Ranginui Walker, accidental activist

Ranginui Walker never set out to be an activist. He considers himself a fairly conservative person, raised in a conservative, hard-working, farming family but as he achieved higher level education and rose in academia he was asked to take on the role of spokesperson for his people (Whakatohea of Opotiki) and it’s a responsibility that he has carried through some fairly tumultuous times for Māoridom.

His biographer, Paul Spoonley, has in his new book Mata toa : the life and times of Ranginui Walker tried to “do justice” to, not only Dr. Walker, but also the massive changes that have happened in New Zealand society in the course of his lifetime. In this way Spoonley sees himself almost as “an accidental biographer” as he sees Ranginui Walker’s story as “very intimately connected” with this period of change in New Zealand. “I don’t think one story can be told without the other,” he said.

Geoff Walker, the chair of the session pointed out how unusual it was to have the author and the subject of the biography together on the same stage to take questions and I don’t doubt that that’s true. Part of the reason it happened is that Paul Spoonley and Ranginui Walker have known each other since the seventies and seem to have an admirably congenial relationship built on mutual respect and fostered over many years.

I had hoped to get a little insight into how someone who is obviously friendly with their subject might manage to stay impartial when writing their life story. Though I sheepishly put up my hand at question time, I wasn’t lucky enough to be able to ask that question directly though Spoonley did partially address this earlier on when he described how open and forthcoming Dr Walker and his wife Deirdre had been in providing him information. In his investigations, he said, he’d found nothing to contradict anything that they had shared with him so he felt confident that their stories were accurate saying “There was never any information withheld from me as far as I could tell. They offered me as much as they could.”

It was extremely interesting to hear the way in which Dr Walker was very much the meat in the sandwich between “Pakeha New Zealand” and a generation of Māori more dislocated from their language and culture, and more angry than he. As someone who has always made himself available to speak to the media on matters Māori, he was seen by one side as more of a stirrer than a spokesman while the other considered him part of the establishment and called him a “limousine liberal” or “the Onassis of the Māori world”…because he drove a Rover.

Ranginui Walker may be neither of these things in reality, but what he is is an extremely well-educated, experienced, and astute New Zealander who has been witness to some groundbreaking moments in our history. His “life and times” are certainly worthy of a book even if his initial reaction to the proposal was “but I’m not dead yet.”

For more information on Ranginui Walker check out the following –

3 thoughts on “Ranginui Walker, accidental activist

  1. jane 19 May 2009 / 9:25 am

    I listened to Kim Hill interview Ranganui Walker a couple of weeks ago. I found the interview frustrating at times because she was inclined to keep asking him about the more controversial subjects, and I got the sense that he might have found this frustrating. The session at the festival sounds more honest and open, he is a fascintating man who has very much been between two camps at times. Thanks for your interesting post MoMo.

    • Mo-mo 19 May 2009 / 12:03 pm

      That’s interesting Jane, I haven’t listened to the interview but can imagine that’s the angle that most journalists would emphasize which is why a literary festival is a much more chilled out way of finding out about authors. Panel discussions and talks are to a receptive audience and there’s a lot of palpable good will in the room.
      I personally found the session really interesting in that he has often been in the position, because of his high academic standing, to speak on behalf of “Maoridom” but of course “Maoridom” is made up of individuals with many different viewpoints but he seems a man infused with a great deal of personal integrity and strength (he said he grew up on a farm and in the past has had no problem using strong and direct language with strangers who want to ring him up on the phone and abuse him – quite!). You could probably write half a dozen books about his life actually.

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