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Hine Toa: A story of bravery
by Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku

A compelling memoir: 'vital to write, vital to publish and vital to read.'

By May 24, 2024No Comments

This is a strange memoir. It’s a contradiction: honest but often frustratingly oblique; explicit in some places and coy in others; its people and places and times evoked in depth but its narrative also, at times, on breathless fast-forward. One of the book’s strengths is its visceral scenes, but when these take place fifty years ago, the level of detail – and dialogue – makes this read more like fiction than a memoir. In other words, it is not wholly satisfying or successful as life-writing. And yet this is an important book: vital to write, vital to publish and vital to read.

Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku has lived a life of many contradictions, warring impulses and interests, changing names and identities and allegiances. It’s a life of collusion and controversy, rejection and leadership. This century she has been a respected Māori scholar and intellectual, an expert on tā moko, the winner of numerous awards and major grants; she is now an Emeritus Professor. In Hine Toa we have the twentieth-century prequel, helping us understand how unique and immense this achievement: she is the first Māori woman to be given the Emeritus title at a New Zealand university. In 1981 she was the first Māori woman to be awarded a PhD in New Zealand. The first ever, she notes, was Ngāpare Hopa, who received her PhD from Oxford University just two years earlier.

In 1985, when I was awarded my own doctorate, from the University of York, Mātiu Rata wrote me a letter of congratulations, telling me I was just the fourth. I was young and ignorant, and didn’t think this could possibly be true. I had no idea of how hard someone like Ngāhuia, sixteen years my senior, had to fight – against family pressure, peer contempt, the academic establishment, the Māori establishment, racism, homophobia – to achieve success.

During her childhood, richly evoked here, the centre of whanau life was ‘the pā’, Ōhinemutu, on the western shore of Lake Rotorua. This was a place of drifting thermal mists and streams of trout and crayfish; her family had its own bathhouse, mostly open to the sky and sandy below. Ngāhuia’s kuia, Hera, was a Whakarewarewa guide and an accomplished weaver, commissioned to make a cloak for Queen Elizabeth in 1953; like many of the family, Hera had travelled the world in a concert party. But baby Ngāhuia was born into a Māori family ‘on the far side of the lake’ and named Baby Curtis by the hospital; Hera’s daughter Paparoa was her adopted mother.  In time Ngāhuia met her troubled birth mother and siblings with their ‘great big house full of leather-bound books’ but she remained on the outer circle of this wealthier ‘real’ family.

If anyone still imagines New Zealand in the 50s and 60s as a wholesome pastoral idyll, Hine Toa will dispel those illusions. Ngāhuia’s parents separated but to attend her local school she had to live with her abusive father. He beat her and perhaps more: Ngāhuia’s ‘kuia suspected something – other stuff – was going on.’ Maketū, the weekend destination on the coast, had one picture theatre and one taxi driver who would give the boys ten bob to ‘do things to him’. When Ngāhuia and a school friend run away, she is subjected to a violent sexual assault at a hostel. At a Catholic boarding school in Hamilton, the priest ‘did something handsy to her’; confronted by her mother, he called Ngāhuia a ‘rotten apple.’

One surreal episode in Ngāhuia’s teenage life reveals the prevalent sexism she would later battle as a feminist activist. Because she ‘looked a certain way – long dark hair, white teeth, light colouring, and a slim build’, she became a Tourist Department model at 15, ‘smiling toothsomely and wearing my pari bodice and piupiu flax kilt’, appearing with some of the younger Whakarewarewa guides and members of ‘tribal concert parties’. She wasn’t the first girl in her family to smile for the camera so it ‘felt like an act of continuity and affirmation’, and ‘it was also good money’.

Then a Surfers Paradise initiative called Meter Maids – ‘dispensing charm, paying expired parking meters and having fun’ – came to Rotorua in the mid-60s. Instead of bikinis the Rotorua girls would wear ‘traditional Māori costume’. Ngāhuia and a girl named June – who ‘brought a nubile glamour into our work together; I brought personality and information’ – become the local Meter Maids and ‘small-town summer celebrities’. Ngāhuia is sent to Queensland on a Meter Maid exchange, where ‘men drove miles to sit and gawk’. She’s presented as a ‘Māori Gidget’ to avoid ‘having to strip down to a bikini at the poolside parade’. Ngāhuia and June, she reminds us, were just schoolgirls.

Despite her academic success at school, the aspirations for Ngāhuia were low. Her mother wanted her to be a bank teller or work at the post office. In 1967, when she began her studies at the University of Auckland, she was the only one of the 20 Māori first-years to have attended a state school, and the only Māori in her class at a hostile Law School.

Young, reckless, naive, I wanted it all. I’d saved my money through my years at school and put up with being put down by people at home, and teased and tormented by other Māori who thought I was whakahīhī, full of myself, wanting too much for a Māori girl. I had to prove them wrong. I had to pass. I had to get to the top, and I had to stay there.

Part of Ngāhuia’s experience, however, is changing her perception of success, as well as embracing her sexuality and becoming one of the ‘kamp’ girls. At university she walks away from Law School towards literature, theatre and activism. Her proposed thesis on the poetry of Hone Tūwhare is ‘rejected vehemently by a panel of wise white people who declared he was evolving but not quite there yet’.

They suggest James K Baxter instead, but Ngāhuia has already met him in various student flats, ‘young girls in tow’ and lamenting ‘the difficulties of having a Māori wife’; he’s a masturbating Peeping Tom outside the bedroom she shares with her girlfriend, Mandy. The last time she sees him he presents her with an old cigar box of poems he’s written about them. ‘I closed the box and put it away, never to touch it again,’ she recalls of that ‘sad goodbye’. It was stolen from their room a few months later.

She becomes a protestor: the Vietnam War, the 1970 All Blacks Tour of South Africa, Waitangi Day, Women’s Liberation. She opts for Nga Tamatoa, the ‘young warriors’ group of campus activists, over the Māori Club who tell them ‘not to rock the boat.’ They are ‘radical urban activists, 1970s warriors, following the trails of Te Kooti and Tāwhiao, honouring their legacy. Ngāhuia pours her ‘energy into the lesbian and feminist campaign for visibility and equality’. Her interview with Germaine Greer for the student newspaper Craccum ‘remains the most heavily censored in the paper’s history’. When Ngāhuia is awarded a Student Leadership Grant to the US, her visa is denied because she’s ‘a Known Sexual Deviant.’

Hine Toa ends in 1975: shot at by a racist in the streets of Rotorua – ‘Bloody Māoris think you own everything!’ – Ngāhuia flees to an internship at the University of Hawaii. The book’s epilogue hustles through subsequent decades and her return home. ‘What became of the Revolution?’ she asks. ‘We were fighting for transformative change. Did it happen?’ So much has changed for Māori and for gay New Zealanders. But how ‘deep, how genuine, how enduring is the change?’ In 2024, these are pressing, troubling questions. We need to know the past as Ngāhuia experienced it and, as she writes, ‘take nothing for granted.’

Hine Toa: A story of bravery

by Ngahuia te Awekōtuku


ISBN: 9781775492634

Published: April 2024

Format: Paperback, 336 pages

Paula Morris

Paula Morris is a fiction writer and essayist. She is the editor of the anthology Hiwa: Contemporary Māori Short Stories (Auckland University Press 2023).