1. What are you most proud of in your career?
Well, in the first place I don't regard it as a career. I was confronted with that criticism in the 1980s by young Maori activists who accused me of sticking my nose into Maori affairs and exploiting their aunts and uncles to build a career. It was upsetting at the time but I understood where they were coming from. Looking back, I never sought to build a career, I thought of it as a calling. I saw it as following my nose. I had a very strong streak of curiosity. I just wanted to know! And the more I got to know about Maori, the more interested I was.
2. You spent your first 10 years in Auckland in the 1930s " what was that like?
Auckland was like a small town. For holidays we packed up the car with hens and chickens in a box on the back, took the ferry to Devonport and drove to Browns Bay which was out in the country. It was a time of depression and hovering war clouds. My parents had a radio and lots of books. They were interested in the outside world. They were both teachers and very committed Christians and they were very much a team.
3. What was your first awareness of Maori culture?
When I was 10 we moved to Pukekohe. We had a house opposite the market gardens that had been occupied by someone selling liquor to the Maori who worked in the gardens because in those days, they couldn't buy it - there were laws in place "for their own protection". It was a very paternalistic attitude to Maori. But there were no laws governing the welfare of the people working in the gardens. One saw the injustice and inequality and the desperate housing situation. But we went to the local Anglican church and we had two Maori ministers who maintained tremendous dignity and approached people with a lot of love and aroha. They made it clear to me that there was a lot about Maori that most Pakeha had no idea about.
4. What do you think when you read about the damp, inadequate state housing situation now?
Oh, I just think I've devoted my life to fighting this battle and it's all been in vain! And then something [positive] will happen. I see the work being put into the development of teachers, supporting the idea of diversity and unity, and I'm greatly heartened.
5. Have you been married?
No I didn't marry. With my parents' example before me I had high regard for the state of marriage, so high that I wasn't going to take second best. And what was more, I wanted a partner in the fullest sense of the word. I wanted somebody who would work with me. And it just so happened that I never met that person. I had boyfriends, of course. I even fell heavily in love at first sight. We were both studying geography at Auckland University. He was tall, dark and handsome and a hockey player. There were a number of reasons it didn't last. There were religious differences. And he got a second [class degree] and I got a first. In those days that was a recipe for trouble in a marriage.
6. How did you first embark on your research into Maori culture?
In the late 40s and early 50s there was a lot of talk about Maori moving to the towns and the term "drift" was used and often it was talked about as "the Maori problem". Mostly the commentary tended to be negative and it seemed to me that nobody had talked to the people involved.
7. What did you learn by talking to them?
Well for one thing that in the communities they came from there was very little land left. Staying home in rural areas was a matter of barely surviving. Then I realised that urban migration has two ends to it, and if I really wanted to understand I had to go to the country, which is what I did.
8. You lived in the Far North in Maori households. Where did you get the confidence to do that as a young woman in the 1950s?
If you move into another culture, you become like a child again, you know much less. I depended a great deal, in fact almost entirely, on older Maori who took me under their wing, who vouched for me and trusted me and initiated connections for me.
9. Do you think you could have achieved what you have professionally if you'd had children?
I just don't know. I would dearly have loved to have had children. I planned a family of five - including twins. It just didn't happen, but what it did was leave me with the time and the experience to provide a little parenting for young people who were not getting it. Maori call it tamariki whangai or tamaki atawhai - to feed and nurture. When I moved to Wellington to a position at Victoria University, I rented a house in Kelburn and [at different stages] three Maori boys came to live with me. One of them went on to become one of New Zealand's leading photographers - John Miller. One of them was the son of my old school friend Eileen, who died at 40. Another came from a home for young Maori who'd come out of prison - so he had a very rocky adolescence. At first I tried to wriggle out of it because I didn't know anything about adolescent boys but I enjoyed them, oh yes. It was very rewarding. We shared the cooking, we shared the cleaning. We all learned a lot. But I took it hard to criticise these boys. I didn't want to interfere. It's a very deep-seated difference: in the culture I was brought up in parenting is an exclusive thing. The Maori attitude is that children are the responsibility of the community.
10. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I've never used the term. My concern is with human rights and I think sometimes men need support as well. But I've always supported women and taken any opportunity to mentor them when I could. And I have made it a rule in my life that when I have made friends with a man, I've always made friends with his wife as well. I think it's a basic rule when you're single.
11. Do Maori stereotypes anger you?
Oh yes, but I'm really committed to peace making. During the war years, there was an internment camp for people from Western Samoa of German descent and one of the girls was in our class and she was subjected to a lot of bullying. I got so angry about this that I completely lost my temper and I cannot remember what happened but all I remember was seeing a red mist. And it frightened me. As a result I've really avoided confrontational situations. I've felt anger but not expressed it. I think the best way of countering ethnocentrism is by fostering person-to-person relationships.
12. How do you stay so fit and vibrant at 85?
I've never stopped working.
• Tauira is published by the Auckland University Press.