Te Puea Herangi was born at Whatiwhatihoe, near Pirongia, on 9 November 1883. Her mother was Tiahuia, daughter of Tawhiao Te Wherowhero of Ngati Mahuta, the second Maori King, and his senior wife, Hera. Her father was Te Tahuna Herangi, son of William Searancke, an English surveyor, and Hariata Rangitaupa of Ngati Ngawaero hapu of Ngati Maniapoto. Te Puea was thus born into the kahui ariki, the family of the first Maori King, Potatau Te Wherowhero, in the difficult years following the wars of the 1860s and the extensive confiscation of Tainui lands. She was to play a crucial role alongside three successive kings in re-establishing the Kingitanga (King movement) as a central force among the Tainui people, and in achieving national recognition of its importance.
Te Puea's family moved when she was young to Pukekawa and then to Mangatawhiri, near Mercer, and between 1895 and 1898 she attended primary schools in Mercer and Auckland. She was known to her family as Te Kirihaehae. Her young adult years were exuberant, and she had several short-lived relationships. During one in particular – with a Pakeha, Roy Seccombe – she cut herself off from her people. Mahuta, Te Puea's uncle and successor to Tawhiao as king, himself intervened in about 1910 to draw her back. He had picked her out in her childhood as having unusual abilities, and had spent many hours passing on his knowledge to her; now he appealed to her to remember her duty to the Kingitanga and the people. Te Puea returned to Mangatawhiri and took up a burden that sat heavily upon her.
The early years in particular were difficult, because there was some resentment of her new position (her main support came from the people of Mercer and the lower Waikato); but she persevered with courage against the odds. She had her first test as a leader in 1911. Mahuta had decided to approve Maui Pomare as parliamentary candidate for Western Maori in place of Henare Kaihau, previously the nominee of the Kingitanga. Te Puea accompanied Pomare around the villages of the lower Waikato; her support ensured his election.
Te Puea's influence became more firmly established among Tainui people during the First World War, when she led their opposition to the government's conscription policy. She understood the sense of alienation that the military invasion, occupation and confiscation of land had imposed upon the people, and understood, too, that the Kingitanga held the key to restoring their sense of purpose. Te Puea was guided all her life by Tawhiao's sayings; more than anyone else, she gathered them together. During the war she drew on Tawhiao's words forbidding Waikato to take up arms again after he had finally made his peace with the Crown in 1881. She stood firm with those men who did not wish to fight a war that was not theirs, on behalf of a government that had dispossessed and scattered their people. But the government was impatient with what it saw as defiance and disloyalty, and compounded Tainui feelings of injustice by conscripting Maori only from the Waikato–Maniapoto district.
At this difficult time Te Puea's leadership was of great importance to Tainui. The revival of the Pai Marire faith, brought to Waikato from Taranaki by Tawhiao, helped to strengthen the people. Te Puea expressed her own opposition to conscription in specially composed waiata such as 'E huri ra koe', 'Kati nei e te iwi te kumekume roa' and 'Nga ra o Hune ka ara te pakanga', and gathered together the men liable for conscription at Te Paina (the pa she had rebuilt at Mangatawhiri) to support them. They were balloted in groups in 1918, then arrested and taken to Narrow Neck training camp at Auckland, where they were subjected to severe military punishments if they refused to wear uniform. Te Puea would travel north and sit outside where the men could see her from time to time; it gave them much-needed encouragement.
Te Puea was now determined to rebuild a centre for the Kingitanga at Ngaruawahia, its original home before the confiscation, in accordance with Tawhiao's wishes. She was dissatisfied with the swampy conditions at Mangatawhiri and wished to make a new start in the wake of the tragic influenza epidemic of late 1918, which had struck the settlement with devastating effect, leaving a quarter of the people dead. Te Puea gathered up 100 orphaned children from lower Waikato and placed them in the care of the remaining families. But she needed a better home for them. In 1920 Waikato leaders were able to buy 10 acres of confiscated land on the bank of the Waikato River opposite the township and by 1921 Te Puea was ready to begin moving the people from Mangatawhiri to build a new marae, to be called Turangawaewae. It seemed an impossible plan, given the distance the people had to travel and their lack of resources, and Te Puea was frank with them about the difficulties they would face. Years of hard work followed, draining and filling swampy scrub-covered land, and raising funds for the building of a sleeping house for visitors and, later, a large carved house intended as a hospital. They had also to overcome the attitudes of the Pakeha citizens of Ngaruawahia, who initially tried to have them removed from the borough.
