Page 1: Biography
Parata, Katherine Te Rongokahira
Ngati Pukenga and Ngati Pikiao woman of mana
This biography, written by Angela Ballara, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Katherine Te Rongokahira Asher was born on 21 November 1873 at Tauranga. Her father was David Asher, eldest son of Jewish immigrants Hannah Keesing and her husband, Asher Asher, a trader. Her mother was Katerina Te Atirau, who was of very high rank amongst Te Arawa and Mataatua; she was the eldest daughter of Rahera Te Kahuhiapo of Ngati Pukenga, Ngati Pikiao and other hapu. Te Rongokahira, as Katherine was usually known, was the eldest of 11 children. Her brothers included Albert (known as Opai) and Ernest, both nationally famous as football players, and John Te Atirau Asher, a well-known negotiator and executive for Ngati Tuwharetoa.
David Asher was a clothier and men's outfitter in Tauranga, and the owner of various trading vessels, which carried goods between Tauranga and Auckland. He spoke Maori fluently, and was a licensed court interpreter. Katerina Te Atirau was frequently in the Native Land Court in the 1880s and 1890s, battling for her family's rights in their many blocks. In 1886 she sold land to keep her husband solvent. David and Katerina formalised their marriage on 27 November 1894, and in the same year David became the proprietor of the Tauranga Hotel. He is said to have been a kind but strict parent, keeping his family away from the hotel business in a separate home. There is no record of the Asher children's schooling, but it is likely, given her later activities, that Te Rongokahira was well taught.
With her careful upbringing, comparatively wealthy background and high rank, Katherine Te Rongokahira Asher was a much sought-after bride. A marriage was arranged between her and Charles Rere Parata, also known as Taare Rakatauhake Parata, of Waikouaiti, in the South Island. His father, Tame Haereroa Parata, was MHR for Southern Maori and had affiliations with Ngati Huirapa hapu of Ngai Tahu, Ngati Mamoe and Waitaha. His mother was Peti Hurene or Elizabeth Brown, also a woman of high rank. The marriage, celebrated in the Tauranga Hotel on 15 June 1896, was regarded as momentous. It was one of the first important marriages between high-ranking families from the two main islands since the 1830s. Charles was then working as a clerk and licensed interpreter for the Native Land Court. The marriage produced one daughter, Peti, and two sons, David and Charles.
Early in their marriage Te Rongokahira and Charles were often in Wellington; they were among the leaders of 'progressive' Maori society, committed to the programme of what was to become the Young Maori Party. From 1905 Charles transferred permanently to Wellington, leaving the Native Land Court to go into business with William Moffatt as land and estate agents, interpreters and native agents. Charles ran the head office in Wellington, and Moffatt a branch in Palmerston North. In 1911 Charles succeeded his father as MP for Southern Maori.
As a leader among Wellington Maori, Te Rongokahira, known to Europeans as Mrs C. Parata, became involved in patriotic work during the South African War (1899–1902). A strong section of Maori society declared its support for the government, but was barred from sending troops to serve because the British did not wish Maori to take part in wars of ‘the White Race against a White Race’. Nevertheless, they worked to raise money to support the efforts of those who could go. Te Rongokahira Parata, with her husband, arranged a grand Maori carnival in the Basin Reserve over several days in April 1900. Its object was to increase the 'More Men Fund'. Pene Te Uamairangi of Hawke's Bay, Tamahau Mahupuku of Wairarapa and other chiefs gave money and sent men to assist. A model pa was constructed, tents with Maori craftwork on display for sale were set up around the perimeter, and food was dispensed from hangi. Exhibitions of haka and poi dances were held: one comic dance, 'Kiki te Poa' (kick the Boer), appealed to the jingoistic spirit of the times; a Maori rendering of the 'Song of Kruger' was also popular. Thousands attended and a substantial sum was handed over to the patriotic fund.
Soon after, preparations began for the royal visit of the duke and duchess of Cornwall and York in June 1901. The event was of tremendous interest for all New Zealanders, but was especially important to Maori, particularly those whose loyalty to Queen Victoria and her family had been questioned in the nineteenth century. Thousands of invitations and tickets were issued to Maori to visit Rotorua for the planned Maori welcome.
Te Rongokahira was formally presented to the duchess with her sister-in-law, Irihapeti Parata, and later she sat in front of the royal pavilion with Airini Donnelly of Hawke's Bay and Wikitoria Taitoko of Wanganui. She wore a kiwi feather cloak over her court presentation dress; the duchess wore huia feathers and a valuable cloak Te Rongokahira had given her. She was photographed wearing the cloak, and later sent Te Rongokahira a copy of this portrait. Later in the ceremonies Te Rongokahira, in her role as lady-in-waiting to the duchess for the day, placed around the duchess's neck a greenstone tiki presented by the people of Hawke's Bay, and added another huia feather to her toque.
During the First World War Te Rongokahira again became involved in patriotic work. She was vice president of the Maori Red Cross, raised funds for the Maori soldiers of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, and in 1917 was a member of the executive committee of Lady Liverpool's and Miria Pomare's Maori Soldiers' Fund. At a typical meeting that year, the committee decided to pack 100 parcels of food and knitted comforts, as well as mutton birds, for the Rarotongans in Egypt, and 1,000 for Maori in France. The committee also organised street stalls to raise funds for the Red Cross and Red Jersey appeals.
On 8 January 1918 Charles Parata died at Wellington while still in office. His body was taken back to the South Island for burial at Puketeraki. Te Rongokahira was 44 and it is probable that her life became restricted to the family circle; there is little record of any further public activity. On 25 September 1920, at Wellington, she married Leonard Robertshaw, a clerk of European descent. There were no children of this marriage. By 1928 the Robertshaws were living in Petone. Her second husband died in 1934, and her youngest son, Charles, died in November 1938. She continued to live in Petone with her married daughter, Peti Parata-Olsen, and son David, until her death at Wellington Public Hospital on 7 June 1939. She was buried on 10 June at Petone Native Cemetery.
Attractive, elegant and confident, Katherine Te Rongokahira was representative of the intermarried descendants of high-ranking Maori and respected immigrants. Some managed to identify with their Maori kin and earn their trust, while learning cultural traits which made them acceptable to Pakeha. Te Rongokahira was such a woman; she provided a link between Pakeha and Maori worlds just as her marriage to Charles Parata had served as a bridge between the Maori of north and south.