top of page
  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Hine Toa: A story of bravery by Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku

Hine Toa: a story of bravery by Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku is a stunning coming of age memoir by a strong and proud Māori lesbian woman, an activist and academic trailblazer. She does not shy away from telling it as it was, the physical and sexual abuse, the drugs, the alcohol, and the sex. It is both heart wrenching and courageous. 

As a child, she dreamt of going to university and studying law. Despite opposition from her working-class whanau, who wanted her to get a job, earn money, settle down, get married and have kids she would not give up on her dream and succeeded against all the odds. In 1981 she was the first Māori woman to earn a doctorate from a New Zealand university and in 1996 became the country's first Māori woman professor.

Her memoir is also the story of the gradual awakening of her sexual identity as a lesbian and how this played out in her life during a time when lesbians faced highly discriminatory attitudes and stigma.

Ngāhuia te Awekōtuku was a whangai baby, who spent her early childhood surrounded by her whānau in the pā in Ōhinemutu village, in Rotorua. It was especially the loving bond between her and her kuia Hera that is at the heart of her story. Her kuia and mother were brilliant weavers, a skill which Ngāhuia did not share. But she had a wonderful way of weaving with words, a talent which she discovered came from her birth family.

Academically she was a gifted child, her aunt taught her to read and write while she was still a preschooler. During her school days she twice won the Ngarimu essay competition, which was open to all Māori children, and had poems published in Te Ao Hou, a Māori bilingual journal.

For such a talented girl it should have been an easy ride to the top. But although in the fifties and sixties New Zealand was perceived as a model of racial tolerance by the rest of the world the reality was far from that. The appalling racism she and other Māori students at Rotorua Girls’ High endured makes for very disturbing reading.

Not surprisingly it led to some wild and unruly behaviour and eventually her expulsion. Had it not been for the principal at Western Heights High, who welcomed her into his school, her dreams might well have been shattered. It was a life-changing moment.

When she gained a scholarship to study law at Auckland University she was away from the constraints of her whanau. It gave her the freedom to explore her identity as a lesbian. More traumatic life experiences lay ahead, and her personal life would be a shambles at times. But somehow she did complete her studies and graduated in 1974, although not in law. She had walked away from that department as she had been unfairly treated and subjected to racism by staff in the University’s Law school. I was shocked to read about this. It was happening right under our noses, and we didn’t know about it.

When, in 1972, after she won a student leadership grant the American Embassy denied her a United States Entry visa on the grounds that she was ‘a known sexual deviant’. Outraged by this it was the catalyst for her to become the leader of the GLF (Gay Liberation Front) in Auckland. She also became very active in Women’s Liberation, the anti Vietnam war and the All Black’s tour of South Africa protests, and was part of the activist group Ngā Tamatoa, the young Māori warriors who initiated the annual protests at Waitangi on Waitangi Day.

It was the ‘golden’ era of student protests and those of us who were at university at that time and were part of that will find her accounts of these protests a fascinating walk down memory lane.

So much was achieved through these protests but Ngāhuia questions whether there has been a corresponding shift in the hearts and minds and souls of ordinary New Zealanders and how deep, how genuine, how enduring  the change is?

‘Reality can shift, just like that, and turn itself around, with enough pressure  and intensity and purpose from the other side. The haters and homophobes, the racists and self-righteous, the passionate champions of patriarchy: they are pushing hard. We can’t let them in. We mustn’t let them win.’

It is a clarion call from this wahine toa, especially to our young people, to be ready to protest again.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Harper Collins


bottom of page