Image: Bianca Cross
Image: Bianca Cross

ĀteaApril 25, 2022

The Indigenous women who got me to Oxford

Image: Bianca Cross
Image: Bianca Cross

Rhodes scholar Rhieve Grey (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Raukawa) pays tribute to the Māori and Pacific women who helped propel him from small-town Aotearoa to one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

A version of this essay was first published on Rhieve Grey’s blog.

In 1927 a Māori woman from Te Arawa by the name of Margaret Staples-Brown, better known as Mākereti or Maggie Papakura, began studying at the University of Oxford. She was 55 at the time. She had already led an incredible life having journeyed from her little geothermal village of Whakarewarewa to one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Through her renowned tenacity and pride in Māori identity, Makereti set the standard for Indigenous educational attainment for aeons.

Almost 100 years later, I find myself here in Oxford, at the end of my second term. Walking the same corridors she did and having made the same long trip across the globe, I can’t help but think of the powerful Indigenous women who’ve played a role in me being here.

Mākereti Papakura
Mākereti Papakura


Some of my earliest memories are of my mum taking me to her classes at university while she studied primary school teaching. Time spent playing in the university courtyards while she studied hard to finish her degree foreshadowed my own possibilities in tertiary education. Throughout my life my mum has prioritised her children’s education. She designed a schedule where I would earn stickers for completing my writing and times tables after school. It sounds regimented, but the nature of these methods was of love and nurturing.

After graduating, she taught the seniors at my primary school. Big, scary senior kids would often approach me during lunch and, as I got ready to gap it, would say “Is Miss Grey your mum? She’s gangster as.” As you can imagine, the ever present force of my mother at my school meant I did my best always. I also got pretty good at concealing my 10-year-old schoolkid romances (which often just took the form of telling girls you liked them, laughing with your mates, and then sprinting off).

During school years my mother always believed we were capable of anything, even while our teachers at times did not. Often she would come to all-out war with my teachers. While I was embarrassed at the time, I’d learn in adulthood that in sticking up for her family, she was sticking up for Māori kids everywhere who had been failed by the education system. When a teacher believed in us as much as she did, they got the mumma tick of approval and often invited to our house for dinner. So, embarrassing for us either way I guess.

My mum was our family’s education champion. She lives and breathes Māori student success and continues her work in this area today. She soldiered through harrowing chronic illness to make sure that our achievement was paramount.

Rhieve Grey's grandparents
Nanna and Koro at Kakariki

Nanna Rangi

“There’s no work below you.”

The hilarious thing about my mum teaching at my school was that this wasn’t something new for me. My Nanna Rangi had already been teaching at my school for ages, in fact sometimes in my own classes.

The push for education in our family predated my mum. It was my great grandmother who sent all her girls to good schools and told them about university. It became clear to many of our people that education was critical for us to make a good life in the colonised world. My great grandmother’s strategy set a whole generation in motion and would change the course of our family. Nanna would in turn go to university and study teaching. One of her sisters became a prominent teacher in the town where I grew up, while another became the first Māori woman lawyer, and then a dame.

They grew up in a cold little settlement called Taurewa, at the base of our ancestral mountain Tongariro. Nanna had eight brothers and sisters, with a 20-year gap between her and the eldest. Nanna talks about the whole village knowing each other, going to dances together and swimming in the river (which blows my mind given it snows in Taurewa). Nanna was sent to Auckland for high school to attend Queen Victoria Girls School, taking a train from Tongariro every term.

Nanna taught me that in the face of whatever, you should remain humble. Treat others always with love, even if they do not do the same to you. I do my best to remain this way, but I don’t think I quite match the example she sets. When she would teach my classes at primary school, my embarrassment at having a relative in the classroom was eased by the other kids telling me that my nanna was gangster as well because she cared for the children so much and made them feel loved. Although sometimes the embarrassment would return again as my nanna pulled out the ukulele for singalong sessions in class.

Nanna’s truest lesson in humility would come during high school. After teaching, Nanna wanted to step back from work, so she and my koro  started cleaning the school I went to. You literally can’t make a hard worker stop working. When Nanna was cleaning the school she offered me pocket money if I helped. So every day after school I would help her clean the corridors that me and the boys had dirtied that same day. Nanna was a perfectionist. No black mark survived a day when she was cleaning. If it meant getting on your knees to scrub with an old toothbrush, well, so be it.

