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Waikato University honour for Māori language proponent

August 31, 2011

Waikato University honour for Māori language proponent

Not being allowed to learn Māori at high school was the catalyst for a life-long career in Māori teaching and championing Māori rights for Cathy Dewes.

Cathy Dewes (Te Arawa and Ngāti Porou) is being awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waikato on September 6 at Ruamata Marae in Rotorua.

As head prefect at Wellington Girls back in the late ‘60s, Cathy was able to learn and speak Italian German, French and Latin, but her request to learn Māori was turned down by the principal. “It was then I realised that society needed to change in order that Māori might live.”

Cathy earned a degree in Māori from Victoria University and it was while she was at university that she joined her peers to form the Te Reo Māori Society, supported the Māori Language Petition and lobbied for Māori news on radio and television. She was one of the original battlers for Māori Language week which is now in its 36th year.

In 1985, Cathy, a trained teacher, opened one of the first Māori language schools in New Zealand Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata in Rotorua. She worked unpaid for almost a decade until government funding was secured and is still the school’s principal.

She considers the development and implementation of the Aho Matua approach to learning and teaching in Kura Kaupapa Māori her major achievement.

But she was also a trailblazer for women. In 1994 Cathy became the first woman to stand for the Te Arawa Trust Board, which had existed without women for 50 years. She was supported by her own Ngāti Rangitihi iwi and won a seat. The incumbent trustees objected but a high court decision enabled Cathy to take her place on the board where she served until 2006.

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She is still a member of the Te Rūnanganui o Te Arawa, the iwi authority representing the majority of hapu of the confederation of Te Arawa, and through these affiliations has developed a teacher education programme in association with the universities of Waikato and Auckland. Cathy maintains her life-long interest in Māori radio and continues to serve as a trustee with Te Reo Irirangi o Te Arawa. She is a director of Māori television and is a Trustee of Te Mana o Ngāti Rangitihi.

Cathy is also proud of her sporting endeavours. Six years ago her school community took up waka ama paddling. They built up their skills, entered competitions and in 2007 Cathy won a bronze medal at nationals in a single outrigger, and at the world champs the same year, she brought home silver in the double event. She sees waka ama as a way of reclaiming an ancient skill within which is embedded a body of Māori knowledge and wisdom essential for modern living.

Waikato University Vice-Chancellor Professor Roy Crawford says Cathy Dewes has had an outstanding career. “Her contribution to the revitalisation of Māori language and Māori education, her commitment to her local community and her many accomplishments are consistent with the University’s vision, charter, goals and distinctiveness. I feel privileged to be conferring her honorary doctorate.”


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