Māori at Victoria—A brief history

Victoria has a long and rich Māori history, making it one of the leading universities in the area of Māori scholarship.

Among Victoria’s early scholars of Māori were luminaries such as I. G. Sutherland and Ernest Beaglehole. The first Māori to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Victoria was Sir Apirana Ngata, whose son Sir Henare Ngata graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce at the same ceremony in May 1948.

Macaque in the trees
Sir Apirana Ngata, and his son Henare Kohere Ngata, at their Victoria University graduation ceremony.

The first known Māori PhD graduate at Victoria was Martin Theodore Te Punga in 1954.  He was also Victoria’s first Māori lecturer, teaching for a brief time in Geology. Another Māori alumnus of Victoria was Dame Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, who was elected as Women’s Vice-President to the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association Executive in 1960, its first Māori woman member. While on the Executive, she campaigned to have te reo Māori offered at Victoria.

Te reo Māori and Māori studies as subjects of study were introduced to Victoria by way of the Department of Anthropology in 1964. They were taught by such scholars as Dame Joan Metge,  Wiremu Parker and Te Kapunga (Koro) Dewes. Another early pioneer was Professor Whatarangi Winiata, who was appointed to the Chair of Accountancy in 1974 and expressed intentions at the time to ‘Māorify Victoria’ beyond the core subject of Māori studies. He taught a Māori resource management paper for many years, which planted the seeds for the current Māori Business programme in the Victoria Business School. In 1975, Professor Hirini Moko Mead was appointed to New Zealand's first chair of Māori studies. By 1981, the Department of Māori Studies (which was later to become known as Te Kawa a Māui) had gained independence from Anthropology, with noted specialities in Māori language, literature and material culture.

In 1980, Victoria established the first marae at a university, Te Herenga Waka, in a refurbished building on Kelburn Parade. Professor Mead, along with Wiremu Parker and the tohunga Ruka Broughton, were instrumental in the construction of a newly carved meeting house, Te Tumu Herenga Waka.  This was opened on 6 December 1986. 

Te Herenga Waka Marae was later joined by Ako Pai Marae at Karori campus when the Wellington Teachers' College was amalgamated with the University in 2005. This amalgamation also saw the addition of Te Kura Māori as another of the University’s Māori academic units, which offers a programme in Māori education.  Wally Penetito was appointed as Victoria’s first Professor of Māori Education in 2009.

In 2000, Professor Piri Sciascia became the University’s first Toiahurei or Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Māori) and in 2003 he was made Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Māori) to lead Māori across Victoria. He was succeeded in 2016 by the current Deputy Vice Chancellor (Māori), Prof. Rawinia Higgins, the first female to hold this position,  In 2001, the University Council also established Toihuarewa—a faculty-equivalent academic forum where Māori academic interests are examined, debated and discussed.

Since those early days, the number of Māori students and staff at Victoria has continued to grow. From lone solitary figures in lecture theatres (in 1955 Māori students made up merely 1-2 percent of total students), today Māori students account for over 11 percent of Victoria’s student population. Māori academic staff can still be found teaching and researching in Māori studies and Māori education, as well as diverse disciplines such as geography, science, media studies, law and architecture.