I was quite snobby about the work at first. I did it, but I was a teenager trying to be popular in a school that my grandparents cleaned. Sometimes when other students walked through the corridor while I was cleaning, they assumed I was on detention. I would let them believe it, because in my backwards thinking I figured letting them believe in the stereotype (the one where all Māori kids get detention) would be better for my social status than telling them I worked for my nanna and koro cleaning at the school. I regret this hugely. My nanna and koro stood proud of whatever work they did. They never fretted about society’s perception of work like that. Work was work, and doing a good job is all that matters no matter what you do. There is no work that you can ever be above. That’s what Nanna taught me and I know that well now.

Justice Hetaraka and Rhieve Grey
Jussy and I

Justice Hetaraka

After high school, I was geared up, ready to tackle the tertiary world that my ancestors and family had prepared me for. At first, university was super isolating with no relatives teaching my classes, or Nanna’s ukulele to embarrass me in front of friends. Instead I was met with the culture shock of the city, with brown faces a rare but beautiful sight in the institution. This was due in part to my lack of knowledge about where all the Māori hung out. Once I found the pockets of them, I was good. It was in these pockets I found a Māori law student named Justice Hetaraka. She is a Te Tai Tokerau woman, fiercely proud of her roots up north, but also, like me, a little homesick and unfamiliar with the strangeness of city living. We clicked immediately, having both been raised by Māori women in education, and with a passion for Māori achievement. Together we would start a movement to have our histories properly taught in the school curriculum. We collaborated with other students and ultimately expressed what we wanted to see for the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Throughout our collaboration, Justice showed me that a longing for home and the community you grew up in isn’t a weakness, even though sometimes university can make you feel that way. Instead, being grounded in where you come from is what will propel you into any challenges you face. Justice is someone who can go into a room and light it up with her passion and motivation. Many wonder how she does it. I came to know that it was because Jussy (her nickname) is fearless, confident in the knowledge that all that matters is her community and what she can do for them. It’s at the front of her mind at all times, and she reminds me that even when I am here in Oxford, 18,000km away, my superpower is my connection to home.

Marama Muru-Lanning
Marama Muru-Lanning

Marama Muru-Lanning

Halfway through my studies, I came across a post advertising a research assistant role on a project concerning robotics and tikanga Māori. I had to peep it twice to make sure I was reading correctly. And I was. The James Henare Māori Research Centre at the University of Auckland had recently linked up with some robotics folks over at the engineering department. Ready to up my involvement in the world of Indigenous academia (and in desperate need of cash), I applied for the post. The head of the research centre was a woman named Marama Muru-Lanning, an associate professor of anthropology and a Waikato woman with deep ties to the Kīngitanga.

I was fortunate enough to get the job. It was my first step into the expansive and cutting edge world of Indigenous research. My job was basically anything Marama or the research team told me to do. And I loved it.

Marama is an incredible operator. She could effortlessly navigate across all kinds of intellectual worlds. Like Makereti, Marama had travelled across the world showing off her skills. She had worked with Indigenous communities in Chile and regularly gave talks at top class institutions across the globe. I watched as one day she weaved together stories from our people in flax-root communities, the next day facilitated workshops with robotics engineers in the produce industry. In these ways Marama taught me about the dialogue between Indigenous knowledge and western knowledge systems. Before working with her, I had kept the two systems apart in my head, but watching Marama carefully navigate between them, combining them when appropriate and separating them when necessary, I saw the fruits of a respectful dialogue between the two. Through working alongside Marama I learnt about expressing pride in those Indigenous knowledge systems and ultimately who I was as an Indigenous person.

A lot of our projects at the centre required travelling around Aotearoa and interacting with Māori communities. Naturally we spent much time in the King Country. On one of our trips, Marama told me we’d be stopping in at a small cottage between Hamilton and Ngāruawahia. Living in her humble little whare with a beautiful garden was a women named Ngāpare Hopa. She was one of Marama’s mentors. We spoke about all kinds of things, and I told her what I was passionate about. We got onto the topic of Sir Mason Durie,  someone I had long looked up to. She said that I needed to go out there and be my own version of Mason Durie, and that I was completely capable of one day contributing to the Māori world like he had.

