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Story: Rātana, Tahupōtiki Wiremu

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Rātana, Tahupōtiki Wiremu


Ngāti Apa and Ngā Rauru; faith healer, religious founder, political leader

This biography, written by Angela Ballara, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana was the founder of a Māori religious movement which, in the late 1920s, also became a major political movement. He was the latest in a line of prophetic descent which included Te Ua Haumēne, Tāwhiao Te Wherowhero, Tohu Kākahi, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, Tītokowaru, Te Kooti Arikirangi, Pāora Te Pōtangaroa and Mere Rikiriki.

Rātana is widely believed to have been born on 25 January 1873 at Te Kawau, near Bulls. His father was Wiremu Rātana, also known as Wiremu Kōwhai or Urukohai, and his mother was Ihipera Koria Erina. Through his grandfather, Rātana Ngāhina, he was connected to Ngāti Apa, Ngā Wairiki, Ngā Rauru and Ngāti Hine. The family also had connections with Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki and Ngāti Raukawa, but in official documents they usually described themselves as Ngāti Apa.

Rātana Ngāhina inherited and bought land on which he developed a prosperous sheep and cattle station at Awahou, near Turakina. An Anglican, pro-government loyalist, Rātana Ngāhina was respected as a chief and generous benefactor of the community. After the 1918 influenza epidemic Tahupōtiki Rātana was his only male heir. Rātana's mother was Methodist; his senior kinswoman, Mere Rikiriki, a faith healer and dispenser of herbal medicine, had been at Parihaka with Te Whiti and Tohu and had later established her own Church of the Holy Spirit at Parewanui, near Bulls. She taught Rātana her beliefs and skills. He was thus exposed to strong but diverse religious and political influences from his childhood.

Rātana, who had many younger siblings, was brought up by an adoptive mother, Ria Hāmuera, at Te Kawau, attending a village school. He later said that he learned little at school. Rātana worked on the family property and other farms; he was keen on rugby and race-horses, and was a champion ploughman and wheat stacker. As a young adult he took part in the social life of the district centred on the Turakina hotel and later stated that before his enlightenment he sometimes drank to excess.

Towards the turn of the century Rātana married Te Urumanaao Ngāpaki, also known as Ngauta Urumanao Baker, of Ngā Rauru and Ngāti Hine, in the Methodist Church at Parewanui. They had four sons: Haami Tokouru, Matiu, Ārepa (Alpha) and Ōmeka (Omega); and three daughters: Rāwinia, Maata and Piki. All would play important roles in the Rātana church and political movement.

Although Mere Rikiriki had prophesied in 1912 that Rātana would become a spiritual leader, he showed little sign of his potential until 1918. That year, events occurred which were later interpreted as omens of significance. During one of these, on 8 November, he saw a strange cloud like a whirlwind approach. As he ran towards his house he experienced a vision of all the world's roads stretching towards him and felt a heavy but invisible weight descend upon his shoulders. His family saw that he looked strange. He had been struck dumb, but the Holy Spirit spoke through him to his family: 'May peace be upon you; I am the Holy Spirit who is speaking to you; wash yourselves clean, make yourselves ready.' Rātana was regarded as the Māngai (mouthpiece) of the Holy Spirit, and in later years this day was celebrated as the anniversary of his māramatanga (revelation).

Through the next few weeks Rātana's family believed him mad. At times he spoke with the voices of the Holy Spirit or the archangels Gabriel or Michael. He cleared out his house and took his family for night walks over rugged farm land. He put all the clothes and belongings of some members of his family in piles and said they belonged to the dead; all of their owners died in the influenza epidemic then raging throughout New Zealand. Those who had followed his advice to leave their homes survived. As his strange behaviour continued, Te Urumanaao and other family members came to believe that he was not mad but divinely inspired.

Rātana began to show an ability to heal through prayer. The first healing was that of Ōmeka, who had become ill in October when a needle became lodged behind his knee. A planned operation at Wanganui Hospital did not eventuate because the needle could not be located. Ōmeka was brought home; it was predicted that he would die. After a week of intensive prayer the needle emerged from Ōmeka's thigh. Word spread, and at a hui tangihanga for all those who had lost family members in the influenza epidemic, the Whanganui chief Te Kahupūkoro brought his bedridden daughter to see Rātana. After asking the girl whether she believed in the power of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Rātana told her to rise; she recovered to lead a normal life. This was the second of many healings, and by the end of 1918 a growing number of visitors came to Rātana's farm.

