Maori Studies post brings responsibilities

New University of Otago dean of indigenous studies Prof Paul Tapsell, outside the waka-shaped Te Tumu building. Photo by Jane Dawber.
New University of Otago dean of indigenous studies Prof Paul Tapsell, outside the waka-shaped Te Tumu building. Photo by Jane Dawber.
As a Maori academic, Paul Tapsell feels a major responsibility - to equip his people with knowledge about their traditions and language before it is too late.

While he says there is a definite resurgence of interest in Maori culture and language, he fears the traditions are "decaying beyond repair". The number of children at kohanga reo Maori language preschools is declining, a new generation of elders is coming through without in-depth knowledge of marae and cultural traditions.

But Prof Tapsell is in a position to influence change. He started a new role last month as head of Te Tumu, the University of Otago's school of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies, and has Fridays off to continue a research project through the James Henare Maori Research Centre at the University of Auckland.

He and other researchers, including his wife Dr Merata Kawharu, are trying to develop an education programme for emerging Maori elders which they hoped will attract some government funding.

"Elders are kin accountable. They need to know the intergenerational traditions and be able to pass them on."

The Tapsells are committed to preserving Maori traditions.

They speak Maori at home and Maori is the first language for their children, son Piere (5) and daughter Freda (2), who attend total immersion Maori language schools. Prof Tapsell says it is difficult for Maori language speakers.

"Where can you go where Maori is the only language spoken? English is everywhere."

Although he was well aware of his Tapsell and Te Awara iwi roots - he is the nephew of orthopaedic surgeon turned MP (and later Speaker of the House) Sir Peter Tapsell - he says it was not until 1990 that his Maori relatives began looking to him to become a caretaker of their traditions and the historian of the family taonga (treasures).

He was 28, had completed a BA in anthropology at the University of Auckland and had been appointed the curator of Maori exhibits at the Rotorua Museum of Art and History.

"All these relatives starting coming out of the woodwork - uncles, aunties, great uncles and great aunties. They became my mentors. They wrapped themselves around me."

Prof Tapsell did not speak more than a smattering of Maori then. But his relatives spoke to him in Maori, translating information into English when they felt they needed to, expecting him to learn Maori quickly to keep up with them.

That he did, without formal lessons.

"They were very patient with me."