperCollins Aotearoa New Zealand and was released this week.  

Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Ngāpuhi, Waikato) has degrees from the University of Auckland and University of Waikato. An emeritus professor, she has worked as a curator, lecturer, critic, researcher and governor in the heritage and university sectors. She is a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and a Fellow of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. She has returned to the pā and serves on the Paepae Tapu o Ngāti Whakaue.

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