Page 1: Biography
Ngāti Maniapoto; interpreter, native agent, assessor, politician
This biography, written by Angela Ballara, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in March, 2014.
Pēpene Eketone was born probably in 1855 or 1856, possibly in the Mōkau district of north Taranaki. His parents were Hōne Eketone and Hera Mahina, both of Ngāti Maniapoto. Pēpene Eketone was of Ngāti Uekaha and various other Ngāti Maniapoto hapū. Occasionally, he used the English form of his name, Fairburn Eggleston (Eccleston), which was derived from the names of Pākehā missionaries. On 21 March 1878 in Auckland he married Mary Barton (Mere Pātene), usually known as Mamae; she was possibly of Ngāti Pou. They had three surviving children: Ānaru (Andrew), the eldest, and two daughters, Merepaea and Hana. He had two subsequent marriages, to Te Aorangi Wetere and Te Waiata Wetere; both were childless.
Pēpene must have received some bilingual schooling, as by the mid 1880s he had launched himself on a successful career as a licensed native agent and licensed interpreter. Based in Ōtorohanga, and later in Te Kūiti, he attended courts throughout the Waikato–Maniapoto circuit. His first major battles were associated with the huge Rohe Pōtae block claimed by Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Hikairo, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and the Whanganui tribes; its borders were disputed with Tainui, Te Arawa and others. The hearing began in 1886 and was completed in April 1888, but years of work remained to determine the major and minor subdivisions. Pēpene often represented his own kin. Sometimes representing groups of nine or more Ngāti Maniapoto hapū, Pēpene conducted their cases, very often successfully. His own name and those of his children appeared in the lists of owners of various blocks.
In 1889 Pēpene Eketone was described as the 'very clever conductor' of Hitiri Te Paerata's case in the contentious Taupō-nui-a-Tia block. His forte was negotiating deals outside the court, and persisting through tedious months of effort to gain the consent of important leaders like Wahanui Huatare, Tangitehau Te Kanawa and Taonui Hīkaka. However, Pēpene always seemed to know when persistence would not pay off; he would state the grounds of disagreement with clarity and seem to leave the decision to the court – a negotiating tactic which often produced the desired result.
Pēpene's expertise was recognised when he was made an assessor of the Native Land Court; in 1891 and 1892 he worked in that capacity during the rehearings of the long disputed Omahu case in Hawke's Bay. In March 1891 he formally opened the meeting at Cambridge between Waikato–Maniapoto Māori and the Native Land Laws Commission and the Native Land Court. He praised the government for setting up the commission, but criticised its imposition of Crown pre-emption over the Rohe Pōtae block, a move made to facilitate the purchase of land for construction of the main trunk railway; pre-emption prevented the owners getting market value for their lands. Speaking on behalf of the chiefs, Pēpene objected to legislation that discriminated against Māori, requiring them to pay heavier land transfer duties than Europeans in order to recover some of the costs of the Native Land Court. He objected to sections of the Native Land Court Act 1886 Amendment Act 1888 which permitted the court to make subdivisions of large blocks without the consent of the owners, on the grounds that the survey and other costs resulting from subdivision meant that little financial benefit resulted for the sellers. He asked that Māori should be informed about the rating process so that they were not confronted with large bills without warning, and that they should be represented on county councils. He did not see how the Native Land Court could be replaced, but felt that the high fees prohibited fair hearings; people with good claims were excluded by poverty.
Pēpene Eketone was also deeply involved in Māori politics, stressing Māori self-determination and respect for the Māori King. In 1887 he made his first attempt to gain the Western Māori parliamentary seat, but Hoani Taipua won comfortably. In later years Pēpene often stood for the electorate but it passed from Ngāti Raukawa to the Māori King's successive nominees. Pēpene was an outsider, supported mainly by Ngāti Maniapoto.
In the inter-Māori debates in 1898 over Premier Richard Seddon's proposed Māori councils and native land boards, Pēpene was firmly on the side of those who rejected Seddon's paternalistic plans, demanding Māori autonomy. However, like many King movement followers prepared to test the new scheme, in 1902 Pēpene himself accepted a position on the Hikairo–Maniapoto–Tūwharetoa District Māori Land Council. However, by 1905 he was dissatisfied with the degree of government control over these councils. In 1904, in preparation for a petition for changes to the Māori Lands Administration acts, Pēpene and John Ormsby, assisted by Wahanui Huatare and other Ngāti Maniapoto, published Ko te kawenata o Ngāti Maniapoto me ōna hapū maha (the covenant of Ngāti Maniapoto with all its hapū), an elaborate genealogy of Ngāti Maniapoto together with lists of personal names, hapū names and villages. It was probably an attempt to list all those represented by the council. In April and May 1905 Ngāti Maniapoto organised meetings, and a petition drafted by Pēpene and others was presented to the government. Pēpene Eketone and Tūreiti Te Heuheu were questioned at length before the Native Affairs Committee. Pēpene's main plea was that Māori should be treated as responsible people.
