On New Zealand’s fifty-dollar banknote, there’s a picture of a man most of us know. Sir Āpirana Ngata: handsome, fresh-faced and hopeful.
The photo must have been taken in his late twenties or early thirties during the early part of his career. He was a politician, a lawyer, an activist, a scholar. The first Māori to complete a degree, the first New Zealander to complete a double degree. He was a champion of Māori education and broadcasting, the father of the Māori Battalion, one of the most influential Ministers of Native (Māori) Affairs this country has ever seen. It’s impossible to pinpoint just one thing that defines him above all else. It’s the sheer scope of his impact on our social, political and cultural landscape that makes him unique.
For all of that, there’s something a great number of people in New Zealand don’t appreciate about Sir Āpirana Ngata. Not that it’s a secret. There’s nothing about his life that has been kept out of the public eye. It’s just that when his life is condensed down to bullet points or a succinct paragraph for the web, much of the richness of who he was and what he was passionate about is lost.
In summaries of his achievements, usually somewhere near the end, Ngata is invariably described as ‘a promoter of cultural revival,’ or ‘a person who made great contributions to Māori culture and language.’ The words are accurate, they just don’t convey the depth of Āpirana’s love for everything pertaining to Māori language, literature and the arts. It was more than just a passing interest. His dedication to Māori literature was as an obsession. A singular devotion.
Āpirana Ngata was a song-collector. A politician and a poet. A lover of words.
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