In 1902 Wiremu Hoani Taua (also known as William Johnson or Johnston) was appointed the first Māori head teacher of a native school and, almost certainly, of any Department of Education primary school. He was to lead Rangiāwhia Native School for 18 years with conspicuous success.
An acknowledged leader of the hapū Te Whānau Moana, Taua had tribal links with Ngāti Kahu, Te Patukoraha, Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa. The Taua family had been associated with the Karepōnia, Pēria and Whatuwhiwhi areas of Mangonui in Northland throughout the nineteenth century. Te Wheinga Taua, grandfather of Wiremu Taua and chief of Te Patu, signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Kaitāia on 28 April 1840.
Wiremu was born probably on 7 December 1862 at Karepōnia and was baptised into the Anglican church on 8 February 1863. His father, Hoani (Hōne) Taua, was noted for his influence as a leader of Te Patukoraha and an assessor in the Resident Magistrate's Court. His mother was Ngāhuka Makinihi Kere. After his father's death in 1867 Wiremu Hoani was raised by his mother and stepfather, Te Haumatanga Rewe. In 1876 he was one of three local boys selected by Donald McLean, the native minister, to attend St Stephen's School in Auckland, which he entered the following year. He subsequently returned to the Pēria district where he was engaged in farming, and on 24 December 1883 married Kane Larkins (Rākena), daughter of Rākena Wī Kaitāia.
For a number of years until 1900 Wiremu Taua served on the Pēria Native School Committee. Staffed by European teachers, the native schools were designed to bring 'an untutored but intelligent and high-spirited people into line with our civilisation'. James Pope, the inspector of native schools, who had made this statement in 1881, suggested in 1900 that an experimental appointment of a Māori head teacher could be made. He saw the proposed establishment of Rangiāwhia Native School at Whatuwhiwhi, on the north-west shore of Doubtless Bay, as an appropriate setting for this.
Strong representations had been made by the Whatuwhiwhi community over two to three years for such a school to be established. The Education Department, after approving the school, considered placing Hone Wī Kaitāia, brother-in-law of Wiremu Taua, as the head teacher. However, a hui at Pēria in 1901, while critical of delays in finalising the appointment, was unhappy with the selection of Wī Kaitāia because he was young and unmarried. The hui agreed that Wiremu Taua should be chosen. George Hogben, the inspector general of schools, heeded Pope's opinion that, 'I hardly think we could make our experiment – for experiment it is – under better auspices', and recommended the appointment of Taua and his 'exemplary' wife.
Wiremu Taua took up the position on 27 January 1902. The school was set a trial period of two years, which it successfully completed. On 20 July 1906 new school buildings were opened by Hogben at a gathering of some 300 people. Consistently high achievements were recorded in the annual Education Department reports, which noted the school tone, 'exceedingly credible' results, the development of the grounds by Taua, the pupils' faultless manners and the standard of teaching. The school had 'first rate' reading, the English work 'being the best…in the North', and could claim to be the most successful of the department's 95 native schools as judged by its inspection, attendance and inspectors' examination results.
Kane Taua was assistant teacher until 1902, when she was replaced by Wiremu Taua's half-sister, Sarah David (Hera Rewe). They and their successors, Julia Latimer and Jane and Rāmari Taua (Wiremu Taua's daughters), played a critical role in the success of the experiment. By 1910 two more Māori head teachers had been appointed to native schools.
The school, which had an average role of about 20 pupils, was beset with communication, health and transport difficulties common to remote schools. Pupil deaths, the depressed economic situation of the community, and the First World War were keenly felt by the families of the school district. The school had five ex-pupils (including Taua's son Matini) enlist in the Māori Contingent.
Taua's position among his people was also problematic. As a tribal leader he was required to represent his people in the Native Land Court, compelling the Education Department to reconcile his tribal responsibilities with his value to the department as a teacher. Responding to these conflicting demands on him Taua stated to the secretary for education in 1909, during hearings over the Karepōnia block, that he knew it was not right to be absent from duty, but that he had no alternative unless the department promised to protect his interest in lands. It would not do so, but granted Taua leave to attend land court sittings. When he was engaged in a physical dispute with a relative over a land matter the department refused to intervene despite the urgings of Taua's antagonist.
Wiremu Taua became a familiar figure at the annual conference of native school teachers. A tall, imposing man, he was perceived by his colleagues as being of reserved character, but in the north he was prominent at hui and was committed to Māori interests and values. While head teacher at Rangiāwhia Native School he was also the local postmaster and a lay reader in the Anglican church, and engaged in ministering to the health of the community: he was known locally as Te Rata (the doctor). Kane Taua was secretary of the local branch of the Māori Women's Association.
Wiremu Hoani Taua died at Karepōnia on 29 December 1919. He was buried at Kōmako cemetery, and was survived by his wife and nine children. Kane Taua died at Karepōnia in 1946. Their descendants have been recognised for their achievement in public service, including education.