The trouble with writing contemporary history is that it's hard to know when to stop. Especially if you're Professor Ranginui Walker, dealing with topics hot enough to burn, such as race relations and relations between Maori and the Crown (Walker is careful not to confuse the two).
He thought he had finished revising his 14-year-old best-selling Maori history
at the end of last year but "then in the New Year Don Brash opens his mouth in his Orewa speech". The anthropological doctor was "so pissed off" with the economic one that he reopened the book.
"What really angered me was here was a really privileged white man who has a narrow view of reality — he's a money man, a banker — and he doesn't know what's going on and he pronounces things like 'no race-based funding in universities'," says Walker, 72. "He doesn't begin to understand why those quotas are there ... I have no time for privileged people who take advantage of their privileged position to attack the weakest people in our society."
Even after several pages of Orewa "deconstruction", the publishers said to Walker: but wait, there's more. What about the long-awaited transmission of Maori TV, what about the hikoi, and the new Maori Party? Walker added an epilogue to discuss these happenings briefly, before drawing his final line in the contested sand of the foreshore and seabed.
"The foreshore and seabed thing will not go away ... and that's why the struggle without end goes on," he says.
Although he's not as forthcoming with his opinion of the Government as he is about Brash, he does say that Maori feel nothing has changed since the 19th century — the "colonial mindset" of those with political power is still the same. "I'm sure Clark and the Attorney-General know they shouldn't be doing it [passing legislation that puts the foreshore and seabed under Crown ownership] but it's their political life that depends on it."
For most of the book, Walker — who is often asked by both Maori and Pakeha to autograph copies of the first edition — explains and dissects potentially explosive subjects in a non-confrontational, clinical style. But the man who says he was once identified as a "pointy-headed intellectual radical" just can't keep his combative side down. He describes the
as "particularly culpable of hyping up racial angst to keep ratings up" and as especially fond of the words "taxpayer's money". "That's code for 'Maori shouldn't be having this'," says Walker.
Sir Doug Graham, former Minister of Treaty Negotiations, comes in for some scathing treatment. "Doug Graham just threw money at it to get what he wanted," says Walker, of the unsuccessful Government negotiation with his own iwi, Whakatohea. "He wept at the signing of the Sealords deal and the Tainui deal — he was making history. Well he spat the dummy on us. He was the great white chief, the great white father." (Walker's latest project, which he has been researching for two years, will be a history of Whakatohea.)
But political machinations aside, Walker is far from doom and gloom in
. Much of the new text charts "the most powerful cultural renaissance in the history of a colonised people in the world". The list of cultural achievements includes the whare wananga, the revival of traditional Maori martial arts, ta moko and music, and the entry of Maori words into everyday English usage, as well as lesser-known but equally impressive stories of Maori entrepreneurship.
This renaissance is the flowering of a seed planted by Sir Apirana Ngata when he started rebuilding marae in the 1930s, says Walker. For if you ask Walker a question about the present — or even the future — you'll get a history lesson. Both as a Maori and a historian, he belongs to those who walk backwards into the future; it's important to understand how we got here, before we continue.
His own history is proudly chequered: he says he can't remember the number of times he marched up and down Queen St for liberal causes, which meant he was "not flavour of the month throughout the 1970s ... Muldoon wrote to the University of Auckland saying he didn't like the kinds of courses I was teaching, it was subversive stuff and ought to be stopped. The university just had to sit on their hands, they believed in intellectual freedom, God bless them".
Not that tolerance was the same as approval. "It is the job of the academic intellectual to question what goes on, but the establishment doesn't thank you for it. I had to grit my teeth and see mediocrities promoted ahead of me." Walker was finally made professor and Head of the Maori Studies Department in 1993, and then Pro Vice Chancellor (Maori) in 1996.
Today he greets
affably in a Meadowbank garden made bright with nasturtiums and camellias by his wife Deirdre, but his relaxed manner masks a busy retirement. As well as writing books, he accredits degrees for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and sits on the Waitangi Tribunal. The stories he hears on the tribunal, he says, are "heartrending", but it's also pleasing to meet the children who can speak te reo, even when their elders cannot.
Just as our interview winds up, the phone rings. It's Derek Fox wanting a korero; Walker invites him around for a cuppa. Maybe he's collecting material for a future third revision of
. Only time will tell.