At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in 2009, I was lucky enough to attend a session in which Ranginui Walker, academic, historian and biographer shared the stage with his own biographer and friend Paul Spoonley.
Over the course of the hour Walker came across as an intelligent, committed man with a great deal of personal integrity. Someone who never intended to be “the voice of Māoridom” for Pākehā New Zealand but somehow ended up there (and as you can imagine this was not often a comfortable position to be in). He spoke quietly and modestly of his accomplishments while there was no doubt that the courteous and stately manner was underlaid by a steely resolve. This is often the case with people who tell difficult truths.
His contribution to our understanding of ourselves as a country cannot be overstated. His 1990 history of New Zealand from a Māori perspective, Ka whawhai tonu matou: Struggle without end (along with Michael King’s The Penguin history of New Zealand) is a must read for anyone interested in how New Zealand came to be the place it is. It was a revelation to many and is a seminal work, which was later updated to address the Foreshore and Seabed debate. It is still a great and relevant read for all New Zealanders.
He wrote many other books that illuminated some aspect of the Māori experience of Aotearoa from a highly-acclaimed biography of Sir Apirana Ngata to a tribal history of his own beloved Whakatōhea iwi.
Ranginui Walker passed away yesterday at the age of 83. New Zealand has lost a great writer, thinker, and person.
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 –