In these years a community was welded together under Te Puea's leadership. In the evenings an expert in haka taught the young people, and Te Puea formed a group named Te Pou o Mangatawhiri. Its name commemorates the pou (post) erected by the Kingitanga at Mangatawhiri beyond which Pakeha were not to acquire land or authority, an injunction they ignored. Te Pou o Mangatawhiri set out to raise the hundreds of pounds needed for the carved house by performing in halls and theatres throughout the North Island. Te Puea kept morale high on the tours, gathering the young people together to tell them stories and share her hopes with them, joking, jumping to her feet to show them how to improve their haka, how to pukana. In 1927 they toured the East Coast, where Apirana Ngata, MP for Eastern Maori, led Ngati Porou in giving strong support to the building of the carved house. It was the start of a long friendship between Te Puea and Ngata. At his suggestion the house was named Mahinarangi, after the ancestor who had united Tainui with the tribes of the East Coast. Six thousand people attended the hui to open the house in March 1929.
Other events of significance to the Kingitanga occurred in the 1920s. In 1927 a royal commission chaired by W. A. Sim considered the confiscation of land in the 1860s. It recommended the payment of £3,000 annually to Waikato as compensation; both the offer and some of the commission's findings were unacceptable, and negotiations over a settlement occupied the next 20 years. Te Puea was also increasingly becoming known outside Waikato. Her friendship with Ngata and Gordon Coates led her into frequent contacts with government officials, and another friend, Eric Ramsden, a journalist, persuaded her of the value of publicity for her work. Articles about 'Princess' Te Puea began to appear in newspapers and magazines.
With Turangawaewae marae established, Te Puea turned her attention to building an economic base for the people, dependent until now on seasonal wage-labour, and already feeling the impact of the depression. Ngata became native minister at the end of 1928, and his legislation providing for state loans to Maori farmers put land development within the reach of Waikato. The development schemes began on small pockets of land at Waiuku and Onewhero. Te Puea became the supervisor of the schemes and travelled constantly among them, taking families from Ngaruawahia to help with the work. She shared Ngata's vision of land development and dairy farming as the basis of strong communities; and as the farms were subdivided and homes and milking sheds built, she established or extended marae throughout Waikato. Sometimes she chose the place herself, as at Mangatangi and Rakaumanga, supervising all the arrangements from cutting the trees to plastering the walls with cement over soaked, cleaned sacks. At Mangatangi she named the house Tamaoho, and had a great canvas painted telling the story of Tamaoho, and the migration of Ngati Tamaoho long before from Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) through the Hunua Range into the Mangatangi area. The dining hall here is named for her: Kirihaehae. New marae were incorporated into the round of Poukai gatherings instituted by Tawhiao, which are still at the heart of the Kingitanga: an annual visit by the King – and, more recently, the Queen – to each marae to consult the people.
By the mid 1930s the Turangawaewae community was well established. In 1940 Te Puea was able to buy a farm close to the marae, which she hoped would bring in an income to sustain Turangawaewae. She and her husband Rawiri Tumokai Katipa (whom she had married at the wish of the kahui ariki in 1922) lived there for the next 12 years, and a whole generation grew up working on the farm. Te Puea left the Kingitanga strong because of the central beliefs with which the young people grew to adulthood: faith, dedication to the Kingitanga, respect for kawa, the importance of caring for visitors, and the value of hard work. Each day began and ended with Pai Marire karakia, drawing the people together from wherever they were working. This day-to-day expression of unity was of great importance to Te Puea; it reflected long-held Kingitanga beliefs that the burden of the wars and the confiscation must be carried by the people together if they were to find the strength to survive it. So Te Puea never mentioned hapu (though she was an acknowledged expert on whakapapa); nor did she encourage the people to identify themselves by hapu. They thought of themselves as Waikato.
By the late 1930s Te Puea and the Kingitanga had attracted increasing official recognition. She was appointed a CBE in 1937. The following year, the governor general, Lord Galway, officially opened Turongo, the striking carved house that Te Puea had built for King Koroki at Turangawaewae; it was named for the ancestor who had married Mahinarangi. Because of the improvement in Kingitanga relations with the government, Te Puea was willing to contemplate Waikato's joining the Waitangi centennial celebrations in 1940. Some years before she had set out to restore the skill of canoe building. Ranui Maupakanga supervised the refitting of the old canoe, Te Winika, by a team of younger carvers. Te Puea's vision of a fleet representing the traditional voyaging canoes came closer to fulfilment. In 1936 the government seemed willing to help a project that could also serve a purpose at the Waitangi centennial; but the funds were slow in coming, and eventually only one canoe, Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua, was completed in time.
