3 Feb 2024

Hirini Moko Mead: 'One could say that yes, I did walk the talk'

From Māpuna, 12:10 pm on 3 February 2024

After organising the ground-breaking exhibition Te Māori, leading his iwi's Treaty settlement and founding a university, Sir Hirini Moko Mead is now 96.

The esteemed Māori leader and academic (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Tūhourangi, Tuhoe) sat down with Julian Wilcox in a recent episode of the podcast Indigenous 100.

Māori writer and teacher Dr Hirini Moko Mead

Māori writer and teacher Dr Hirini Moko Mead Photo: Awanuiārangi Council

Mātauranga Māori (indigenous Māori knowledge) is "a rare sort of taonga", Sir Hirini tells Julian.

In the process of colonisation it was damaged, he says, alongside the Māori language and their leadership and religious systems.

"All of those were immediately targeted by the settlers who came here and the missionaries, them combined. So through policies of suppression, Mātauranga Māori disappeared, just went out.

"Along with it, te reo, all our kōrero about Rangi and Papa, all our karakia mostly slipped away except in certain places, far away from Pākehā influence it survived."

It wasn't until 1975, when the Treaty of Waitangi Act was passed, that "things began to move" in the direction of Māori cultural revitalisation.

"The amazing thing about Mātauranga was that not only did Māori seize it when it did come back, but Pākehās loved that, they too wanted that.

"You have Māori trying to gain control of their own cultural development. And, this time, waves of Pākehā suddenly interested in Mātauranga Māori. Every government department now has a policy on Mātauranga Māori.

"We're in the position now that we're not quite sure, as Māori, whether we own this taonga that is actually a legacy handed down to us from generations who've passed on."

This needs to be addressed, Sir Hirini says, and one way could be to "revive" the National Māori Congress.

"And this time don't be too hooked on the idea that we have to do it by ourselves. We can't. Just go to the government and say 'We want money to revive The Māori Congress so that it can have a part to play in protecting us and also in protecting the reo, protecting Mātauranga Māori and being not only the protector, but the voice within the nation to let people know that Mātauranga Māori belongs in the first place to Māori."

Earlier generations of Māori "may have been more colonised than us now" but their whānau were more cohesive, he says.

"I think poverty caused that. That was the response, that whānau had to work together to survive."

Watch the full conversation here:

Sir Hirini tells Julian he sees "signs" that a new generation of young Māori are stronger in their culture than today's elders.

"That generation of kaumātua, the present one, are less culturally prepared than the kids that are coming up now.

"I see that the rangatahi round here now are just far more talented, it seems to me, you know. Far more talented.

"Maybe it's because the new technologies now have helped them to be just smarter than their parents even - some of them are too smart, mind you."

Lady June Mead and Sir Hirini Moko Mead

Lady June Mead and Sir Hirini Moko Mead Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Sir Hirini says he couldn't have achieved all that he did without the support of his late wife June.

"She was always there and always backing me, always supporting. Most of what I was able to do, I could not have done it without her. And if I slacked up on the job I'd get a word from her, eh."

June had a lot to do with the establishment of Whakatāne's indigenous tertiary education provider Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, he says.

"That's why I'm pleased there's a room here that's called the Lady June Room, because my whānau played a big role in getting this place established. And their role was all underpaid voluntary role.

"Others refused to come help if they weren't paid, so in the end, it's your own whānau, your own relations, who come aboard and help you get over the initial stages. Then once it's up and running, people forget all about you know - who did the hard work to get it up.

"I think for a lot of ventures, people just don't realise the impact on the family and the sacrifices that a family has to make."

Although his friends have "all died off", Sir Hirini is grateful to be "still here".

"It's been a marvelous experience being still here and seeing the developments and looking at the generation coming up."

Although he's unsure how much younger people he interacts with know about his life's work, he is treated with respect.

"They just know 'He has a bit of mana around here' ... so I gather from that that the legacy is that some of them do remember what has been done and what I achieved for the [Ngāti Awa] iwi and the many battles that I fought.

"One could say that yes, I did walk the talk."

You can watch more episodes of Indigenous 100 (produced by the creative agency Mahi Tahi) on their YouTube channel.

Related audio:

Sir Hirini Moko Mead on the whakatauki ​​'The kumara does not brag about its own sweetness' 

Sir Hirini Moko Mead on Mataatua Wharenui - one of New Zealand's foremost meeting houses