PhD chronicles eight decades of navigating between Māori and Pākeha worlds

Kura Taylor’s Victoria University of Wellington PhD reflects on more than 80 years navigating between Māori and Pākeha worlds as a student, parent and teacher.

Kura Taylor smiling, wearing graduation robes

Kura (Te Atiawa/Pākeha) embarked on her doctorate in New Zealand Studies through the University’s Stout Research Centre as a retirement project, driven by curiosity and a desire to present her life story from her own perspective. She has graduated at age 86 and celebrated with family and friends at her New Plymouth home. She is in good health with “heaps of energy” but mobility problems prevented her travelling to Wellington to attend the University’s graduation ceremonies last week.

Her PhD takes the form of an autobiographical narrative. She has woven in reflections on racism, feminism, the education system, parenting, political activism and aging, and she writes about developing “cultural flexibility”.

Kura at times encountered racism, noting that throughout her life she was categorised racially by her appearance, and was expected to behave according to a Māori stereotype determined by others. At one stage, she says, she deliberately became more Pākeha “in order to survive”, using her English name of Marie instead of Kura.

Kura is of Māori and Pākeha heritage, as were both her parents.  “We knew who we were and we knew how to operate in that dual society.”

Her mother was a fluent te reo Māori speaker but growing up in the 1930s and 40s, the family did not go to the local marae or to other gatherings because of concerns about illnesses such as respiratory infections and measles that were rife at the time. Kura never learned to speak te reo. She writes:

“Through reflection, I am certain that our parents believed that we would, over time, come to understand our Te Atiawa Iwi Maori links. Meantime our mother ensured we had the social tools to keep ourselves safe. We learned to make informed future choices about our Te Atiawa Iwi Maori cultural space, and to interact confidently with either Maori or Pakeha. In the long term we were to be independent self sufficient Maori/Pakeha.”

Kura was born in Waipapa, Taranaki, the second of seven children, and attended Waitara District Primary School.

“My earliest recollections of Waitara School are the stench exuded by a mix of sour milk and oiled floors; wet raincoats and smelly gumboots; smoke from winter fires; toilets sheltered by thick high hedges away across the playground; and the voices of many children.”

She trained as a primary school teacher, beginning a lifelong education career. She was also active in the primary teachers union, the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), and the Maori Women’s Welfare League.

Kura gained a Master of Philosophy of Education from the University of Auckland in the 1990s. She says she took her time over her doctorate, allowing herself to “mull over” her life.  She says she was thrilled to see a printed version – “I thought did you really write that?”

She says she hopes her story will be helpful for others, particularly Māori students. “I’ve done this – and you can do it too.”