More than a national figure, Nepia Mahuika

Mata Toa: The Life and Times of Ranginui Walker 
Paul Spoonley
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143019893

Ranginui Walker is one of the most widely read Maori writers and commentators of our generation. His acclaimed Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou (1990) is a foundational text in Maori history, and remains the only history by a Maori scholar comparable to the many national histories produced by our Pakeha counterparts. I recall reading and re-reading it as an undergraduate student and being struck by Walker’s uncompromising articulation of the struggle that has framed Maori experiences across a long history of colonisation.

Indeed, what more could we expect from a man who Paul Spoonley reminds us was often considered “the radical face of Maori activism”, known for his astute and clinical appraisals of the various political and cultural issues of the day. Mata Toa: The Life and Times of Ranginui Walker, then, is an important book; one I had been eagerly anticipating in hope of learning more about this intensely private individual.

Some might query whether it is a premature undertaking. Walker himself was startled by the idea, commenting to his wife Deidre at the time that “I’m not even dead yet and someone wants to write my biography.” But for those who have been influenced by him, enlightened, challenged, perhaps even agitated, this book offers a brief glimpse into the life of a modern-day warrior whose candid and discerning opinions have illuminated some of the most important events in our recent history.

Mata Toa is the story of how Ranginui Walker “came to play a role in the transformation of cultural politics” in New Zealand. It is at first glance everything you might expect of a biography. Beginning with Ranginui’s tribal and familial connections, it discusses his growth from Opotiki to Auckland and back again, tells us about his married life, and of course, pays close attention to his various roles as public commentator, educator, scholar, local and national Maori representative, and later as iwi negotiator.

But as I trudged through its pages it became apparent that this was not so much a biography of Ranginui Walker’s personal world as an account of his public life. If I had hoped to be brought closer to the man, to understand him more deeply, or gain insight into how and why he perceives the world the way he does, then I was disappointed. Not that I assumed his private views would differ markedly from his public opinions, but it did cause me to wonder what readers might expect from a biography. Maybe I expected too much, or possibly I needed to understand more about what the author envisioned when composing the life history.

Spoonley is a professor of sociology, with interests in race relations, political extremism, and Pakeha and ethnic identities. This perhaps explains why the book tends to be more a commentary on hegemony and contemporary politics than a life story. Indeed, what on the surface looks like a biography reads more as a political history. The overarching narrative focuses too narrowly on the theme of resistance, and unfortunately neglects valuable opportunities to explore other aspects of Walker’s life.

More could have been said, for instance, about the disconnections, and reconnections, with his tribal homeland, his withdrawal from Maori political affairs earlier on in life, and the personal realities of the “bicultural” Maori/Pakeha, world that he so often spoke of. It appears at times as if Walker’s story inconveniently interrupts Spoonley’s political narrative.

I suspect this is also symptomatic of the curious way in which the book is organised. There are nine chapters in total, most concerned with local and national politics, such as “Maori Politics: 1970s and Mana Maori Motuhake”, “Tino Rangatiratanga” and “Inside the State”. These chapters are themselves stitched together by various subsections, which range from small histories about the “Maori Wardens” and “Pacific Migrants” to events such as Don Brash’s speech at “Orewa 2004”.

The end-product leaves the reader having to traverse what seems like a mountain of historical scene-setting and contextualisation before finally reading anything of the book’s key figure. This separating of the themes from the life narrative makes for rather pedestrian reading, and is cumbersome to the biographical flow of the book. If you have little knowledge of recent New Zealand or Maori political and cultural history, then this may be a welcome distraction, but if you are expecting a life story, you may have to endure more than a few history lessons on the way.

This could, and should, have been a much more interesting read. Unfortunately, there is far too little of Walker’s childhood or personal world to portray him as more than just a public persona. Certainly the most insightful moments come when his voice and the voices of those around him break through the enclosing commentary. Yet these welcome intrusions are far too infrequent. Deidre, for instance, barely features, and tends to fade into the background.

Spoonley could have drawn more from the interviews, and this would surely have enabled a more intimate narrative. There is a need within the biography – at least as I had hoped – to see more of an individual’s personal side, not just their public face. This prompts the question: if there are not enough of the subject’s biographical details can we still call it a biography?

Ranginui Walker has been much more than just a national figure. He is a father, grandfather, husband and son. This world is one that cannot be found so readily in written evidence, but more in the words, interviews, anecdotes and feelings of those closest to him. Maybe this is why oral traditions and oral histories are more popular with Maori audiences than empirically minded biographical dramatisations. They allow us to move beyond the sometimes omnipotent voices of narrators, beyond their interests and frames, to see, hear and read what is most valuable – the individual’s life story.


Nepia Mahuika is a lecturer in the History Department at the University of Waikato, teaching Maori and iwi history and oral history.  


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