Cultural preservation has always been a concern for Indigenous cultures the world over. The white-washing of history books and expressions of culture through dance, site-specific art and ties to the land have long been obstacles to preserving the Indigenous heritage of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Māori people.
So, after a life spent practising the culture of her Māori family, Makereti Papakura decided to study a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology from the University of Oxford in 1926. The thesis she developed during her study was an inside look into the structure of Māori families, agriculture and farming, and other aspects of Māori culture that other male pākehā anthropologists had deliberately overlooked – such as birth, menopause, menstruation and marriage traditions.
Prior to her life as an anthropologist, Makereti was a well-known Māori guide in Whakarewarewa. Although she went by the Māori pronunciation of her name, Makereti was born Margaret Pattison Thom to an English father and a Pia Ngarotu Te Rihi mother in 1873. While working as a guide, a tourist asked her for her last name. She responded with the name of a nearby geyser, Papakura, and so her identity as Makereti Papakura was born.
Makereti was challenging the status-quo in her role as an anthropologist. Traditionally, Indigenous people were consulted by Western anthropologists to confer on facts and observe traditions – which meant that every study published had a Western gaze that did not represent what that Indigenous culture was really like.
Makereti’s research was able to give an insight into things like ‘whakapapa’, the Māori term for genealogy. Distinctly different from Western genealogy, whakapapa places importance on both linear family and lateral family so that people understand their identity in a wider context.
Not everyone was a fan of Makereti’s work in anthropology. Anthropologist Ralph Piddington said: “Unfortunately, Makereti’s lack of any conception of what it is important to record about a primitive people, and the personal character of her approach, produce an incoherent and highly idealized picture of Maori life.”
Makereti placed the utmost importance on verifying the facts and consulting with her elders to ensure that the research upheld the values of her culture. In fact, she deliberately omitted the sacred texts and prayers from her writing, seeing no point to publicising the secretive practice.
“She wrote regularly to her people at home to make certain that they were willing to allow the publication of various facts, or that the facts were exactly right,” said T.K. Penniman, a friend of Makereti who went on to publish the paper after her untimely death in 1930, just weeks before the paper was to be finalised.
Author: Eliza Brockwell
Eliza is the Digital Producer for Careers with STEM. Eliza is passionate about creating content that encourages diversity of representation in STEM.