The University of Auckland



Last updated September 2016

Dr Richard Benton


Richard Benton's ancestral home town in Aotearoa is Kororareka (Russell) in the Bay of Islands, where his great-great-grandfather settled in the 1830s. As a teenager, he developed a life-long interest in New Zealand native plants when his family moved to Waiotira, in Northland, where he was introduced to the New Zealand bush by a local farmer, the late Harry Hartnell, who had worked in the bush in his younger days and retained many acres of native forest on his farm. He first became interested in ethnological and linguistic research through the influence of Hoera Kanara, Pako Heka, Henare Te Nana and other kaumätua who taught him about Te Aupouri, Te Rarawa and Ngapuhi whakapapa and history in the early 1960s.

Sir James and other of members of the Henare family, along with various kaumatua and kuia who had been involved in politics in the 1930s and 40s, also encouraged him to study the political history of the Northern Maori electorate during the term of the late Tau Henare, MHR. (These studies are still far from complete!) During this time he was also an apprentice under the late George Waititi on carvings for Tü Matauenga wharenui, Otiria. He began a career in research after being awarded a JR McKenzie Research Fellowship in 1963 (he was Charge Hand at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel bottle store at the time), and has been an advocate of bilingual education in New Zealand since then.

He was awarded a fellowship at the East West Center in 1965. While working on his MA in linguistics he met his future wife, Nena Bugarin Eslao, a Filipino anthropologist who had returned to Hawaii in 1966 to work on her doctorate. After fieldwork in Pangasinan, and a period as Acting-Dean of the Graduate School of Notre Dame of Jolo College in Sulu, Philippines, he completed a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Hawaii in 1971, and has studied, written about and lectured on language policy, language rights, revitalization of minority languages, the education of linguistic and cultural minorities, and related subjects in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, Europe and North America. He was a foundation member of Nga Kaiwhakapumau i te Reo, and an active participant in planning strategy and preparing the brief for the Te Reo Maori claim and subsequent court cases and negotiations with government agencies and authorities initiated by Nga Kaiwhakapumau and the NZ Maori Council. With his wife, Nena, he organized a comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of the use of the Maori language from 1973-79 under the aegis of the NZ Council for Educational Research, which provided an important factual and theoretical base for many later developments in Maori education and language policy.

He has had a long-standing interest in holistic approaches to community development, and alternative approaches to land use which could lead to sustainable organic food production and the regeneration of native flora and fauna. From 1971-1996 he was Tumuaki, Te Wähanga Kaupapa Mäori of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research in Wellington, and then spent some time as Deputy Director of the Centre for Maori Studies and Research at the University of Waikato. While at the University of Waikato he was also involved in planning and later research for the FRST-funded research programme Laws and Institutions for Aotearoa / New Zealand, hosted by the University's Matahauariki Institute. He was also asked to take over the academic direction of the James Henare Maori Research Centre's Taitokerau Dictionary in 1999 to enable the late Professor Bruce Biggs, whose health was failing at the time, to concentrate on other urgent projects.

Richard Benton became Director of the James Henare Maori Research Centre in October 1999, on the retirement of Dr Dorothy Urlich Cloher, and was the convenor of the academic programme committee for the December 2000 Conference of the International Consortium for Experiential Learning, of which Nena Benton was the organizer. Although the Taitokerau Dictionary was certainly the project which he would have liked to concentrate on, most of his time as Director of the Centre was devoted to the Centre's work on sustainable development and social and economic wellbeing in urban areas. However, he was responsible for ensuring that an on-line version of the dictionary was produced. This was launched in Kaeo in December 2001, and made available through the Centre's web site. When the Centre went into recess at the beginning of 2004 and the University closed the web site until the Centre reopened several years later, the dictionary project continued as a voluntary activity, with the on-line files still hosted and maintained on the "Rakiora" web site. It is still accessible through the "Tumanako" gateway:

