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 Ngārongo-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 Māori 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 Ngārongo.
Throughout his life Peter Henry Buck regarded his Māori and Pākehā ancestry as equally important. His Māori descent was from Ngāti Mutunga, many of whom had recently returned to Taranaki from the Chatham Islands. In later life the name of Te Rangi Hīroa, Ngārongo'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 Pākehā 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.
Ngārongo was an important influence, teaching Peter colloquial Māori and some of the lore of her people; he also learnt much from his great aunt, Kapuakore. Nevertheless, his early upbringing was more Pākehā than Māori. His father was an educated man who gave Peter a love of language and poetry. The family lived in the Pākehā settlement at Urenui rather than the nearby Māori village, and Peter received his primary schooling at the local state school. Soon after Ngārongo'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 Māori 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 Ngāti Porou fellow student visited the East Coast. Here Buck fell in love with the high-born Materoa Ngārimu; unhappily, Ngāti 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 Māoris 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 Māori. He worked as deputy to another Taranaki doctor, Māui Pōmare, 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 Pōmare and Buck engaged in a concerted campaign to improve the sanitation of Māori 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 Māori communities. But it hardly prepared him for the task that was unexpectedly thrust upon him early in 1909. On the sudden death of Hōne Heke Ngāpua, MP for Northern Māori, 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 Māori graduates later called the Young Māori 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 Māori, 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 Māori. 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 Māori, 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 Māori and Polynesian origins and migrations – a subject Buck was later to explore.
Following the declaration of war in August 1914, he and the other Māori MPs helped to recruit a Māori volunteer contingent. In February 1915 Buck went to the Middle East with this contingent as medical officer. He and the Māori 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 Māori 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.
On his return to New Zealand Buck was appointed to Pōmare's old job, and in 1921 became director of the Māori Hygiene Division in the new Department of Health. He worked from Auckland and bought a home in Parnell. The high Māori death rate in the influenza pandemic in 1918 showed the need for improved sanitation, and Buck patiently persuaded Māori leaders to co-operate with nurses and medical officers in their efforts to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Buck was becoming increasingly involved in anthropology. He went on several field trips with Johannes Andersen and Elsdon Best to record the culture and music of Māori communities. He published more essays in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, and a monograph, The evolution of Māori clothing, was published as a Polynesian Society memoir in 1926. In that year he returned to the Cook Islands for 10 weeks and published his findings in The material culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki) in 1927. Through these meticulous studies, amply illustrated by his skilful line drawings, Buck established himself as the leading authority on Māori material culture.
Buck was also becoming a celebrity on the lecture circuit, particularly with his lecture on 'The coming of the Māori'. He gave this as the Cawthron Lecture in Nelson in 1922 and at the Pacific Science Congress at Melbourne in 1923. The Cawthron Lecture was published in 1925, reprinted by the Board of Māori Ethnological Research in 1929, and republished in a much revised and expanded version by the Māori Purposes Fund Board in 1949. It has been reprinted numerous times since.
At the Melbourne science congress Buck met Professor Herbert E. Gregory, director of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawaii. They met again when Gregory came to Auckland later in the year. The Bishop Museum was at that time funding a series of ethnological expeditions to Pacific islands. Gregory funded Buck's field trip to the Cook Islands in 1926, and then offered him a five-year research fellowship at the museum. Buck consulted his old friend Āpirana Ngata and then accepted the offer. Henceforth, the amateur would become a professional anthropologist.
As research fellow at the Bishop Museum, Buck carried out extensive field work in the Pacific, starting in Western Samoa and going on in later years to most of the other Polynesian island groups. This work was quickly written up and published as a series of Bishop Museum bulletins; the last was published posthumously in 1957. In addition, Buck published many articles, notes and reviews in periodicals. He kept in contact with the editor of the Journal of the Polynesian Society and gave much sage advice on the contributions of others, sometimes acting as a referee between squabbling colleagues. Buck also published a number of general surveys, including Anthropology and religion (1939) and An introduction to Polynesian anthropology (1945). But by far the most popular of his works was Vikings of the sunrise (1938), a witty and light-hearted romp through the oral traditions, ethnology and social organisation of each of the major Polynesian groups. It was immensely popular in the United States and quickly went through several reprints.