Meanwhile his career as an agent continued. In 1907 he represented the Māori of Mōkau before the Stout–Ngata commission of inquiry into Māori land. Pēpene informed the commission that the Mōkau–Mōhakatino lands leased by Joshua Jones for 56 years from 1882 (a matter of great controversy provoking a royal commission in 1888), were still undeveloped. He claimed that had the lands been under Māori management there would have been a demand for them to be utilised, a claim that the commissioners regarded as naïve.
His dissatisfaction with the government's paternalism in its administration of Māori lands inclined Pēpene Eketone to support Tupu Taingākawa's faction of the King movement. Taingākawa was the leader of those who rejected any compromise with the colonial government, holding to the movement's ideal of an independent Māori kingdom limited only by its acknowledgement of the authority of the British Crown. Pēpene became a member of Taingākawa's revamped Kotahitanga or federation of the Māori tribes of the North and South Islands. Nevertheless, in 1909 he stood, again unsuccessfully, for Western Māori. In 1910 Pēpene, together with his son, Anaru, by now following his father's politics and his career as an interpreter, took part in a conference of Taingākawa's federation at Waharoa; his contributions to it were essentially practical, designed to ensure that its proceedings were businesslike.
For a time Ngāti Maniapoto had a series of annual political hui at Te Kūiti, all attended – and probably organised – by Pēpene. At the September 1911 conference Pēpene was elected to a national Māori committee including Āpirana Ngata, Māui Pōmare, Hoani Parāone Tūnuiārangi and others, who were to present a plan to the Māori King, Mahuta Te Wherowhero, and Native Minister James Carroll, for ways to support and maintain the mana of the Māori people. Later the same month Pēpene attended a hui of the Iharaira (Israelite) movement at Kaiwhaiki on the Whanganui River. It was announced that the Western Māori parliamentary candidates for that year included Pēpene, Henare Kaihau and others, but that the movement would support Maui Pomare. Waikato–Maniapoto were asked, in the interests of their unity, to unite behind either Pēpene or Kaihau.
They did not unite. In December Pēpene campaigned through the Māori newspaper Te Mareikura. His theme was Māori autonomy and support of the Māori King. He saw the role of the Māori MP as a trustee of Māoritanga, a block against land legislation prejudicial to Māori, and a guard against breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. A long list of Ngāti Maniapoto leaders supported his campaign. Had Waikato not decided in favour of Pomare, a battle would have developed between Kaihau and Pēpene, as their support was equal. In the event he came third.
In November 1912 politics were put aside while Pēpene, assisted by Ānaru, organised Mahuta's tangihanga. By this time, perhaps because of his strong showing in the election, Pēpene's position as a leader of Ngāti Maniapoto was unassailable. He continued to take part in Taingākawa's Kotahitanga, and with him, from 1920, turned to Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana to further his aims. In 1924 he was one of the 12 leaders who accompanied Tupu Taingākawa and Rātana to England, carrying with them a petition to present to the Crown.
From 1925 Pēpene's main contribution to both movements was as head of the Rātana organisation on its business side and his direction of the Rātana bank. The organisation had set up an investment society, called the Savings Bank of the United Māori Welfare League of the Northern, Southern and Chatham Islands, in its efforts to force the government to provide for Māori welfare. These efforts failed in the short term, the land on which the Rātana temple stood being heavily mortgaged with the interest unpaid. In October 1927 Pēpene and others met the prime minister, Gordon Coates, and requested financial help from the Māori Purposes Fund Control Board to allow improvements to Rātana pā and to provide both ordinary and technical schools there. The request was declined.
The bank, too, was a failure. By February 1928 Pēpene and the other members of the executive were denying its existence, claiming that all deposits were contributions to the upkeep of Rātana pa. Ngata wished, nevertheless, to recruit Pēpene into his land development schemes, because he hoped that with Pēpene gone the Rātana–Kotahitanga executive would collapse. By 1930 Ngata regarded Pēpene as an obstacle to his land development schemes at Māhoenui, where Pēpene was now based, but after 1931 he considered that he was providing the essential element of leadership there.
Pēpene was instrumental in having the anchor stone of the Tainui canoe returned from New Plymouth to the Mōkau River. Active into his old age, he had a last fling at the Western Māori seat in 1931, standing as a Rātana candidate with the backing of Mahuta's cousin Piupiu Te Wherowhero. This attempt provoked contention within the royal family. Pēpene Eketone died at Māhoenui on 9 November 1933, survived by two daughters.