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Story: Te Pōtangaroa, Pāora

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Te Pōtangaroa, Pāora


Ngāti Kahungunu and Rangitāne leader, prophet

This biography, written by Angela Ballara and Keith Cairns, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

Pāora Te Pōtangaroa was the son of Ngaehe, of Ngāti Kerei and Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti, and Wiremu Te Pōtangaroa, a leader in the Mātaikona area of Wairarapa, of Te Ika-a-Papauma, a hapū of Ngāti Kahungunu. Through his father's mother, Nau, Pāora was related to the Hāmua people, a section of Rangitāne.

In 1853 Pāora signed the deed of sale of the Castlepoint block, a huge area stretching from the Whareama River inland to the Puketoi range, and north to the Mātaikona River. It was the first major purchase made by the chief land purchase commissioner, Donald McLean, in Wairarapa. Pāora later signed away the Tautāne block, in the Pōrangahau area, and the Waihora block, but of all the Wairarapa chiefs he was to be the most resistant to the lure of land-selling.

Pāora's position as a prophet and leader in Wairarapa was recognised from the early 1860s; he was asked to accept nomination as Māori King but refused. In 1878 he inspired the many hapū of the upper Wairarapa valley to build a large carved house at Te Kaitekateka, later called Te Ore Ore, near Masterton. This area was under the mana of Wī Waaka, a staunch supporter of the rūnanga movement and the King movement, and a protector of the emissaries of Pai Mārire. During construction animosity developed between Pāora and Te Kere, a master carver and prophet from Wanganui. Te Kere and Wī Waaka began to resent Pāora's growing influence, which tended to undermine their positions. Te Kere was particularly incensed at the size of the planned house, 96 by 30 feet. Having prophesied that it would take eight years to finish the house, he departed to build a rival house for Ngāti Rangiwhakaaewa at Tahoraiti.

In spite of Te Kere's prediction, the house was finished by 1881. Pāora bestowed on it, in derision of Te Kere's powers as a prophet, the name Ngā Tau e Waru (The Eight Years). The house incorporated many unusual features. The carvers Tāmati Aorere of Ngāti Kahungunu and Tāepa of Te Arawa made use of unique double 'S' patterns, swastika-like motifs, and unusual rafter and panel paintings. Inside the house Pāora had erected a stone believed to be a medium of communication with the world of gods and spirits. In addition, at Pāora's behest, Te Kere had carved into the ridgepole above the door, in a position where it could not easily be seen, a representation of male and female genitalia in the act of coitus. The intention was to remove the tapu of chiefs entering the door beneath it. When Wī Waaka entered the house he collapsed, semi-paralysed, and had to be helped outside. With hindsight, this collapse was attributed to the effect of the carving, designed to protect the tapu of Pāora himself.

When the house was being carved Pāora was at the height of his influence and popularity. He was preaching Christianity expressed in Māori concepts and when he appeared in public, people gathered round him for instruction; between these appearances he spent much time in meditation. Associated with the completion of Ngā Tau e Waru were a number of his prophecies which predicted that a new and great power was to come to the people from the direction of the rising sun. Various interpretations were made: it was believed to herald the arrival of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as interpreted by the Mormons; and it was believed that missionaries would come from the east and set in place a new church. In 1928, when the religious leader T. W. Rātana visited Te Ore Ore at the request of the people, he removed the stone set up by Pāora inside Ngā Tau e Waru, repositioning it outside. The move silenced the medium. The coming of the Rātana faith is now widely believed to be the fulfilment of Pāora's prophecy.

In 1881 Pāora announced that he had experienced a prophetic dream; he called his people together to interpret his vision. His mana was so great that the crowd at Te Ore Ore in March 1881 was variously estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000. Huge preparations had been made for their arrival, including the preparation of a great feast – a pyramid of food 150 feet long, 10 feet wide and 4 feet high. Many Pākehā visitors attended the gathering, some out of curiosity and scepticism. On 16 March 1881 the gathering awaited Pāora's prophetic utterance. About 1 p.m. he emerged from Wī Waaka's house and presented his revelation in the form of a flag divided into sections, each bordered in black. Within each section were stars and other mystical symbols. It was raised to half-mast on the flagpole in front of the meeting house. Pāora unsuccessfully asked his people to interpret its message. In spite of the scepticism and anger of those anxious for an immediate miracle, he refused to explain his meaning. The next day he appeared again and told the crowd: 'Look at the flag. Tell me what it means.' He made no further explanations. The gathering ended in disorder and heavy drinking.

Several weeks later Pāora emerged from seclusion to make a declaration to his followers: in future they should neither sell nor lease land, should incur no further debts and refuse to honour debts already incurred. The meaning of at least part of his flag now became apparent. The black-bordered sections of the flag represented the huge blocks of land already alienated. The stars and other symbols represented the inadequate and scattered reserves, the sole remainder of a once great patrimony. Pāora had been moved to prophecy by the failure of his people to understand the process by which they were dispossessing themselves.

Three months later Pāora Te Pōtangaroa died. Pākehā authorities greeted his death with relief; they had feared the 'fanaticism' his movement had caused. The tangi was held at Te Ore Ore and the body carried by hearse to the settlement at Mātaikona. As Pāora lay dying, he had presented his son Kīngi with a box of silver, the money taken at the Te Ore Ore gathering in fines for drinking. This treasure paid for his funeral.

How to cite this page:

Angela Ballara and Keith Cairns. 'Te Pōtangaroa, Pāora', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t57/te-potangaroa-paora (accessed 16 July 2024)