Kaumātua and education pioneer Sir Toby Curtis mourned

By Will Trafford

Te Arawa kaumātua Sir Toby Curtis / File

Renowned kaumātua and pioneering educator Sir Toby Curtis (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Rongomai, Te Arawa) died peacefully at his Lake Rotoiti home this morning, at the age of 83.

Curtis was a life-long champion of te reo Māori, and education. He was a 16-year chair of Te Arawa Lakes Trust, only resigning in April this year.

Taa Toby served as vice-principal of the Auckland Teachers College and was deputy vice chancellor of the Auckland University of Technology.

The educator championed te reo Māori as the crucial bridge to connect Māori with tīpuna and whakapapa and build tauiwi understanding of te ao Māori.

The life-long educator vehemently argued te reo was key to reversing socio-economic disparities like incarceration and poverty, where Māori are disproportionately represented, due to colonisation.

"When our kids are taught te reo, we don't have this,” Curtis said in 2018.

Te reo 'life-changing'

Having first learned Māori in the fifth form at Hato Petera college (then St Peter’s Māori College), Curtis branded the experience life-changing.

“I couldn't stop learning. It was our opportunity to learn about ourselves and man, we couldn’t stop learning, and started to enjoy other subjects too,” he said earlier this year.

“We started to develop as a person. What is it about te reo that does this to a Māori where English doesn’t? Don’t get me wrong, English is a lovely language, but it didn’t do anything for me as a Māori,” he said.

Curtis reflected that today’s opportunities of being immersed in reo Māori were different from those he and his parents had.

“The generation that was discouraged from speaking Māori.”

“We internalised that being Māori was of no value, that our culture and lifestyle was not good for us and the future.”

Full immersion

Curtis emphasised the importance of full immersion Māori schools for Māori, having been appointed chair of the Iwi Education Authority for Ngā Kura-ā-Iwi o Aotearoa in 2012.

He also served on the council of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

In 2014 Curtis was knighted for his services to education.

Outside the education field, he played representative rugby union for Counties and Bay of Plenty.

The asset base of the rūnanga grew from $33 million to over $107 million during his tenure.

The Value of the trust’s farming interests grew from roughly $160 a hectare to more than $77,000 a hectare earlier this year.

Mutual cultural understanding

In his final interview in April, Curtis told Stuff he dreamed of a time when Māori and Pākehā aspirations were achieved through mutual cultural understanding.

“They don’t understand and speak te reo, how we think culturally and what we prefer as a future for coming generations.”

He reflected that while today every Māori can speak English and pronounce English words correctly, he hoped the same could one day be said for tauiwi speaking Māori.

“I’m looking forward to the day when all Pākehā, children and adults, can say every Māori word correctly,” he said.

Taa Toby will remain at home with immediate whānau, before being taken to his marae, Rakeiao, Lake Rotoiti at 10am on Friday, August 19.

The Curtis whānau welcome all those who wish to honour the life of the rangatira at Rakeiao. The burial date will be advised in due course. 

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