The Indigenous Women that got me to Oxford
In 1927 a Māori women 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. My friends and family keep asking for reflections and updates of this place, and this blog was meant to be those things for them since I’m always too jaded to explain over zoom during our 6am catchups. But as I started to write I kept thinking about Makereti. I kept thinking about the connection I feel to her story. I asked the question to myself, what’s happened between 1927 and 2021 to give me a sense of connection with her journey? And the same reality kept emerging in my head. The reality of powerful Indigenous women and the role they’ve played in me being here. It’ll make sense once you’re done reading, but understand now fam; this is not a reflection about Oxford.
Instead I want to do my best in explaining how I got here, but through an exploration of the importance of Indigenous women in my education and life. I don’t at all claim to know what it’s like to BE an Indigenous women, so please don’t mistake this write up as that. Instead what I can do is tell you what it’s like to be looked after by Indigenous women, to be led by Indigenous women, and ultimately to be put here in Oxford by you guessed it; Indigenous women.
The first woman is where it all begins for me. I mean literally. Since bringing me into this world in 1997, my mum has been there through it all and I don’t know life without her. I am blessed in having two amazing parents. My dad has taught me many things, but for now this is about mum so let’s dive deep.
Some of my earliest memories are of my mum taking me with her to her classes at university while she studied primary school teaching. Time spent out on university courtyards playing, while my mum studied hard to finish her degree, would foreshadow educational possibilities of my own in tertiary education. Throughout my entire life my mum has prioritized our (my brothers’ included) education. She had a schedule for me where I would earn stickers for completing my writing and timestables afterschool. It sounds regimented, but the nature of these methods was one of love and nurturing.
Upon graduating her degree my mum taught the seniors at the primary school I was at. Big scary senior kids would often approach me during lunch and with me ready to gap the situation they would say “eah, is miss grey your mum? Shes gangster as”, much to my relief. As you can imagine the ever present force of my mum 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 our mum always believed we were capable of anything, even while our teachers at times did not. Often she would come to all-out war with teachers of mine. Embarrassed at the time, I would learn only in adulthood that what she was really doing was sticking up for Māori kids everywhere who had been failed by their education system. Her expectations for us often trumped the expectations of many teachers we had. And 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.
All in all my mum was our family’s own 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. Shot mum, we love you.
However, it would be remiss to talk about the young grasshopper and not mention the old grandmaster; my Nanna Rangi.
"There's no work below you"
The hilarious part about my mum teaching at my school, was that this wasn’t something new for me. My nanna had already been teaching at my school for ages, in fact sometimes in my classes.
You see the push for education in our family predated my mum. It was my great grandmother who decisively 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. My nanna would in turn go to university and study teaching. Her sister also became a prominent teacher in the town I grew up in while another sister became the first Māori women lawyer and a Dame. But their humble beginnings were of a time that I just don’t think we will understand in this generation.
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 oldest. Nanna talks about the whole village knowing each other, going to dances together and swimming in the river together (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.
I speak about this time in my nanna’s life because I believe it forms one of the main values my nanna has exemplified my entire life and in turn imparted on me; the values of humility and kindness. 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 of 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 sing-along sessions in class.
Nanna’s true instilling of humility for me would come during my time in high school. After teaching, nanna wanted to step back from work. So she and my koro (grandfather) started cleaning the high school I went to. I know right, you literally can’t make a hard worker stop working. We as a family still struggle in forcing them to have a rest. But it’s not in their nature I guess. Anyway, when my 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. It was good exposure for me. Nanna was a perfectionist. No black mark survived a day when nanna 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 still did it. But I was a teenager trying to find superficial popularity whilst cleaning the high school that my grandparents were cleaners at. Not what I saw as social capital at that age. Sometimes when other students would walk through the corridor while I was cleaning, they would assume I had been doing something wrong and I was on detention. I would let them believe it, because in my backwards thinking of the time I thought that letting them believe in the stereotype (the one where all Māori kids get detention) would leave me better off in the social credits system than telling them I work 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 societies perception of a 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. We love you nanna, you too koro.
After highschool, I was geared up. Ready to tackle the tertiary world that my ancestors and family had prepared me for. A strange world is the world of western university, privy at times only to Māori who have successfully traversed widespread historical subjugation and disenfranchisement. Lemme save that yarn for later though.
At first, university was super isolating. 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 being a rare but beautiful sight to behold in the institution. This was due in part to my lack of knowledge around where all the Māori hung out. Once I found the pockets, I was good. It was in these pockets I found a Māori law student named Justice Hetaraka. 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. Both having been raised by Māori women in education, and with a passion for Māori achievement and flourishing. 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. I won’t go into that too much, but it’s important to contextualise the things my friend Justice has taught me. Throughout our collaboration, Justice showed me that a longing for home and the community you grew up in is not in fact a weakness (sometimes university can make you feel that way). No, in fact it is your biggest superpower. Being grounded in where you come from is what will propel you aptly into any challenges you are faced with. Justice is someone who can go into a room and light it up with her passion and motivation, and many ask how? And I came to know that it was because Jussy (her nickname) was fearless with the knowledge that all that matters is her community and what she can do for them. It’s on the forefront of her mind at all times, and she reminds me that even when I am here in Oxford, 18,000kms away, my superpower is my connection to home. ki a koe e te rangatira Jussy, Arohanui.