The three years following saw the rapid rise of Rātana's reputation throughout New Zealand and, after his first cures of Europeans, further afield. During 1919 and 1920 the train disgorged from 20 to 100 visitors at Rātana station daily; in these early years they were all entertained at his expense. A makeshift village began to develop at what was beginning to be called Rātana pā. Requests to the government were made (but refused) for free railway passes for patients to visit the pā. Many articles, pamphlets and books were published about Rātana; one called him 'the Māori Miracle Man'.

His calling legitimated through cures, Rātana also led a sweeping religious revival, mainly among Māori. In 1921 and 1922 he travelled throughout the North and South Islands with dozens of supporters; marquees were erected to shelter them and some meetings were attended by thousands. His motorcade between Napier and Tauranga was estimated to have cost £1,300. All of these visits produced numerous conversions to his teachings; in some places more than half the Māori population agreed to become part of the mōrehu (survivors), the name for Rātana's followers.

Rātana continued to use tribal institutions to host his tours and allowed his followers at Rātana to organise themselves tribally; initially, he also encouraged them to continue as members of their own churches, and some of his most enthusiastic followers were Anglican and Methodist clergymen. Mass conversions meant that several other locally based Māori churches ceased to exist. In places visited by Rātana the cures witnessed lent weight to his prophetic sayings, which were treasured afterwards. As part of his campaign against traditional Māori religion and tohunga he deliberately desecrated places of ancient tapu.

Rātana was physically unremarkable save for his piercing eyes. His voice and manner were quiet and gentle; he adopted no histrionics and did not touch his patients. His method was to question them about their illness and their faith in the healing powers of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the Faithful Angels. If the answers were satisfactory he would command them to rise, or set aside their crutches. He worked mainly with the lame, the blind or the paralysed. He did not always aim for instant healing, often commanding cripples to give up their props over a number of days. A growing pile of crutches, walking-sticks and wheelchairs at Rātana pā testified to his success.

In these early years Rātana regarded himself as a Presbyterian layman and did not preach during services, even in the church, Piki-te-ora, he had built on his property in 1920. His teaching and healing was done at night in the meeting house. There he also signed the letters prepared by his secretaries in response to the many written pleas for help. He did not allow journalists to photograph or even to interview him, and in his travels hid among his followers. Because of the press of the curious, bodyguards surrounded him.

From the beginning of his public mission, Rātana was criticised. Eyewitnesses who attended his meetings said they had seen no cures, and the reports of miracles were often second-hand, many being described to journalists by Pita Moko, Rātana's secretary. Even the famous cure by letter of Fanny Lammas was said to be through auto-suggestion. Accusations were made that sick followers were refusing to visit doctors. Orthodox Christians claimed Rātana was worshipping angels. Rēweti T. Kōhere conducted a campaign against him in Māori newspapers, claiming he was a tohunga similar to Rua Kēnana, Te Weretā and Hikapuhi – a potentially damaging charge. Rātana was defended by the superintendent of the Anglican Māori mission, the Reverend W. G. Williams, and by Arthur F. Williams in Te Toa Takitini. They claimed he preached a simple biblical faith, and that his revivalism and work against 'tohungaism' were invaluable. Nevertheless, in 1921 Rātana sent newspapers a defence of his activities, saying that criticism was so frequent and antagonistic that, although he had received more than 70,000 letters from New Zealand and other countries, he would in future work only with Māori.

Through the early 1920s Rātana's movement became gradually more institutionalised and politicised. In 1920 he set up an office at Rātana, and as the costs of his meetings increased, gifts of food and money were canvassed from other Māori settlements. The King movement leader, Tupu Taingākawa, was among those who challenged him in 1920 to care for the sicknesses of the land as well as those of the body. Rātana's response was that first it was necessary to unite the people in the worship of Jehovah. Convinced of his divine mission, Rātana and his staff were confused and upset when an attempt to draw the Māori King Te Rata and his people into the movement in 1922 was rejected by King movement leaders as an affront. Rātana made later attempts to heal the breach but was never successful. Throughout 1922 he and his staff denied any interest in politics. The press labelled various followers of Rātana, including his son Haami Tokouru, as official Rātana electoral candidates. Rātana continued to say publicly that voters should follow their conscience. But the movement was growing beyond his own aims. The rise of other strong leaders within the movement with their own agenda of Māori nationalism was lessening Rātana's control over its direction.

By 1923 the first Rātana federation, the United Māori Welfare League of the Northern, Southern and Chatham Islands, had been formally set up. Football, haka and poi dancing teams were organised; apostles (Rātana ministers) had been appointed and sent to travel the country seeking converts; āwhina (sisters) and ākonga (lay readers) were being instituted; the first two Rātana churches had been built by Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Whātua; and Rātana choirs and bands had been trained, dressing in their distinctive purple, white and gold uniforms. A schoolhouse had been opened at Rātana pā.

