Before he passed away last week, on August 17, Te Arawa kaumātua Sir Toby Curtis (Ngāti Rongomai, Ngāti Pikiao) had been working on a book with his longtime friend Lorraine Berridge McLeod. Knowing that he was unwell, they began writing the memoir early this year — and although Tā Toby was able to see the manuscript off to the printers, publication is still three months away, on November 17.

The book records Tā Toby’s life story as well as his views on Māori education and leadership, colonisation and the loss of te reo, and his experience of racism. 

In this extract from Toby Curtis — Unfinished business: Ki hea āpōpō, published here with the kind permission of Oratia Books, Tā Toby describes his early life in Rotomā, Rotorua, in the 1940s.


When I was born, our family lived near Rotomā in a Public Works house, consisting of a collection of huts joined together. One was a lounge, one a kitchen, one a dining room, and one a lounge with a bed and an open fire. Outside were other huts for sleeping. There was no electricity, and I remember doing homework and reading by candlelight at night.

When I was eight, the family moved to Mapouriki, on Lake Rotoiti. Mapouriki is not on Pākehā maps, but local Māori know where it is. This house was a one-roomed building made of found materials, such as corrugated iron and timber rescued from other sites and lumber felled in the bush by my father. This house grew to two rooms over time, and half of it still stands today.

With 15 children to feed, my father worked anywhere and everywhere. Initially he was with Public Works, clearing land and digging drains, but his building skills developed. At first I think he was religiously influenced by his aunties’ and uncles’ association with the Ringatū movement, but later he began working with Catholic priests and building their houses and churches. A number of houses my father built are currently still occupied by locals.

Later, Father had the foresight to obtain a house on land owned by a local trust. The house was rented out for a long time, but my father ensured it was rebuilt by the trust so our family ended up with something of reasonable value.

I hated helping him with his building work because he was so fastidious. Us kids all disappeared rather than be asked to help, as he always wanted everything lined up and so carefully finished.

Toby’s father James (left) with Sam Emery, his business partner. (Photo supplied/Toby Curtis)

Toby’s mother, Taipapaki, ready to present Toby’s sister Marina to Governor-General Charles Norrie, early 1950s. (Photo supplied/Toby Curtis)

The Catholic influence grew as he worked with the priests, and he became a staunch, devout believer. I often thought that he was holier than the priests, in his manner, demeanour and action. Right up to his death, he said morning and evening prayers. Priests sought his advice. Mother had belonged to the Church of England prior to their marriage, but converted to Catholicism. As a result, all us children were raised as Catholics.

He was careful and thoughtful. The only weakness my father had that I could see (which had nothing to do with religion) was that he listened to his eldest daughter, my sister Toni. She could be unpleasant to her younger sisters but she had his ear. However, she was very kind to me.

Our family owned a 1941 Nash sedan that seated six. My parents were very inventive at expanding the car’s capacity to accommodate far beyond its carrying limit. Depending on how many children were still living at home, or perhaps visiting, one or two of my brothers and sisters would be in the front, three or four on the back seat, and another three on the floor.

We went to church on Sundays, mostly in the car. But if the car wouldn’t start, we would have to walk. When I was eight or so, we would often walk the 10 kilometres to church. The priest would listen to confessions before church, so we went early.

The old man was also an expert hunter, especially of kererū (native pigeons). He would bring them home and we loved them. All the best parts of the pigeon were given to the women, and the males in the family had to eat the skinny legs and other less desirable parts. Dad even planted a miro tree outside our kitchen to attract the kererū, which feast off the berries. I still have that tree; I dug it up from our old house and planted it where I am living now. When I think about it, I cook chicken with miro berries to remind me of the delicious flavour of those kererū.

Mother carried out the traditional motherhood role. She was responsible for caring for and feeding us all, maintaining a large vegetable garden, and keeping house. These traditional roles influenced me strongly, and I took that through to my own marriage. I thought my wife’s responsibilities were to look after the children, do all the household chores (including cooking), and do the gardening. My role was to earn the money to support them all. I now feel very sorry that I didn’t know to do anything differently to help Mary, my wife. It must have been very hard on her.

James and Taipapaki Curtis in later years. (Photo: Toby Curtis)

When I look back to my childhood, I realise that we lived in poverty, although as a child I didn’t recognise that. We were surrounded by other families who were in the same situation, and sometimes worse. Often, we had little food in the house. When we had meat, mainly wild pork with the occasional wild deer, rabbits and sheep, it formed the basis of our meals. Often, Father joined a group of village men and spent weekends hunting in the bush, distributing the resulting meat to half of the small village one week and to the other half the next week.