Now I’m going to talk about the collection of people at Auckland University that would throughout my undergraduate degree, show me what Indigenous academic prowess at the highest level looks like in the flesh.
Halfway into my studies, I would come across a post advertising for research assistance on a project concerning robotics and tikanga Māori (Māori custom). I had to peep it twice to make sure I was reading correctly. And I was. The James Henare Māori Research Centre based at Auckland uni had recently linked up with some robotics folks over at engineering. 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 Waikato woman with deep ties to the Kīngitanga. She would become one of my main mentors at University.
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 on one day she weaved together stories from our people in flax-root communities and the next day be facilitating 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 at James Henare I had kept the two systems firmly set apart in my head. But watching Marama carefully navigate between the two systems, 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. I also from then on strived to be like Marama, an Indigenous thinker who can traverse the many worlds of knowledge but always with finesse.
A lot of our projects at the centre required travelling around Aotearoa New Zealand 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, and how he was someone I had long looked up to. Whaea Ngāpare’s ensuing advice to me would have definitely got her the mumma tick of approval. 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 woman we had just met was the first Māori women 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. I realise only now that in that short interaction, Whaea Ngāpare had sprinkled unmatched wisdom into my journey, whilst also foreshadowing the distant horizons of academia that have now become possible for me.
Another woman who sprinkled the same kind of wisdom into my journey was Professor Tracey McIntosh (Tūhoe), who was the head of the Māori studies department while I was there. Tracey was a role model of Indigenous excellence to many of us down in the Māori studies department. But beyond this, Tracey role modelled how you can simultaneously be a fearsome critical scholar/activist whilst also being the nicest person on the planet.
One thing I remember having difficulty with at university is that the kind, loving and humble nature my nanna had told me to embrace in life was seldom expressed as being important in most academic spaces. There were many traits that held social capital at university – are you the smartest in the room? Best at arguing? A regular protest goer? No wait, maybe you can sink a crate the fastest?! Amongst all these things it was sometimes hard to find where my nanna’s qualities fitted in. And this is something I appreciated about Tracey. She showed me that you can thrive at the highest level in academic spaces whilst also having love and care be at the core of what you do. In one of our many lectures where she decided to drop wisdom bombs on us, she said “you know we are all quite good at giving those around us an awhi (embrace), but our biggest challenge and what will be crucial going forward is learning to give those who aren’t around us an awhi”. And as I explore the world and see more and more the presence of divide alongside the absence of common understanding, her advice becomes evermore important.
The last woman that would play a huge part in my time at University was a woman named Anahera Morehu (Ngāti Whātua). I actually met her at the end of the degree, and boy did she help finish it with a bang. At the end of my undergraduate I got a scholarship to travel to Brazil and attend a course on Indigenous Rights. There was a big group of us and Anahera was our staff leader. Anahera brought with her always an energy that ignited the space. Fiery at times? Yes. Necessary at times? One hundred percent! On this trip we visited Indigenous communities on the south west coast of Brazil, and something I struggled to do at first was bring to the floor my fully authentic Indigenous self. This my first time being with another Indigenous culture in their homelands, and my first real big trip out of New Zealand. But with the help of Anahera, I was quickly back to the Māori boy from Taupō that I was proud to be. She showed unapologetic pride in her identity as Māori. In any situation where things were unclear, interactions a little murky, she knew to lean on the Māori nature passed down to us from our ancestors. Ultimately she showed me how to express a Māori identity away from the homeland. And it came down to just trusting my instincts. Trusting that this would come out, if I just brave the discomfort and let it be. I just needed the confidence boost I think. And as I have now come to see all the way over here in Oxford, this trust and pride in my sense of identity as an Indigenous person is from where I derive strength.
The Rhodes Scholarship
Towards the tail end of my degree I was stuck for knowing what to do next. Choice is a double edged sword. Of course I wasn’t complaining, as I’ve outlined, there was a lot of work that went in to affording me so much choice in what I want to do.
Cue KDee Aimiti Ma'ia'i. A Samoan student also studying at Auckland University. 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 had become the first pacific woman to win the Rhodes Scholarship. I didn’t even know what the Rhodes Scholarship was at the time so in all honestly it wasn’t this that stuck out to me straight away. Instead it was the things being said in the article. Typically when scholarships are won or opportunities afforded, I feel there can be lots of focus on the individual’s efforts and journey to that point. I am in no way downplaying achievements of an individual at all, but I believe in a different way of framing success like this. For example, here’s a quote from KDee 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 woman 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 which was the Rhodes Scholarship. After a quick google I was baffled at how I hadn’t heard of this thing. A fully funded scholarship to study at Oxford with all expenses paid for. I say baffled but who am I kidding, during my school years this is not 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’s hard to see where you fit amongst 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, what’s more entitled to, these massive opportunities which ultimately translate as wealth and resource. I felt it was right, and I went for it.