I left with all the inspiration I needed for a good while. When we hopped back in the car, Marama told me that the kind and unassuming person we had just met was the first Māori woman to graduate with a PhD from Oxford University. At the time I didn’t really know what Oxford was, but I knew it was a big deal.

The Rhodes scholarship

Towards the tail end of my degree I was stuck for conviction in what to do next. Choice is a double edged sword, though I wasn’t complaining.

One day while working at the Māori research centre, I came across an article titled “Standing on the shoulders of others” which detailed how KDee Aimiti Ma’ia’i had become the first Pacific woman to be awarded the Rhodes scholarship. I didn’t even know what the Rhodes scholarship was at the time, but typically when scholarships are won or opportunities afforded, the focus is on the individual’s efforts and journey to that point. Instead, here’s KDee speaking in that original article:

“It wouldn’t be possible without the countless Pacific women who have broken down barriers, dismantled stereotypes and paved the way for other Pacific women like me. There are countless Pacific women disrupting systems all throughout Aotearoa who deserve far more recognition and applause than they currently receive. This is for them too.”

It was how KDee spoke of her story that that sparked my interest in the thing she had actually won: a fully funded scholarship to study at Oxford with all expenses paid for. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it. Then again, during my school years this wasn’t the kind of thing our non-Māori education system marketed to young Māori living in the regions.

It took me a while to fully decide to go for it. It was hard to see where I’d fit among those who have historically won the scholarship. But this is where people like KDee were key for me. I needed those examples, I needed to know that our people and our different ways of seeing the world are deserving of, even entitled to, these massive opportunities which ultimately translate to wealth and resource. I felt it was right, and I went for it.

When trying to get tips on the application, one of the people I contacted was Professor Merata Kāwharu (Ngāti Whātua), yet another example of wahine Māori excellence who had been awarded a Rhodes scholarship in the late ’90s. Her father, Sir Hugh Kāwharu, had attained his doctorate from Oxford around the same time Whaea Ngāpare (the motivational nanny from Waikato) had attained hers.

The Oxford gang: (L-R) Amy O’Brien, the author’s fiancée; the author; KDee Aimiti Ma’ia’i; Marco de Jong


I write this from Oxford. I’m procrastinating on imminent assignments to share my understanding of the journey to this place. KDee and I actually came here together as part of the same cohort. Her partner Marco de Jong is another Sāmoan Rhodes scholar who arrived here in 2019.

And if you thought there weren’t enough Māori superheroes mentioned above, I have one more: Evie O’Brien, who was here to greet us and further reinforce the power of Indigenous networks. She’s the executive director of the Atlantic Institute – a massive deal.

It’s like the torch of guidance continues to be passed. Within our first few days here Evie had all the Indigenous peeps living in Oxford over to hers for lunch. She helped ground us in this new world. She also carries on the longstanding Māori women mentorship I’m so lucky to have.

Work to do

In Aotearoa, we still have marked disparities between the achievement of Māori and non-Māori in education. This disparity is present across all levels of the education system. I don’t claim to have all the answers to this problem, but I know one thing for sure – part of our solution has to be about empowering the Indigenous women of education to do what they do best: create Indigenous success.

Unfortunately, recent research suggests that this is not what is happening. Māori and Pacific academics have significantly lower odds of being promoted or being a professor, and are paid less compared to their non-Māori, non-Pacific counterparts. It’s markedly worse for Māori and Pacific women in academia. This comes on top of dealing with the racial discrimination that the education system is steeped in.

The river

Despite how it’s marketed and discussed, my journey here to Oxford is not solely my own. It’s the journey of many. It’s the result of work and effort across generations, nurturing and foresight beyond lifetimes. These are things that are nowhere demonstrated better than in the stories of our Indigenous women in education. And for each one of them, there is another intergenerational network. An ever expanding network of Indigenous education leaders, from mothers to professors. The way I see it, all together they create a river that knows no boundary of time or place, a river that carries students like me to faraway lands like Oxford.

It is this river that links me with Makereti, who came here to Oxford all those years ago. I hope like her, I can help to keep this river flowing for all the generations to come.

A photo illustration of Rhieve Grey and his mother
Mum and me
Keep going!