When such meat was not available, trout were caught in the creek flowing into the lake. Seasonal vegetables from Mother’s garden supplemented the meat or fish, but little money was available for any other food or purchases. I remember that lunch was often just bread she had made, with no fillings or spreads; I felt shamed when it came to school lunchtime and I had only a slice of bread to eat.

When the hunters had not been busy, the sequence of our weekly evening menu would be: brisket, pork belly, brisket, potatoes (perhaps served with watercress), pork belly, potatoes, brisket. We were sometimes hungry but not starving; we were lucky to have food at all, as many local families had much less than we did.

The only time we had a roast beef or pork meal with all the trimmings was when the priest visited our church to take Mass each month. Mother would cook a beautiful meal for him to enjoy with us after the service. One thing I noticed with interest was that when he sometimes brought two nuns with him to help children in the catechism class, the nuns were not permitted by the church authorities to eat with us (or to be seen eating in public). We would see them outside, tucked around behind the car, eating their meal.

My mother was an exceptional baker of rēwena bread, made from potatoes. After dinner, at about 8pm when the fire was still hot and well established, she would put the dough into a large cast-iron pot (that we would probably call a Dutch oven today). This was placed over the hot coals and would cook for a couple of hours. The smell of that bread was wonderful. As children, we would often wait up to eat it — but it took some time to cool after cooking, so we waited until late.

Apparently, Mother could not cook before she married — she could not even make a cup of tea. Father had to teach her the basics. By the time I was born, she was a wonderful cook.

The older children in the family helped Mother with the supervision of younger children and work in the garden, but now I often regret the fact that, as the baby of the family, I was given few responsibilities for these chores. To this day, I feel I have little understanding of, or success with, gardening because of my place in the family. I have often been called a spoilt brat by my brothers and sisters, but I don’t think they remember me always being the one having to sit in the back seat of the car, being the last to sit at the table, or only getting hand-me-downs.

In spite of living in some poverty, I think I had a good childhood. As kids, we roamed the creek, lakeside and bush environments around our home, first on foot and later on bicycles. As we got older, afterschool activities involved meeting up with relatives and friends who lived down the road. We would get together to play as most boys always have: building huts, playing cowboys and Indians with toy guns, flying kites, making raupō boats to float in the stream near the Waitangi Soda Springs.

My cousins, Wira Gardiner, Albie and Joe Malcolm and I rode our bikes along the road. On reflection, all of us were a similar age, and all of us went on to have interesting and remarkable careers.

Albie ended up as CEO of Waiariki Polytechnic. Wira began his career in the army, became an author, served as CEO at Te Puni Kōkiri for three years, and served on boards and as a senior advisor to successive governments; he was knighted in 2008. Joe has been a school principal, is a leading orator, and has held a prominent role in Te Arawa’s iwi development, creating business opportunities. And I worked at national and international levels of education.

Four little Māori boys from a tiny place off Hongi’s Track!

A family portrait in the late 1980s. Front row, left to right: Toby, Mary and Elana; back row, left to right, Michael, Richard and Piripi. (Photo supplied/ Toby Curtis)

Tā Toby in 2022, with his great-granddaughter Waimirirangi Ahuaiti Tui Curtis-Ashford. (Photo: Piripi Curtis)

Extracted with permission from Toby Curtis — Unfinished business: Ki hea āpōpō, written by Tā Toby Curtis with Lorraine Berridge McLeod, to be published by Oratia Books on 17 November 2022, three months after Sir Toby’s passing.

See also Toby Curtis: A paradox of success for his views on the loss of te reo and Māori education.

Dr Sir Noble Tamihana (Toby) Curtis — Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Rongomai — was born near the shores of Lake Rotoehu on 13 November 1939. He was the youngest of 15 children born to James and Taipapaki Curtis.

In 2014, he was knighted for his services to Māori education. He held a Diploma in Teaching, a Master of the Arts, a PhD, and was a Fulbright Scholar.

Toby started as a primary school teacher and worked with intellectually disabled children before going on to become principal of Hato Petera College and vice-principal of Auckland Teachers’ College.

In the 1990s, he was Auckland College of Education Primary Teacher Education director, Faculty Dean of the Auckland Institute of Technology and was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Auckland University of Technology in 2000. He was appointed chair of the Iwi Education Authority for Ngā Kura-ā-Iwi o Aotearoa in 2012, and served on the council of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

He was heavily involved in Māori broadcasting, and in 1997 was appointed chairman of Te Māngai Pāho. He chaired a Māori broadcasting advisory committee in the late 1980s, which led to the establishment of Radio Aotearoa, iwi radio stations and Māori Television.

He was the chair of Te Arawa Lakes Trust and Te Arawa Māori Trust Board, a member of the Iwi Chairs Forum, and also served on the Police Commissioner’s Māori Focus.

In 1966, he married Mary Agnes Sharry, and the couple went on to have four children.

He died at his home on August 17, aged 82.

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