The first Maori woman to gain a PhD – from Oxford, no less – began her educational journey at Gordonton School 78 years ago.
Dr Ngapare Hopa still lives in her parent’s house, in the middle of Gordonton village. She featured recently in Home Range magazine.
She has headed Auckland University’s Maori Studies Department, worked at Waikato University and taught in American universities. Her commitment to Maori education has spanned more than 40 years and in 2011 she received an award for her contribution to Te Ao Maori.
Dr Hopa was the guest speaker at Gordonton School’s 125th celebrations in 2016, for which she was interviewed by N8N.
N8N: How old is your house?
Ngapare: It’s old. The oldest part dates back before the war.
N8N: Is it warm?
Ngapare: No, it’s freezing; it was built during a Department of Maori Affairs scheme. It’s cold, damp, and there’s no insulation whatsoever. The kids say why not do something to it, I say no, it’s better to build a new one. But there have been so many families through this house, it’s like a museum.
I was born in 1935, I remember seeing my uncles off at the Papakura Railway Station on their way to war. Uncle Barney Rota was in the Maori Battalion. We had to take them to Papakura to catch the train down to Wellington. We didn’t have a car in those days. I can remember old drays pulled by draft horses.
N8N: How many were in your family?
Ngapare: There were three of us; I was the oldest, then my sister Tauirina and my brother Ernie. Both have died. But my parents adopted two kids – Desmond, who died, and Raymond who lives on Woodlands Rd. I have no children myself, but inherited all my sister’s grandchildren.
N8N: When did you start school and what was it like?
Ngapare: It must have been around 1940. I went to school [in what is now Hukanui Park] with the Pene girls. We walked, it was just a stone’s throw from the house. We had a pot belly stove in the class room. Those winters were cold. And we could go back for lunch.
We had inkwells, in those wooden desks with lids on them. You opened them up and put your goodies inside. You can’t find them these days.
N8N: No iPads?
Ngapare: Oh my goodness, no! I have a computer and I can use it for emails. Beyond that…
N8N: How does it feel to have the old school still there?
Ngapare: I like it. It feels good, you can go look at the class rooms.
N8N: Did you ever get caned?
Ngapare: No! We had some cheeky boys but we’d pull them off their bikes if they got too naughty.
N8N: Have you stayed in touch with old friends?
Ngapare: No. When I got to standard 6 I came home one day to find my mother having a cup of tea with the Anglican missioner. She told my mother about Queen Victoria School, a boarding school in Auckland for Maori girls. My mother asked if I would like to go. How I jumped at it!
I was there until sixth form, then spent a year at Epsom Girls’ school and then did my first year at Auckland University. Then I went teacher training, and then taught. I also managed to squeeze singing lessons from the World-famous Sister Mary Leo.
N8N: How did you end up at Oxford?
Ngapare: Well, that was a leap. In 1960 I got fed up with teaching, and got a job as a cadet welfare officer, looking at what was called urban drift in young Maori people – moving into towns in search of jobs. I had some horrendous cases, and got sick. My parents were wonderful and took me away from that. I ended up teaching at Auckland Girls’ Grammar, I loved those two years. In 1963 I cleared off overseas.
N8N: You were a trendsetter?
Ngapare: Everyone was doing an OE. A lot of people my age, going with their mates. That’s what we did, and it was fun. I got to London, got a job like everyone else, substitute teaching. There were some Maori already well established in London, and a club had been set up where we could meet, sometimes at New Zealand House.
At a dinner with some of my Maori mates was a chemist who was doing some research at a famous hospital. He said it’s not difficult to get into Oxford. Especially if you have a degree from somewhere else, and I thought to myself – hello.
N8N: And that was it?
Ngapare: I got on the phone, got some brochures and ended up getting interviewed. I thought, here we go.
N8N: You were the first Maori woman to gain a PhD [in anthropology] from Oxford University and you came from Gordonton.
Ngapare: Yes, this rinky dinky little village. People said to me I was an opportunist and I guess that’s the way to put it. I saw an opportunity and I was encouraged by the people I met.
N8N: Swinging sixties in London? Did it swing?
Ngapare: Oh yes.
N8N: What is your advice to young people?
Ngapare: Go for it. If there’s an opportunity, go for it.
N8N: When did you come back home?
Ngapare: I was back and forth. I returned from Oxford in 1966, and got a job teaching at Auckland University. I went to California in 1969 and taught until 1986 when I came home to look after my mum, Elsie. Everybody here knew my mum, Aunty Elsie. It was a nice community.
N8N: And you stayed, you didn’t leave Gordonton?
Ngapare: I got a job at Waikato University and was involved in the research that led to the settlement of the Raupatu claim. The government was going to sell off the assets, including the coal, and we said no, you can’t do that, we want the land returned. We took on the government and we won.
N8N: What keeps you busy now?
Ngapare: I’m supposed to be retired but I’m quite busy, given the awakening the Maori language is undergoing – it’s beginning to flourish.
And I have time for my mokopuna.