Topic: Map of a Life: Dame Evelyn Stokes, MA PhD (1936-2005) by Jan Goldie

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Dame Evelyn Stokes was described by her friend and colleague Malcolm McKinnon as ‘a fine scholar, committed public person and gentle but determined individual.’ Other colleagues at the Geography Department of the University of Waikato in Hamilton readily echo his sentiments. They tell us of a modest, hard-working woman who would have been the first to say any attempt at a biography written about her was a waste of time. Yet Dame Evelyn Stokes’ own resolve to record, research, collect and document our land, its people and the relationship between the two, is astounding.

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Her background


Born Evelyn Dinsdale on 5th December 1936, Evelyn was raised and schooled in Tauranga.  She attended Tauranga Girls College and was the first non-Maori to join the school’s local kapa haka group. She became deputy head student in 1954. 

Although none of her family had School Certificate or had ever thought of higher education, Evelyn’s headmaster suggested she should attend university.

Originally planning to study anthropology and Maori at Auckland, she wasn’t accepted in to the hostel accommodation and instead Evelyn ended up at Canterbury University. There she studied English, French and Latin.  By her third year she had tired of all three, and added a geography paper.

“I enjoyed it as a more sociable kind of subject,” she said. “I enjoyed the field trips.  It was something I decided I wanted to do.” 

At Canterbury Evelyn became a member of the New Zealand Geographical Society.  She was to continue her involvement with the Society throughout her life, and was eventually presented with a life membership and a Distinguished Geographer’s Medal.

Evelyn pursued her interest in geography with post-graduate study.  In the 1950s she wrote her Masters Thesis on the Tauranga area for an MA with First Class Honours.  She also gained teaching qualifications at Christchurch Teachers Training College.

Later Evelyn applied for a Fulbright Scholarship and received a teaching assistantship at Syracuse in upstate New York, an unusual honour for a foreign student, where she worked from 1960 to 1963.

“I wanted to see the world,” she told an interviewer. “Like a good geographer, you like to go and enjoy the landscape, the people, the culture…”

Waikato University & the Map Library

After completing her PhD at Syracuse and travelling extensively overseas, Evelyn Stokes accepted a lecturer post at Waikato University, then a branch of Auckland University.  She was the only young woman on staff and initially the only female academic at Waikato. 

“I was used to that.  That had been my lot right through my graduate geography work, too – it was mostly a male subject in those days.  I’m talking about the fifties and sixties…”

When Waikato became a university in its own right, she elected to stay on and was a foundation staff member in the Department of Geography.  She continued to work at Waikato University for over forty years.  Her teaching and research interests were in historical geography, with a focus on colonisation and the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, the Pacific islands and North America.  Other interests included the use of Maori resources and feminist perspectives of geography.

“Her work was devoted to recognising contributions made by marginalised groups, particularly women and Maori,” according to Lex Chalmers, another Waikato University geographer.

It was at Waikato that Evelyn began what grew into the university Map Library, taking on the housing of the Geographical Society’s map collection.

She explained this impetus: “We started a campaign to write to everyone we knew and others who might be helpful to get offprints of journals and maps and so began building up resources just to teach our geography courses.”

The collection is now vast and valuable, including many rare maps collected and donated by Evelyn Stokes throughout her life and especially from her travels.

Maori Focus

There is a strong focus on Maori throughout Stokes’ work.  The use of Maori resources is the subject of more than thirty of her papers.

Friends remember the way she was comfortable in both Maori and pakeha worlds.  Journalist Roy Burke said, “Evelyn was never a dusty academic.  She had rich friendships across the full spectrum of society.  She embraced and was embraced by Maori society.”

From an early interest in Maori culture and language at school in Tauranga, Evelyn built up expertise, knowledge and contacts in the Maori world and was a respected visitor to marae, hui and tangi.

As a result, Waikato University benefited from a strong base in Maoridom. 

As Evelyn put it, “We set out deliberately to develop that, make contact with Maori in the district.  That’s how I got to do so much work in Tauranga because the elders asked me back.”

In the early eighties Evelyn Stokes was seconded to the Centre for Maori Studies for three years.  She worked full time advising trusts and going to hui, and was involved in the re-working of the Maori Affairs Act.

Looking back, she admits she was pleased she didn’t get accepted to Auckland University to study Maori. 

“In some ways I avoided some of the academic hang ups I might have had.  It didn’t stop me getting involved in the Maori world because I already had a lot of contact with the Maori kids at school [in Tauranga] and their families and I understood a bit of the language already.

The learning I’ve done in the Maori world has been done much more in a Maori way on a marae… and in some ways that’s been an advantage.”

As a member of the New Zealand Geographic Board for fifteen years, Evelyn was an important member of the group attempting to regain the indigenous history of place names in New Zealand and establishing official names for rivers, mountains and localities.


A History of County Tauranga

Malcolm McKinnon describes A History of Tauranga County (1980) as a revelation and goes on to explain the unique focus and ‘shining exception’ this account by Evelyn Stokes gave to Maori, something which had only been lightly dealt with in the past.