Dr Benton has been an active member of a number of national and international committees and groups. He is currently President of the Polynesian Society, and a member of the International Advisory Board of TerraLingua, and an Honorary Lecturer in the Faculty of Law of the University of Waikato; he is also a member of the Waikato Branch of the Tree Crops Association of NZ, the NZ Bamboo Society, and the Royal Society of NZ. He was a member of the Steering Committee of the International Consortium for Experiential Learning (1998-2002, and 2008-10), and the Commission for Social Justice, Catholic Diocese of Waikato. From 1997-2003 he was a member of the Social Science Subcommission of the NZ National Commission for UNESCO, and was a member of the Biodiversity Committee of the Royal Society of New Zealand until this was disbanded by the Society at the end of 2009. He retired as Director of the James Henare Maori Research Centre at the end of 2003, and was for the next four years an Adjunct Professor (Research) at the University of Waikato, working with a team at Te Mätähauariki Institute on the Laws and Institutions research programme. The Institute went into recess when its external funding ceased at the end of June, 2007, however the fruits of its labours were reflected in two subsequent publications, Tuhonohono: Custom and State (2011) and Te Matapunenga: A Compendium of References to Concepts and Institutions of Maori Customary Law (2013). Richard was also an Honorary Research Fellow with the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland (2005-9), and an Associate Researcher with the Ngati Hine research team working on the "Paeatatü - Landscape Transformation and Human Interaction in the Bay of Islands, 1769-1840" project, sponsored by the Marsden Fund. Since retiring for the third time, Richard has worked on occasions as a consultant to the Waitangi Tribunal and the Maori Language Commission, acted as an expert witness on Maori language issues for Waitangi Tribunal claims, reviewed publications for academic publishers, supervised graduate students and examined research theses. In 2015 he chaired the review panel for the Centre for Samoan Studies of the National University of Samoa.

Now that he has managed to escape from most administrative concerns, when not visiting botanical gardens and vineyards or attending conferences (often concurrently), or engaged as a consultant on customary law or language policy, Richard has been involved with his family in developing a "language garden" on the family's small self-sustaining organic farm. This project and the family suffered a severe blow when Nena died after a long battle with cancer in May, 2007, bringing to the end a four-decade partnership in scholarship closely linked to putting theory and research findings into practical action. Nonetheless, thanks in large part to Nena's unremitting toil over the years the groundwork for Te Māra Reo was already well-established. The language garden will include as many as possible of the trees and other plants which were given names brought to Aotearoa by the first Polynesian settlers. It will double as an educational resource centre contributing to a better appreciation of New Zealand's native flora and the country's linguistic heritage. Eventually, the garden will be fully documented on a web-based resource which will include information about plants not yet in the garden, and the plants with similar names elsewhere in the Austronesian world. Richard has spent a considerable amount of time researching these links in Hawaii, the Philippines, and, more recently, accompanied by his wife Silvia, also a keen gardener, Samoa. Construction of this resource is already well underway, with many pages now available on-line.

The link with gardens is a long-standing one, partly documented on the Te Mära Reo website, and included such things as being President of the Waiotira Branch of the NZ Cactus & Succulent Society, occasionally writing a column in the Society's Journal, and also a member of the Auckland Botanical Society, the Royal NZ Forest & Bird Society, the Sociedad Mexicana de Cactalogía and the American Bromeliad Society, all while still at High School, and later being a foundation member of the Bromeliad Society of NZ. While at High School & Teachers College he corresponded regularly with cactus and bromeliad growers in Mexico and Brazil, and passed on seeds to staff in the Auckland Botanical Gardens, enabling them to add new species to their then fledgling collections. He also successfully transplanted from the local bush a comprehensive collection of native ferns and a few ground orchids into a garden, which he irrigated with the treated effluent from the septic tank, under some macrocarpa trees at the house where his family were living while he was finishing his secondary schooling by correspondence. Then there was a long period in the "real world", but this included working with his wife and family in establishing and maintaining gardens in Hawaii (where the eminent anthropologist Sir Raymond Firth once took special care of their yam plant when he "house-sat" for them) and the Philippines, as well as in the various places where they lived in Aotearoa before setting about establishing the garden in Ngaruawahia. So it looks as if his career is ending as it started, growing plants and writing about them!


Post: P.O. Box 33, Ngaruawahia, Waikato 3742
Aotearoa/New Zealand
eMail TeMaaraReo at


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