By Rosemary Rangitauira 05/03/2021

Mā te mōhiotanga, ka mārama – mā te māramatanga, ka ora. (Through awareness comes understanding, and enlightenment empowers well-being)

Dr Tahu Kukutai embodies this whakataukī (proverb), a wahine (woman) who is driven by a purpose to unveil the stories behind population statistics.

Tahu specialises in Māori population research, Indigenous data sovereignty, Ethic and racial classification. She currently works at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis at the University of Waikato.

While preparing this profile, Tahu flicked Te Āki an extract she penned called ‘Finding Tahu’ for the book, Ngā Kete Mātauranga – Māori Scholars at the Research Interface.

A fascinating read which among her tuhinga (writings) she talks about her parents’ determination for her and her siblings to excel in education,  how demographers report on Indigenous Peoples and how these groups experience different fertility and mortality transitions but falls short of recognising how colonisation, for instance, impacts on social population issues.

It also reflects on her whānau and her namesake’s story.

Tahu has been part of numerous studies, including two books as well as a research paper:

In addition to her mahi at Waikato University, Tahu also contributes to multiple projects at any given time.

“An increasing part of my job is now dedicated to science and policy advice and leadership with Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the Chief Science Advisor Forum and technicians rōpū for the Data Iwi Leadership Group of the Iwi Chairs Forum. So my research time is increasingly squeezed but when I’m focused on impact and positive transformation – not just excellent research – then being available to strategise, support and help pull levers is important.”

Her most satisfying project is research for her hapū of Ngāti Tiipa called Counting our Tūpuna: Colonisation and Indigenous Survivorship in Aotearoa NZ that has been funded by the Marsden Fund.

“It’s a hapū-driven data sovereignty project that has involved massive data repatriation and integration, and the creation of a customed whakapapa database alongside the development of a hapū-controlled cloud-based digital archive. The tikanga (protocol) and kawa (customs) governing integration, access, storage and use are all being developed by and for whānau.”

Bonus read

Now a well-respected researcher, Dr Tahu Kukutai, says she didn’t seek to become a kairangahau (researcher). She had planned to become a journalist after leaving school.

“I didn’t quite have the stomach for it. The late 1980s, early 1990s were a brutal time to be a Māori journalist in a newsroom run by racist dinosaurs.”

Instead, after returning home to Ngāruawāhia from London where she lived for a few years, Tahu enrolled in a history degree at Waikato University.

“I took papers on everything that interested me. Very scattergun but I loved it all, and that led to a Master’s in Demography. With the encouragement of my supervisors, whānau and my mother-in-law who was doing her PhD at Berkley, I applied to grad schools in the US. I didn’t have any money so I only applied to the elite ones that could offer an all-expenses-paid deal.”

She was shocked to receive offers responding to her tono (requests), she packed her bags and headed for the California sun and the Department of Sociology at Stanford University where she completed her PhD in Sociology.

No matter the journey, Tahu says there are many paths to mātauranga (knowledge).

“Our experiences as Māori, continuing to live with the impacts of colonialism, and our rich intergenerational mātauranga provide us with a unique way of seeing the world and challenging the status quo. Knowledge is power and we all have something to contribute,” she says.