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University of Auckland honours Māori education trailblazers

Joseph Guenzler -

The University of Auckland granted honorary doctorates of literature to Māori education pioneers Tāwhirimātea (Tāwhiri) and Kaa Williams last week at Waipapa Marae.

Attendees at the event included members of Council, the Williams' whānau (family), Māori leaders, and representatives from the University.

They witnessed heartfelt waiata tautoko and haka, paying tribute to the pair's commitment and contributions to the progression of Māori education and culture.

The couple, celebrated as champions of Te Reo Māori and tikanga Māori, serve as inspirational figures within academia and the broader community.

Their efforts have ensured the integration of Māori culture across various sectors including education, arts, business, research, governance, policy, and law.

Tāwhiri emphasised what an honour it is to receive this acknowledgement. 

(Translated to English from Te Reo Māori)

“It’s wonderful that we’ve gotten to the stage that we’re able to receive this honour," he said. 

“To me, the language has changed. It’s not the language of the old people in their time."

"But we’ve completed a lot of work with a lot of students who come under us."

Their significant contributions were acknowledged in the 2023 New Year's Honours list, where they became the first Māori husband-and-wife duo to receive the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Prior to this recognition, Ms Williams had already been awarded a QSO (Companion of the Queen's Service Order), and Tāwhiri a MNZ (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit).

Tāwhiri maintains the role of chief executive at Takiura, while Kaa is a pouako matua (senior lecturer).

A moving speech by the University's Pro Vice-Chancellor Māori, Associate Professor Te Kawehau Hoskins, highlighted the Williams' "inestimable contributions" to te ao Māori and Māori education.

She described them as, "our esteemed couple, the dream team".

"Whaea Kaa and Pāpā Tāwhiri demonstrate outstanding leadership for transformative outcomes in te ao Māori and our nation."

In 2013, Tāwhirimātea and Kaa Williams established the Judge Karina Williams scholarship at the University's Law School, in memory of their late daughter.

The scholarship acknowledges cultural engagement, leadership, and academic excellence.

Judge Karina Williams, a graduate of the University, was the second wahine (female) Māori ever appointed to the District Court.

"Through the development and nurturing of aspiring Māori lawyers, this scholarship is transformational for Indigenous jurisprudence, and for the future of our nation," Ms Hoskins said.

Tawhirimatea and Kaa Williams. (Image: RNZ/Justine Murray)

Upon receiving their honorary doctorates of literature, Tāwhiri and Kaa Williams reflected on their journey with education and te reo Māori.

They emphasized the importance of the language and recalled starting from humble beginnings.

During a time when te reo Māori was not widely supported and English was seen as crucial for household stability, Tāwhiri experienced a significant change at university, where he met Kaa, marking the start of their remarkable journey together.

When the position of school principal was advertised for the first Māori medium school in the country, Tāwhiri eagerly applied despite not speaking fluent te reo.

He saw the role as a chance to learn and grow.

Over the course of 19 years, Tāwhiri served as principal at the Ruatoki-based school, receiving guidance and support from mentors and local kaumātua including John Rangihau, Te Uru McGarvey, Rangipuke Tari, and Te Kaari Waaka.

Kaa reflected on the challenges of learning English, which was heavily emphasised at school, but her parents prioritised continuing to speak te reo Māori at home.

She fondly recalled a childhood adventure of living in a cave in Murupara at the age of six. Despite the unconventional living situation, her family sustained themselves by living off the land, hunting, fishing, and cultivating food, allowing the language to flourish.

Throughout their extensive six-decade careers, the couple has held various professional roles, earning numerous awards and lifetime achievements.

“The main thing is to see the next generation speaking Te Reo and celebrating the language," Mrs Williams said. (Translated from Te Reo Māori to English)

Now, they proudly add "Dr" to their names, marking another milestone in their remarkable journey.

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