Professor Walker was considered one of Maoridom’s most influential academic leaders and advocates for Māori rights and social justice.
Dr Walker was born on 1 March 1932 into a farming family belonging to the Whakatōhea iwi of Opotiki.
He was educated at St Peter's Māori College in Auckland and trained first as a primary school teacher, working in that profession for 10 years. He studied at the University of Auckland, gaining a Diploma of Teaching in 1962, a Bachelor of Arts in 1962 and a Master of Arts in 1966.
In 1967 he took up a temporary lectureship in the Anthropology Department at the University where he completed his PhD in 1970.
He then served at the Centre for Continuing Education at Auckland for 15 years. During this time, he published numerous papers on Māori education and organised several Māori leadership conferences on urbanisation, gangs, Māori land, Māori fisheries, Māori educational development, and Māori representation in Parliament.
He was also a member of the National Advisory Committee on Māori Education (NACME) from 1980 to 1984 and was a member of the National and District Maori Council.
He was a member of Ngā Tama Toa, an activist group that championed the rights of Māori throughout the 1970s and '80s.
Dr Walker was appointed associate professor of Māori studies in the Anthropology Department at Auckland University in 1986. He served as professor of Māori Studies from 1993 to 1997 and Pro-Vice Chancellor (Māori) from 1996-1997.
Besides his numerous papers and chapters in books, Dr Walker published six books: Nga Tau Tohetohe: The Years of Anger (1987), Ka Whawahi Tonu Matou: Struggle without End (1990), Nga Pepa a Ranginui: The Walker Papers (1997), He Tipua: The Life and Times of Sir Apirana Ngata (2001), Opotiki Mai Tawhiti (2007), and Paki Harrison: Tohunnga Whakairo. The story of a master carver (2008). Dr Walker was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2001 New Year honours list, and in 2007 he was awarded the Te Tohu o te Maramatanga research excellence award, Nga Pae o te Maramatanga (CORE) University of Auckland. In 2009, Professor Walker was awarded a Prime Minister's Literary Award and in 2012 he received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Auckland. Dr Walker was appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2003.
University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon says Dr Walker continued to serve the University in many ways. He chaired review panels, he supported and advised staff and remained keenly interested in the affairs of the University.
“We mourn the loss of a distinguished Māori academic and longstanding member of the University. The University sends their deepest condolences to his wife Deidre, son Professor Michael Walker and whānau pani.”
The University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Māori), Jim Peters, said Dr Walker was a lead thinker in the development of Māori consciousness in the 20th century.
“He generously shared his knowledge with all. He was very aware of the need for whanau and intergenerational achievement and sought to place Māori within the social and environmental future of Aotearoa.”