Tainui ultimately stayed away from Waitangi in 1940. Te Puea was affronted by the government's refusal to exempt Koroki from the necessity to register under the Social Security Act of 1938, seeing this as evidence of its continuing failure to recognise his mana. But she was also angered by the fate of an action brought by Hoani Te Heuheu Tukino, of Ngati Tuwharetoa, against the Aotea District Maori Land Board to prevent Maori land being charged for the payment of debts. Late in 1938 the case went to the Court of Appeal, which would not countenance Ngati Tuwharetoa attempts to rely on the Treaty of Waitangi because it was not part of domestic law. The Tainui boycott of the Waitangi celebrations made the headlines, and Te Puea was reported to have quoted with approval the saying of an elder: 'This is an occasion for rejoicing on the part of the pakehas and those tribes who have not suffered any injustices during the past 100 years.'
Te Puea had been raised with a 'bitter, poignant memory' of the 1860s war and confiscations. As a child she had heard stories first hand from those who had suffered in the fighting. But she was very anxious for a settlement so that the people could begin to put the pain of the past behind them. In 1946 she decided to accept Prime Minister Peter Fraser's offer of £5,000 per year in perpetuity, to be administered by the Tainui Maori Trust Board, not because it was an adequate settlement of the people's losses, but because she was immensely practical, and knew it was the best deal she could get at the time. Above all, it was a vindication.
Te Puea's depth of feeling about the confiscation, however, never affected her many personal friendships with Pakeha – some of them very close – nor her strong belief that the two peoples should learn to respect one another's cultures so that they could live comfortably together. She sometimes talked intensely about this, tracing along two fingers the parallel paths of two canoes – Maori and Pakeha. Maori, she said, should show the Pakeha what was good in Maori culture, and should in turn take from Pakeha friends what was good in theirs. In informal conversation she tried to convey to Pakeha politicians an understanding of central Maori values. When Peter Fraser asked her opinion about a current concern of employers that Maori were unreliable because they tended to disappear to tangihanga, Te Puea tried to explain: Maori had to live and work in a Pakeha world, but a Maori attending a tangihanga or a hui 'comes back right into the middle of things Maori…he recharges his Maori batteries.'
One of the measures of Te Puea's achievements is that she achieved a national status for the Kingitanga among both Maori and Pakeha. Mahuta had tried to bridge the gap between Tainui and the Crown by going to Wellington as a member of the Legislative Council; Te Puea bridged it by inviting governors general and politicians – Reform, United, and Labour in succession – to Ngaruawahia. If distinguished visitors came to honour the Kingitanga it would help the people to overcome their suspicion of government.
Yet friendship with the government never meant compromise when Maori rights were at stake. In 1931 she secured the dismissal of a Pakeha supervisor of the Waiuku land development schemes, Patrick Barry, because she thought him preoccupied with cost-cutting and lacking in sympathy with the broader purpose of the schemes. During the Second World War she still would not encourage Tainui men to enlist, though she raised thousands of pounds for the Red Cross. In 1941 she told Fraser, 'Look, Peter, it's perfectly simple. I'm not anti-Pakeha; I'm not pro-German; I'm pro-Maori.' And in 1940 she supported Ngati Whatua against the government and the Auckland City Council, who were trying to evict the people from their remaining fragments of ancestral land at Okahu Bay. Her friendship with Fraser was strained by her active involvement.
