Rangitiaria Dennan, better known as Guide Rangi, achieved wide recognition as a cultural ambassador. With charm, insight and wit she imparted the essentials of Maori tradition to the tourists she guided around the thermal attractions at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua.
She was born at Ngapuna, near Rotorua, on 14 July 1897, the fourth child of Te Mango Ratema, who belonged to Ngati Hinekura hapu of Ngati Pikiao, and his wife, Tuhipo Tene (Rimupae) of Tuhourangi and Ngati Tarawhai. None of her older siblings survived infancy, and before Rangitiaria was born her family consulted a tohunga to prevent the loss of another child. The tohunga died before the ritual process was complete and consequently Rangitiaria became for a time a tapu child. The prohibitions placed on her in her early years kept her apart from other children. She became well versed in bush lore and from her elders learned the ancient traditions which explained natural phenomena.
In 1903 Rangitiaria Ratema was enrolled at Whakarewarewa Native School and in early 1910, with members of her family, she travelled to Australia as one of Makereti (Maggie) Papakura's concert party. Later that year she resumed her formal education with the aid of a scholarship at Hukarere Native Girls' School in Napier. Here she excelled in sports, particularly hockey and swimming, and in her studies. However, she found difficulty with the regulation that forbade the speaking of Maori language by students, and her habit of reverting to her mother tongue earned her many punishments.
In 1914, heeding Apirana Ngata's call for Maori to acquire Pakeha skills for the benefit of their people, and influenced by her Hukarere education, Rangitiaria decided to become a teacher. She took up a post as probationary assistant at Whakarewarewa Native School before accepting a teaching position at Torere Native School in the eastern Bay of Plenty in 1915. After two years she moved on to Ruatoki Native School in the Urewera region, but while there developed a throat condition that made classroom work impossible. She was advised to resign, and in 1918 returned home to Rotorua to recuperate. Rangitiaria hoped that nursing might provide her with another opportunity to be of service to her people and after regaining her strength she secured a placement at Napier Hospital as a trainee nurse. Her natural manner made her popular with patients, but her health deteriorated soon after she began working on the wards. She had returned home again by early 1920, ill, exhausted and without work.
The growth of the tourist industry at that time increased the demand for licensed Maori guides of good character who could speak English and escort visitors safely through Whakarewarewa. In December 1921 Guide Susan asked Rangitiaria to help her with a party of tourists, and through this experience she discovered her vocation. For Rangitiaria, guiding was an opportunity to promote a Maori world view. She tried to educate the members of her tour group as much as she could in the short time they had together. Believing that in order to improve conditions for her people Pakeha had to be more accurately informed, she attempted to give an introduction to Maori attitudes and values. She encouraged people to ask questions and was able to mediate the differences between Maori and Pakeha tactfully. Guide Rangi had a remarkable ability to make a visit to the thermal attractions a unique experience for each traveller. Her dry sense of humour and constant stream of throw-away remarks were a feature of her commentary. For instance, she once described one of the thermal vents as 'the politician's pool', because it was 'full of spouting, mud-slinging and hot air'.
In a career that spanned over 40 years, Rangitiaria escorted many famous people, including sports teams, heads of state and visiting dignitaries. She was never awed by rank or power. During Eleanor Roosevelt's tour of Whakarewarewa in 1943, Rangitiaria welcomed her with a hongi; at the time this traditional greeting was considered audacious by Pakeha. A photograph taken at that moment made the front page of newspapers around the world. She caused another sensation during the 1953–54 royal tour by escorting the young Queen Elizabeth II and her party around the thermal area leading from the front. She further breached protocol by offering a supportive arm to the Queen as she attempted to negotiate a particularly difficult section of the track. After the incident Rangitiaria received an official censure for being 'too familiar'. She did not take the complaint seriously, maintaining that it would have been far worse if the Queen had unceremoniously slipped.
Rangitiaria married William Francis Te Aonui Dennan, a widowed engineer who was the only son of Makereti Papakura, on 11 September 1938. The ceremony took place at Rotoiti, in front of a small gathering of relatives and friends. There were no children of the marriage, and Te Aonui died in 1942 of cancer.
In her spare time Rangitiaria enjoyed working around her home and garden and would often invite people she met to visit her. Her whare, which was built to a traditional design and carved by her grandfather, Tene Waitere, was full of mementos from overseas guests, and Maori artefacts. She played a full part in the Maori community, helping to harvest potatoes, catch and preserve pigeons and gather shellfish to send to the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion during the Second World War. In 1937 she was a foundation member of Te Ropu o te Ora Women's Health League, and was made a serving sister of the Order of St John in 1949. She always spoke Maori among her people, and told them that although they had to live in the Pakeha world, they did not have to be absorbed or overwhelmed by it.
Rangitiaria enjoyed travelling overseas and was something of a tourist herself. She made several highly successful promotional tours to Australia and South-east Asia in the 1950s. Her visits to other countries generated considerable media interest and she was welcomed by warm and appreciative crowds almost everywhere she went. In 1957 Rangitiaria was made an MBE for services as a guide and in 1965 she retired. Three years later she published her autobiography. She died on 13 August 1970 at a friend's house in Whakarewarewa, and was buried in the Whakarewarewa cemetery, Rotorua.