In a speech at Christmas 1923, Rātana publicly committed himself to a partly political programme: on a planned journey to Britain he would take both the Bible and the Treaty of Waitangi, symbolic of the spiritual and political sides of his mission. While Pita Moko obtained passports from a reluctant government, on 18 March 1924 Rātana and his family visited Mt Taranaki and Parihaka. Beside a stream on the mountain he heard a voice repeating words of Tītokowaru, and encountered at Parihaka sayings left by Te Whiti and Tohu that foretold that he must take his spiritual message to the wider world.

Before leaving, Rātana endorsed a new formal organisation of his federation and its banking operations. They were announced in the Rātana newspaper, Te Whetū Mārama o Te Kotahitanga, the first issue of which appeared on 15 March 1924. An executive council of the federation was appointed, as was an interim management committee.

The party of 38 left Rātana pā on 9 April 1924 and returned there on 24 December. It included Rātana's wife and children, Pita Moko as the main organiser and spokesman, Rātana himself to care for the spiritual side of the journey, and Tupu Taingākawa and Pēpene Eketone to look after the material aspects. They hoped to present their petition on the Treaty of Waitangi and land confiscations to King George V. A large group of young people also travelled, whose function was to perform at concerts to raise money for the movement. The travellers were prevented from presenting their petition to or even encountering the King. Rātana remained in Paris while Moko led a group to Geneva in an unsuccessful attempt to present the petition to the League of Nations.

On the positive side, Rātana had taken the first step in his aim of bringing his message to every continent. He had to make a supplementary trip in 1925 to the United States and Canada as a change of plans had prevented a visit there on the first journey. The party had also succeeded in getting the petition into the hands of the New Zealand government, contributing to its decision to set up a royal commission of inquiry into confiscated land. Rātana would later reject the commission's findings as a political move against the Rātana party.

Rātana returned from his first trip to find a number of storms raging. There had been talk before he left of forming a Rātana church, and this continued while he was away. An attempt by Ōtene Pāora of Ngāti Whātua to register his own Church of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Faithful Angels was forestalled when the Reverend A. J. Seamer, general superintendent of the Methodist Māori mission, hastened to Rātana pā to warn the mōrehu to remain faithful to the Māngai. Instructions were issued not to sign covenants endorsed with the Māngai's seal while he was away, and lists of authorised apostles were published in Te Whetū Mārama. The Rātana church was formally established on 31 May 1925, and a list of ministers gazetted on 21 July 1925. This move provoked the Anglican church into declaring it schismatic, and announcing that anyone who signed its new covenant was automatically excommunicated.

The breach with orthodox religions widened over the years, provoking intense theological debates at Rātana pā. Initially, Rātana had discouraged attempts to deify him, but within two years the Rātana formula for the godhead included the Māngai, as well as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rātana began to refer to other churches as introduced to New Zealand by gentiles, and therefore not fit for his people. In the early 1920s the Māngai had often prayed publicly in the name of Jesus; in the 1930s this practice was dropped and the Māngai himself was sometimes regarded as the kaiwhakaora (saviour). Both Ārepa and Ōmeka, always regarded as imbued with spiritual forces, died early in the 1930s, and not long afterwards the Māngai began to encourage his followers to regard them as Rātana saints or mediators.

The final straw for the orthodox was that Rātana abandoned monogamy. In 1925, encouraged by Te Urumanaao, he took a second, much younger, wife to protect him against the infatuation of thousands of admiring women; this was Iriaka Te Rio, one of the female dance troupe who had travelled with Rātana. He had two children by her: another special son, Hāmuera, who also died early, and Rāniera Te Aohou; later there were other associations, causing controversy among his followers. In all, Rātana is said to have had 18 children. Te Urumanaao was known from this time by the title, Te Whaea o te Katoa (the mother of all).

A second battle was raging in 1925. On his first overseas trip Rātana had returned via Japan, visiting a Japanese Christian bishop. Relations with the Japanese had been very good; it was the highlight of the trip. Rātana thought that Māori and Japanese were among the lost tribes of Israel. A marriage between two of his party took place in Japan, the ceremony presided over by a Japanese bishop. The idea grew that Rātana had 'married the Māori race to the Japanese race', had enlisted their support for Māori grievances and had prophesied the coming of worldwide war between the non-white and white races. He was accused of brandishing a 'Japanese Dagger' and flying the Japanese flag at Rātana pā. Eyewitnesses denied these stories, and Rātana himself gave a speech describing his family's loyalty to the Crown, but some Māori leaders grew concerned and reported their fears to the government. When Pita Moko issued an official denial and published the text of Rātana's new covenant to demonstrate that the church was not disloyal, some mōrehu were disappointed at what they regarded as a betrayal and withdrew from the movement.