Throughout her life Te Puea strengthened Kingitanga networks beyond Tainui. She travelled a great deal, often (in later years) with King Koroki, and through personal friendships established lasting relationships among many tribes in Taranaki, the Whanganui district, on the East Coast, and in the far north. This in turn helped the re-establishment of people's belief in the importance of the Kingitanga and in the Waikato people as its guardian. Te Puea's close friendship with Tau Henare of Ngati Hine, MP for Northern Maori, is reflected in the inscription of her words in the meeting house at Motatau, far from home: 'Ka mahi au, ka inoi au, ka moe au, ka mahi ano' (I work, I pray, I sleep, and then I work again). This was the answer Te Puea had given the Pakeha press when they wanted to know what to write about her when she received her CBE. Her vision of the unity of the tribes was obvious in her enthusiasm for the celebrations in 1950 for the 600th anniversary of the arrival of the 'Great Fleet' of traditional voyaging canoes, conceived by Ngata and Peter Buck as a series of national hui. Te Puea joined with Ngata in planning the hui, and she had nine model canoes carved for the final hui at Turangawaewae, to be presented to descendants of the chiefs of the first canoes. Beyond New Zealand, she established relationships in the Pacific, travelling in 1947 to Tonga and the Cook Islands. With her she took King Koroki's daughter, Piki, the future Maori Queen Te Atairangikaahu. Te Puea was conscious of past links with other Polynesian peoples, and hoped that this visit would make possible future contact with them. She also saw the importance for the Kingitanga of strengthening a sense of identity with other hereditary Polynesian leaderships.
In other ways, too, Te Puea looked to the future of the people. She changed her mind about the dangers of Pakeha education, becoming a member of a school committee. Koroki wanted his adopted son, Robert Te Kotahi Mahuta, to be a mechanic, but Te Puea intervened to send him instead to Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland; he would later become principal negotiator for Waikato's continuing claims against the Crown arising from the confiscation of their land. She also sent Piki to the Anglican Waikato Diocesan School for Girls in Hamilton. She welcomed the various Christian churches back to the marae, but was particularly close to the ministers and deaconesses of the Methodist church, some of whom were good friends and advisers. From the mid 1930s she worked closely with the new medical officer of health, H. B. Turbott, to tackle high mortality rates from typhoid and tuberculosis. Although the Department of Health had long ago foiled her attempt to provide medical care in a Maori environment in Mahinarangi, she succeeded in the early 1940s in opening a clinic at Turangawaewae House (the former Kauhanganui house), where the people felt comfortable. When the Maori Women's Welfare League was formed in 1951, she was elected its first patron.
Te Puea took the most active leadership role in Waikato in her generation. Driven by a vision of restoring the strength of Tainui, she was able to achieve it because of her mana, her tremendous will, the strength she derived from her faith and the guidance of her ancestors, the loyalty she inspired in others, and her remarkable planning and organisational skills. She had a great warmth and generosity, and a wonderful sense of humour, and she communicated easily with people, whatever their background, in Maori or in English. She loved children and was greatly loved by them in turn even though they might be growled at. As she grew older the young ones were in awe of her, watching her direct the affairs of the marae. Often she was very unwell, but nevertheless she worked seven days a week all her adult life.
Although she enjoyed big occasions from time to time, such as balls in Kimikimi with the Te Pou Mangatawhiri band playing, the old people remember her best in her bag apron and hat, working in the gardens, planting flower beds and raspberry canes, grubbing out blackberry roots, feeding the pigs. She feared the purposelessness of life without work for all the people, just as she feared the impact of drink on family life, and would not let alcohol on the marae. She tried to protect her young people from repeating what she later saw as the mistakes of her own early life: forbidding them to smoke, and marching into hotels to order barmen not to serve drinks to the women, banging her walking stick on the floor. But if the young people sometimes found her strict, they also recognised her deep concern for them all.
Te Puea died at home on 12 October 1952 after a long final illness. Tumokai Katipa lived until 1985. They had no children of their own, but adopted many; their favourite, Pirihira Katipa, passed away aged only nine in 1939. Te Puea's tangihanga lasted a week and thousands of people made their way to Ngaruawahia. The prime minister and leader of the opposition attended the funeral; the BBC devoted a broadcast to her memory, and telegrams came from many parts of the world.
Te Puea was recognised as a remarkable leader whose achievements communicated across cultures, and she was hailed as 'the greatest Maori woman of our time'. There was little recognition, though, of the poverty and powerlessness that she had spent her life fighting, and the New Zealand government was still a long way from accepting the statement of Maori autonomy embodied in the Kingitanga. She would not have liked the constant references to 'Princess' Te Puea; it was a title originally bestowed on her by Pakeha, which she never used herself. The strength of the Kingitanga at the time of Te Puea's passing is the greatest testimony to her life's work; and on the marae at Ngaruawahia her unseen presence is felt still.
Written with Te Arikinui Te Ātairangikaahu, Heeni Wharemaru, Mere Taka, Tauhou Mokena and Denese Henare.