In her introduction, Evelyn writes:  “... I often call myself an historical geographer.  I believe no region can be understood and interpreted without knowing something of its past, of the people who settled in it, their attitudes toward the land and their aspirations in using the resources of the environment around them.”

She championed Tauranga’s bicultural heritage and used both Maori and Pakeha oral history as well as written documentation to complete the book.  She includes herself in this history: “I am also tangata whenua of Tauranga and this book is coloured by my experiences.  We spent school holidays staying with our Gamman relatives at the ‘the mill’ at Whakamarama...I learned as a child of tapu places, of the local custom of appeasing the kuia at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour to ensure a safe return from a sea journey...”

Wiremu Tamihana: Rangatira

In 2002, after more than ten years of extensive research, Wiremu Tamihana: Rangatira by Evelyn Stokes was published by Huia and launched at the Waikato Museum.  It was written in response to what she saw as a need for the people in the region to ‘know more about their own history.’

Waitangi Tribunal Work

From 1989 Evelyn became a member of the Waitangi Tribunal, working on research for the Court and the Maori land advisory committee.  This was something she described as ‘a substantial commitment.’ 

In the early days when she was involved in hearings, she spent a lot of time away, sometimes eight to ten weeks at a time, as claimants were heard at their own marae.  Hearings were formal but within a marae situation.

“I enjoyed going out to the marae and I’m not complaining about that at all because that’s where you meet the people, listen to their stories. That was great.”

She was involved in writing copious reports and drafting the maps for the reports.  “As a geographer I like to put things on maps that help sort out what are a very complex series of land transactions… most of the [tribunals] I’ve been put on are about land because I’ve acquired a lot of expertise about Maori land.”

Colleagues say she shied away from the limelight on Treaty of Waitangi tribunal dealings.  Although Evelyn was involved in some heavily media-dominated issues over the years she was often absent from the room come photo time.

By 1999 Evelyn had distinguished herself as a hardworking member of the tribunal team.  In a letter thanking her for her service, Minister of Maori affairs at the time Hon Tau Henare wrote:

‘Your quiet diligence and astute analysis have undoubtedly been influential in providing a steady base for the Tribunal to work through difficult issues of national significance.  You have spent ten years as a member of the Tribunal, and I am advised you have served on more claims inquiries than any other member.’

Order of Merit (2000) for Services to Education and Maori

When Dame Evelyn Stokes was awarded her knighthood as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of merit in the year 2000, her reaction was typical of her character. “I had no inkling whatsoever… there are lots of people that deserve something much more.  But some of it is a recognition of all the people I’ve worked with over the years…”

A Full Life

Evelyn Stokes achieved remarkable things in her lifetime: distinguished scholar and academic, eminent writer and researcher, an avid map collector and illustrious historical geographer, an honoured friend of Maori, a member of countless scientific committees, a champion of the marginalised and a Dame.

In her personal life she was a mother, loyal friend, respected colleague, knitter, needlewoman, gardener, pianist and so much more. 

In whatever way she is remembered by her numerous admirers, Evelyn Stokes is an enduring name and a great credit to her home town of Tauranga.  Let her good friend Malcolm McKinnon have the last word: “She was unique amongst scholars in bridging the worlds of academia and Maoridom, geography and history, the word and the map.  She will be missed as few are.” 


References (in order of appearance)

Eulogy. 30 August 2005.  Malcolm McKinnon, Editor. New Zealand Historical Atlas/Ko Papatuanuku e takoto nei.

The University of Waikato Library [sound recording]: an oral history/ [compiled by] Fiona Corcoran. All direct quotes by Dame Evelyn Stokes are sourced from these recordings.

Information about Professor Stokes’ teaching and research interests were provided by The University of Waikato.

Hamilton Press, 17 August 2005.  Dame Evelyn devoted her life to public service. Gail Henshaw.

Remembering Evelyn.  Penelope Jackson. Internet.

Waikato Times. Obituaries, 20 August, 2005. Respected geographer showed great humility. Roy Burke.

Letter to Professor Stokes from Hon Tau Henare, Minister of Maori Affairs. 24 February 1999. Copy was provided by The University of Waikato Library.

Information regarding Dame Evelyn Stokes’ work on the New Zealand Geographic Board to reclaim indigenous place names sourced from a brochure for the Inaugural Evelyn Stokes Memorial Lecture, 2006.

A History of Tauranga County.  Auckland, Dunmore Press. 1980.

Wiremu Tamihana: Rangatira.  Wellington, 2002.

This page was archived at Perma cc January 2017

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Map of a Life: Dame Evelyn Stokes, MA PhD (1936-2005) by Jan Goldie

First Names:Evelyn
Last Name:Dinsdale
Date of Birth:5 December 1936
Place of Birth:Tauranga
Country of birth:New Zealand
Date of death:15 August 2005
Occupation:Geographer, Historian, and Author
Spouses name:Brian Stokes
Date of marriage:1964
Name of the children:Donald Stokes and Philip Stokes
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
Map of a Life: Dame Evelyn Stokes, MA PhD (1936-2005) by Jan Goldie by Tauranga Writers Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License