I made contact with KDee, and she was exactly the kind of person I needed for entry into this world I was unfamiliar with. She translated all of the grandiosity, all of the fluff, and helped me understand what I needed to do to get the scholarship.
The universe spoke in other ways to confirm this was right. When trying to get tips on the application, one of the people I contacted was Prof. Merata Kāwharu (Ngāti Whātua), yet another example of wahine Māori excellence who had won the Rhodes Scholarship in the late 90’s. As it turns out things came full circle in our interaction as she had actually been Marama’s predecessor at the Māori research centre. 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. Connections like these reinforced me to keep going with my pursuit of the scholarship. And it paid off.
I write to you now from Oxford. Procrastinating on imminent assignments to share my understanding of the journey to this place. KDee and I actually came together on the same flight as part of the same cohort. Her partner Marco de Jong is another Samoan Rhodes scholar who is also here and started in 2019. Power couple vibes to the days I know.
Marco and KDee have become key mentors to me during my time here. They understand this narrative I have discussed, both of them having their own lineage to opportunity spanning multiple generations.
And just if you thought there weren’t enough Māori superheroes throughout this write up, I have to mention one more. A Māori woman who was here to greet us and further reinforce the power of Indigenous networks. Her name is Evie O’Brien and she is 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 she 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.
Partner in Crime
There’s one person who I haven’t mentioned through all of this but has been there for what feels like all of it. She’s not Indigenous, but she definitely gets it. Amy O’Brien, my fiancé. I won’t detail our entire relationship start to finish, so let me just give a few insights into how she is an integral part of this web of people getting me to Oxford.
Like I said it was hard moving to Auckland. Expanding horizons is of course I think a good thing. But I know how hard it can be for those who are doing it. During my first year, the feeling of isolation was real. Coping mechanisms were limited to two extremes. Staying inside and seeing no one, or getting drunk and seeing everyone. Many students had the first technique for Monday to Wednesday and then the latter for Thursday onwards.
As tumultuous a time it was, Amy was a beacon of how I needed to be. She was brave in the transition, committing excellently to her own studies while supporting me all the way through mine. She would be the one convincing me to go to my lecture despite how I was feeling, and then she would be there afterwards so we could reward ourselves with some dumplings in the city (we didn’t have those in Taupō). All the way to the end of my undergraduate degree, Amy was there doing it alongside me. I may have been the one in the lecture room, but ultimately the qualification and any learning that came with it – went to both of us. And this is the same for every other achievement I have reaped.
Work to do
In Aotearoa New Zealand we still have marked disparities between the achievement of Māori and non-Māori in education. This disparity is present right 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 in doing what they do best; creating Indigenous success.
Unfortunately, recent research suggests that this is not what is happening. Māori and Pacific academics have significantly lower odds of being promoted, being a professor and are paid less when compared with their non-Māori non-Pacific counterparts. This is markedly worse for Māori and Pacific women in academia. This comes on top of dealing with the racial discrimination that’s steeped into the education system.
Despite these challenges, the many powerful people I have highlighted in this post continue to mentor and support me every day. I just hope we can do a better job of appreciating them for this. And soon. We need to if we are to see the outcomes in Māori education that we want.
Other than an overkill expression of gratitude, I hope there is one thing you can take from this. Despite how its marketed and how it is generally discussed, my journey here to Oxford is not solely my own. It’s the journey of many. It’s the work and effort across generations. Bravery and boundary breaking at every stage of the lineage. Nurturing and foresight beyond lifetimes. All things that are nowhere better demonstrated than in the stories of our Indigenous woman in education. And for each one of them 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 far off 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 in keeping this river flowing, for all the generations to come.
BERL (2019). Education Awa: Education Outcomes for Māori. BERL, Wellington, New Zealand.
Makereti: Māori ‘Insider’ Anthropology at Oxford. (n.d.). Retrieved 3 March 2022, from https://oxfordandempire.web.ox.ac.uk/article/makereti
McAllister, T., Kokaua, J., Naepi, S., Kidman, J., & Theodore, R. (2020). GLASS CEILINGS IN NEW ZEALAND UNIVERSITIES: Inequities in Māori and Pacific promotions and earnings. MAI Journal: A New Zealand Journal of Indigenous Scholarship, 9. https://doi.org/10.20507/MAIJournal.2020.9.3.8
Our racist education system. (2018, November 7). Newsroom. https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2018/11/06/308935?slug=our-racist-education-system
He Awa Ara Rau, from: Publications – Tokona Te raki. Tokona Te Raki. Retrieved from: http://www.maorifutures.co.nz/publications/
Racism ‘major issue’ at universities. (2020). NZ Herald. Retrieved from https://www.nzherald.co.nz/kahu/professors-call-out-racism-as-a-major-issue-at-universities/ZSQ2UDFJAMK2XHZEWDGTYLMXEA/
Rhodes Scholar KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i – standing on the shoulders of others. (2019). University of Auckland. Retrieved from: https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/news/2019/11/19/first-pacific-female-rhodes-scholar.html