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SocietyFebruary 29, 2016

Radical and inspirational, gentle and generous – an obituary for Ranginui Walker


The author of the masterpiece Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End was in the best tradition of what it means to be a New Zealander

Dr Ranginui Walker, the public intellectual who helped radically reshape New Zealand politics, has died aged 83. Humble without ever becoming deferential, egalitarian without ignoring difference, and inspiring without turning to flattery, Walker was in the best tradition of what it means to be a New Zealander.

There are few who have done so much – Walker authored more than 10 books, numerous journal articles and countless op-eds – in the face of such enormous opposition: every statement earned a ferocious retort, even his masterpiece, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End, garnered several bitter academic responses.

Ranginui Walker in the Treaty Project series.

Not that he cared. His entire career, from his early academic work to his later activism, was an exercise in refusing to let Pākehā society forget its past, from the trauma of musket fire to the wounds of land loss and legal intrigues. Walker’s own politics – radical, confrontational and Māori – emerged out of his own ancestral memory, the history of dispossession that shaped the lives of his people, Te Whakatōhea, in the Opotiki District on the East Coast of the North Island. “Take the rope from my throat,” whispered Mokomoko, the Whakatōhea leader wrongly accused of murdering a missionary in the 19th century, “so that I may sing my song.”

When Walker removed the rope, advocating for his people in every forum and on every medium, boy could he sing.

Yet he could have taken a different path. In the 1960s he was a married man, a father, a worker at the local freezing works and a student. Family, work and study left little time for politics. “If you spend the major portion of your life getting educated, there’s no time to engage in Māori committees or Māori communities,” he told RNZ in 2009. “It wasn’t until I’d finished my PhD that the Māori community crooked a finger at me and said, ‘Come and help us’.” History didn’t choose Ranginui Walker, but it did catch up with him.

Come the chaotic 1970s, Walker was deeply immersed in activism and research as the chairperson of the Auckland District Māori Council, a member of the New Zealand Māori Council and a foundation member of the World Council of Indigenous People in 1974. But it was his involvement in Ngā Tamatoa, the activist group that emerged out of a young Māori leaders’ conference he had organised, that remains his lasting legacy. Ngā Tamatoa (The Young Warriors) helped shatter the complacent myth that New Zealand enjoyed the “best race relations in the world”. This was a time when landlords would tell prospective Māori tenants, as Walker explained, “no coloured people” allowed.

In the 1980s the politicised and radicalised Walker entered the public sphere publishing seven books on Maori politics and a regular column for Metro and the Listener. For a generation of Pākehā New Zealanders, Walker became the primary translator of Māori politics and protest. In some ways he was performing the bicultural ideal – opening a dialogue between Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti – yet he refused to be confined to mere spokesperson on “Māori” issues. In his columns and media appearances he would often voice support for workers’ rights and international human rights.

This is how Walker approached his academic work – as applied politics. This is not to say he sacrificed theory – he could hold court on the work of Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire as well as, if not better than, many of the great critical theorists of his time – yet he approached theory not only as a way to make sense of the world but as a method for changing it. Walker’s biographer, Professor Paul Spoonley, is right that “Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou is really still the best book on Māori politics and ambition there is,” not only for its technical achievements but for how it reshaped the way we remember and examine New Zealand history.

Yet one misconception remained over Walker’s lifetime and it had nothing to do with his work but with his personality. Far from the firebrand his written voice suggested, he was a remarkably gentle man: surprisingly generous with his time, kind with his criticisms and always willing to offer this young writer his thoughts. The last couple of times we met he had arrived with his equally gentle wife, Deirdre, who was just as capable as her husband when it came to a discussion of Māori politics and New Zealand history. I get the sense that Walker’s work was, in fact, the Walkers’ work – Ranginui could not have done so much without Deidre.

Ranginui’s death is a tragedy, for his whānau and friends, and for New Zealand, but at the same time there an unmistakable triumph in his life. In his own words: “I have great optimism that things are getting better. In the last quarter century, there’s been a tremendous cultural revolution and renaissance of Māori people. I’ve lived through that, been a part of the revolution.” The revolution is certainly not over, but we have Walker to thank for getting us this far.

Ka whawhai tonu mātou, Ake! Ake! Ake!

Click below to see Ranginui Walker appear in Bastion Point – The Untold Story on NZ On Screen

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