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Celebrating our Maori Leaders Peter Buck

Peter Buck claimed to have been born in 1880, but a more likely date is sometime in October 1877 as recorded in his primary school register. For most of his life he believed that Ngarongo-ki-tua was his natural mother. She had married Peter's father, William Henry Buck, at Urenui, Taranaki, in the early 1870s. But their marriage was childless and, in accordance with Maori custom, a near relative, Rina, came into the household to provide William Buck with a child. Rina died soon after Peter was born so he was nurtured by Ngarongo.

Throughout his life Peter Henry Buck regarded his Maori and Pakeha ancestry as equally important. His Maori descent was from Ngati Mutunga, many of whom had recently returned to Taranaki from the Chatham Islands.

In later life the name of Te Rangi Hiroa, Ngarongo's uncle and an earlier illustrious ancestor, was conferred on him by his elders; he used it as a pen-name. Buck sometimes described his Pakeha ancestors as Irish; his family was descended from Protestant English migrants to Ireland. His father, born in County Galway, came to New Zealand in 1862 via the Australian goldfields and tried his luck as a digger in Westland and Thames, while also serving in the Armed Constabulary. He had been discharged by 1871 and settled at Urenui.

Ngarongo was an important influence, teaching Peter colloquial Maori and some of the lore of her people; he also learnt much from his great aunt, Kapuakore. Nevertheless, his early upbringing was more Pakeha than Maori.

His father was an educated man who gave Peter a love of language and poetry. The family lived in the Pakeha settlement at Urenui rather than the nearby Maori village, and Peter received his primary schooling at the local state school. Soon after Ngarongo's death in 1892 his father took him to Wairarapa, where they worked on J. C. Andrew's sheep station. Then, with Andrew's encouragement, Peter fulfilled a desire to attend Te Aute College in Hawke's Bay, enrolling in 1896.

The Anglican secondary school for Maori boys was then under the control of the Reverend John Thornton. The boys boarded at the school for 10 months of the year, were put under strong discipline, and given a sound grounding in academic learning, including Latin and Greek, to prepare them for matriculation to university and the professions. Buck had three years at Te Aute and did extremely well: in his final year he was dux and passed his medical preliminary examination, giving him entry to the University of Otago medical school. He was prominent in sport, captaining the athletics team and the First XV. He belonged to the Te Aute College Students' Association, and at their 1897 conference read a paper critical of the sanitary and moral state of Te Whiti's Parihaka community. He was also secretary of the Christian Union.

Before enrolling at the medical school, Buck and a Ngati Porou fellow student visited the East Coast. Here Buck fell in love with the high-born Materoa Ngarimu; unhappily, Ngati Porou rejected him as an unworthy suitor. Buck did well at Otago Medical School. He was one of the top students of his class and immersed himself in sporting and social activities. In 1900 and 1903 he was the national long jump champion, and he also won the inter-university long jump championship in 1902, 1903 and 1904. He was now a tall and handsome young man with an infectious good nature and not above the odd student prank, including, on one occasion, a mock hunt for a stuffed moa captured from the museum. Buck completed his MB and ChB in 1904, and an MD, with a thesis on 'Medicine amongst the Maoris in ancient and modern times', in 1910.

After qualifying, Buck spent a year as house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital and a few months at Sunnyside Mental Hospital. On 4 October 1905, at Greymouth, he married Margaret Wilson, born in northern Ireland.

Although the Bucks' marriage was childless, it endured. Margaret was fiercely loyal to Peter, helped him in his work, accompanied him in the field, and did not hesitate to push her easy-going husband into important career decisions. Later, when they had a car, she did the driving. Even when she lapsed into alcoholism, in the late 1930s, their often tempestuous marriage held together.

Buck could easily have settled into a quiet life as a general practitioner, but the Te Aute urge to do good for his people was still with him and in November 1905 he was appointed as a medical officer to the Maori. He worked as deputy to another Taranaki doctor, Maui Pomare, recently returned from medical studies in the United States. Initially Buck was in charge of the south–central districts of the North Island but in 1907 he was switched to the north. Between them Pomare and Buck engaged in a concerted campaign to improve the sanitation of Maori settlements and the health of the people. They helped to speed a population recovery that had started around the turn of the century.

Buck's varied practice of medicine in the north, which sometimes included surgery in the field, meant that he became well known in Maori communities. But it hardly prepared him for the task that was unexpectedly thrust upon him early in 1909. On the sudden death of Hone Heke Ngapua, MP for Northern Maori, Buck, attending the tangihanga at Kaikohe, was designated by the native minister, James Carroll, to stand in Heke's place.

This was part of Carroll's scheme to have his 'young colts' – the Maori graduates later called the Young Maori Party – elected to Parliament. Buck accepted and was duly elected, despite the intervention of several local candidates. He was a member of the Native Affairs Committee and briefly held cabinet office as member of the Executive Council representing the native race in the short-lived Mackenzie ministry in 1912. But in 1914 he did not seek re-election for Northern Maori, although he stood for the Bay of Islands seat and was only narrowly defeated. He did not again stand for Parliament.

Buck had seldom spoken in parliamentary debates, unless angered by developments that were threatening to Maori. Indeed he was already devoting much of his time to other matters, including a new interest in the Polynesian peoples of the Pacific. In 1910 he spent the parliamentary recess in Rarotonga, acting as a medical officer in the Cook Islands. During the recess for 1912–13 he went to Niue, again acting as medical officer. He published brief articles on the material culture of Niue, the Cook Islands and New Zealand Maori, some in Dominion Museum bulletins, the rest in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. Buck had joined the society in 1907 and was a keen student of S. Percy Smith, founder of the society, long-time editor of its journal, and the leading authority on Maori and Polynesian origins and migrations – a subject Buck was later to explore.

Following the declaration of war in August 1914, he and the other Maori MPs helped to recruit a Maori volunteer contingent. In February 1915 Buck went to the Middle East with this contingent as medical officer. He and the Maori troops were not content to remain on garrison duty at Malta and, at their request, were sent with the main body to land on the Gallipoli peninsula. Here they suffered heavy casualties – a fifth of their number were killed or wounded. Buck was in the thick of the action; he was twice mentioned in dispatches and made a DSO. After the withdrawal from Gallipoli the Maori troops were reorganised into the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion and sent to France; they were employed building gunpits, trenches, dugouts and communication facilities. Buck was allowed to transfer to combat duty, was promoted to the rank of major and became second-in-command of the battalion. He saw action in France and Belgium, but at the end of 1917 he was transferred to the No 4 New Zealand Field Ambulance. Then in May 1918 he was posted to Britain and in September to the No 3 New Zealand General Hospital at Codford.

Buck continued to pursue his interest in anthropology. He met several leading British anthropologists and from them borrowed instruments which he used to measure the physical features of the men of the Pioneer Battalion, who were on their way home from the war. His findings were published in a lengthy essay in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1922–23.

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