Yet, for all his popularity and growing academic fame, Buck had one long-unresolved problem: whether or not to return to New Zealand. He did return for a month in 1930, having completed field work in the Cook Islands. When he got back to Hawaii he told Ngata: 'I look back on my month in the home land as one of the greatest experiences I have ever had.' Then he added, after noting a warm reception from friends and colleagues in Hawaii, 'It was almost like home getting back.' Buck wanted to finish his career as a professional anthropologist in New Zealand, but there was no position for him as the New Zealand universities were unwilling to make appointments in the subject. So he took whatever opportunities arose for him at the Bishop Museum and in the mainland United States.
When Buck's research fellowship expired in June 1932 he was appointed as Bishop Museum visiting professor of anthropology at Yale University. Buck relished the appointment. It gave him an opportunity not only to teach courses based on his New Zealand and Pacific research, but also to widen his academic contacts and travel extensively in the United States, Canada and even, during his long vacations, in Britain and Europe, where he examined museum collections of Pacific artefacts. Buck's term at Yale ended on 30 June 1933 but, although he still hankered for a return to New Zealand, his future at the Bishop Museum was assured: he had been chosen as successor director of the Bishop Museum to replace Gregory on his retirement on 30 June 1936. Employment had to be found for Buck in the interval. For a start, his professorship at Yale was extended for another year. Then he returned to the Bishop but went on field work on Mangaréva, knowing that he would have few such opportunities once he became a desk-bound administrator. He managed a visit to New Zealand for six weeks early in 1935, gave several lectures, visited Māori land development schemes, and, accepting that his expatriation was permanent, sold his Parnell home.
Buck assumed the directorship of the Bishop Museum on 1 July 1936. His heavy administrative obligations did not prevent him from regular publication or even occasional field work, although that had to be abandoned during the Pacific war. His directorship was regularly renewed, even when he reached the normal retirement age. In addition he became a trustee and then president of the board of trustees of the Bishop Museum. He was now, more than ever, a celebrity, forever in demand in Hawaii and on the mainland as a conference or public lecturer. He received a string of academic prizes: the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1932 and the Rivers Memorial Medal in 1936, the S. Percy Smith Medal in 1951 and the Huxley Medal posthumously in 1952. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of New Zealand (1937), Rochester University (1939), the University of Hawaii (1948), and Yale (1951). But the honour that he most coveted, a New Zealand knighthood, was long delayed since it was assumed – wrongly – that he had become an American citizen. Buck was finally appointed a KCMG in 1946. That year he was also awarded the Swedish Order of the North Star.
Although Buck had become one of New Zealand's most famous expatriates, he kept in touch with his homeland and with his old friends and colleagues, most notably Apirana Ngata. Their lengthy correspondence between 1925 and 1950 reveals Buck's continuing interest in developments in New Zealand and his concern for Māori welfare. Ngata was able to report on those developments from his daily immersion in them; Buck viewed them from afar – from the peak of Mauna Loa – and from the perspectives of academic anthropology and field work among other Polynesian peoples. Anthropology for Buck, as for Ngata, was no mere academic game, but was a necessary means of facilitating action in the field, in land development and in cultural regeneration.
Stricken with cancer, Buck returned for a final visit to New Zealand in 1949 to attend the Pacific Science Congress, and to receive his knighthood from his old comrade Governor General Sir Bernard Freyberg. He was called on to give numerous public lectures, and, in the company of the ageing Ngata, made a last pilgrimage to marae in many parts of the country, including his own at Urenui. He died at Honolulu on 1 December 1951. His ashes were finally brought back home in 1953 and were laid to rest in an impressive ceremony at Ōkoki near Urenui on 8 August 1954. Margaret survived him; her ashes were eventually laid with those of her husband.
Peter Buck's upbringing in two cultures was the ideal preparation for his varied career. His medical training allowed him to play a vital role in the improvement of Māori health standards, and his knowledge of Māori and Polynesian culture was critical to his success as an anthropologist. Buck's good humour and personal charm let him move freely between two vastly different worlds, giving practical assistance to his people and making major contributions to anthropological knowledge. His standing as an anthropologist, particularly of Polynesian material culture, remains undiminished, as does his mana in Māoridom.