A third battle concerned the Rātana federation's banking operations. While away, Rātana had received disturbing reports about the 'bank' and had tested it by demanding money, but none was forthcoming. There had been reports, later denied, that its secretary had managed to lose some of Rātana's family money. Certainly the management committee had entered into unwise commitments in his absence, acquiring expensive property on which mortgages were later foreclosed. In Rātana's absence the government had asked the Crown Law Office for an opinion on whether the federation's activities were illegal, but the office considered they were not. In 1925 questions were asked in the press and in Parliament about the Rātana bank, and a constable was sent to Rātana pā to investigate, but the government decided it could not prosecute without evidence.

The next two years brought mixed fortunes for the movement. Rātana's troubles drove him at times to take refuge at the seaside with only his immediate family. Typhoid was endemic at Rātana pā and its haphazard development and lack of amenities made it difficult to improve matters. In 1926 the Rātana Post Office was authorised and opened, and money was collected for the planned Rātana temple and building commenced. But Rātana's healing power, as he had predicted, was deserting him, although Pita Moko continued to report some cures. In 1927 Rātana was convicted on a charge of drunken driving. Name suppression was refused; news of his lapse, and a similar one in 1931, caused waves throughout his movement and beyond. He offered to resign his leadership of the church, but the mōrehu could not agree on a successor. On the suggestion of Te Urumanaao, he resumed his position.

Rātana's attempted resignation was due partly to his weariness with his own money problems and those of the federation; this was now registered as a company, the Māori Welfare, Provident and Finance League Limited, of which he was president. The government refused the movement's 1927 petition for financial aid for Rātana pā and for its schemes for Māori welfare. Rātana also believed that as a registered minister he was working for the government. From this time two grades of apostle were accepted; those who were licensed to perform marriages, and those who were apostles of the spirit.

From the dedication of the Rātana temple on his 55th birthday in 1928, Rātana indicated that his spiritual work was complete; his attention would now be focused on politics. But there was never a rigid line between his religious and political aims. He continued to make journeys throughout New Zealand at which he taught spiritually, but electioneering for the Rātana party and ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi were also discussed. On these journeys he sometimes called himself Piri Wiri Tua (the campaigner). He called the Māori parliamentary seats the four quarters of his body, indicating his intention to capture them all with the support of the estimated more than 20,000 mōrehu – about a third of the Māori population. In 1934 the number was calculated by some as being close to 40,000. From 1928 he chose the candidates, and asked them to sign a covenant declaring themselves to be his representatives and pledging to work for the whole Māori race. After their strong showing in the 1928 election Rātana was seen as a powerful political leader by those who had previously ignored him.

Rātana had secretly favoured the New Zealand Labour Party since 1925, and the party had developed its Māori policy with the help of Rangi Māwhete, a supporter of the Rātana movement. Discussions took place prior to the 1931 election, in which Labour did not endorse Māori candidates. In 1932 Eruera Tirikātene became the first Rātana MP; shortly after his election, Rātana assured Labour of the full co-operation of his movement, and Tirikātene consistently supported Labour in Parliament. One of Rātana's sons, Tokouru, was elected for Western Māori in 1935, and both he and Tirikātene joined the Labour Party. In 1936 Rātana declared himself and his family to be Labour Party members, and in a historic meeting on 22 April 1936, presented the prime minister, M. J. Savage, with symbolic gifts. Savage's acknowledgement of Rātana's mana laid the foundations of an alliance between the Rātana movement and Labour Party. Members of the former had been elected to three out of the Māori four seats by 1938, and the fourth was captured in 1943.

Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana died at Rātana pā on 18 September 1939, survived by both wives, three daughters and three sons. He was buried before the temple on 24 September. His tangihanga was attended by thousands and lasted a week. He had founded a national Māori church that melded the political and spiritual in a way aimed for but not previously achieved by any other Māori leader. In doing so, he had provided charismatic leadership at a national level, and had set a course followed by his political representatives and spiritual successors. To his Māori opponents and many Pākehā he was a charlatan and an over-ambitious politician. In his lifetime, those who initially ignored him saw his church firmly established and his political movement becoming victorious in the polls. Both church and party endured as powerful forces.

How to cite this page:

Angela Ballara. 'Rātana, Tahupōtiki Wiremu - Ratana, Tahupotiki Wiremu', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3r4/ratana-tahupotiki-wiremu (accessed 18 July 2024)