Page 1: Biography
te Ua, Hetekia Te Kani-ā-Takirau Kerekere Tūhoe
Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki leader, genealogist, orator
This biography, written by Henare te Ua, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.
Hetekia Te Kani te Ua, the eldest son of Katerina Takawhaki Kerekere and her husband, Harawira Tūhoe te Ua, was born on 29 August 1892 in Gisborne. His principal tribal affiliations were Ngā Pōtiki and Te Whānau-a-Kai of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki; Ngāti Ruapani; and Te Whānau-a-Tarawaho, a hapū of Tūhoe. On occasions he used the full name of Hetekia Te Kani a Takirau Kerekere Tūhoe te Ua; among family and close friends he was called Kani.
His early education was at Waerenga-a-hika school near Gisborne; he then had one year at Gisborne High School. In 1909 he was enrolled at Nelson College, where he spent three years. During this period he studied piano at the Nelson School of Music, specialising in the music of Chopin. From 1912 to 1915 he studied at the ancient whare wananga at Rūātoki, where he was taught Māori religion, genealogies and customs. He also developed a formidable skill in whaikorero, the art of oratory.
On 18 June 1917 he married Te Rina Turupa Ngata, eldest daughter of Apirana and Arihia Ngata, in a lavish ceremony at Parihimanihi, Waihīrere; Herbert W. Williams was the officiating minister. Te Kani's best man was Wiremu Nētana Pānapa, who later became the second bishop of Aotearoa. Te Kani and Pānapa had been colleagues at Te Rau Theological College at Gisborne, where Te Kani was certificated as an Anglican lay reader. The wedding linked two of the East Coast's most important families and strengthened Ngata's leadership. There were no children from the marriage, but Te Kani and Te Rina adopted several.
Takawhaki, Te Kani's mother, built the couple a large house with five bedrooms on family land at Pūhātikotiko (Pūhā) about 22 miles from Gisborne. A remarkable feature was an observation tower on the roof, for which Te Kani gave the name Tower House. Among the ornate furnishings was a Bechstein grand piano. Te Kani landscaped the grounds with two tennis courts, a croquet lawn and a pear-shaped centre lawn acknowledging Apirana and Arihia Ngata's marriage under a pear tree at Whareponga on the East Coast.
In 1918 Te Kani began a more than 40-year association with the Mangatū trust, formed to administer tribal lands inland from Gisborne; he represented Ngāti Wahia interests. The trust was known as the Mangatū Incorporation from 1948, when control passed from a commissioner to a tribal committee. In 1953 hapū representation was replaced by individuals voting according to the number of shares they owned. This led to conflict over membership of the management committee; faction fought faction, leading to intervention by the Māori Land Court. During this period Te Kani was variously a committee member and chairman until May 1959, when he retired.
On the marae Te Kani was known not only for his brilliant oratory but also for his impeccable style of dress. At home he was content to wear a simple red blanket rapaki (wrap-around) in the house or while working in his one-acre garden. He constantly wore pounamu ear pendants inherited from Rāpata Wahawaha and the Tūhoe leader and tohunga Te Pairi Tūterangi, whose pupil he had been.
Te Kani's prowess at oratory is well remembered. After meticulous research into the theme underpinning the hui or event, he would link it with Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and himself by reciting appropriate whakapapa. He accompanied this with dramatic use of his tokotoko or tribal talking stick. He emphasised a point by taking short staccato running steps and then making a series of pekepeke or jumps into the air. He used gestures, his eyes, and his stage presence to embellish the oration, which often brought appreciative applause and laughter from the crowd. Sometimes the spontaneous reaction would displease him and he would chide, 'Kauaka katakata, kauaka katakata' (Don't laugh, don't laugh.)
Te Kani's education made him comfortable on any marae and at ease when hosting and entertaining Pākehā dignitaries. He smoked corona cigars with an aplomb that matched his smoking of the Māori pipe-tobacco grown, plaited and dried at Tower House. He enjoyed the finest Pākehā food but relished kānga kōpiro (fermented corn), pūhā toroī (pickled pūhā and mussels), kōura mara (crayfish fermented in fresh water), kina (sea-urchins) steeped in fresh water for three days, kōuka (inner baby fronds of the cabbage tree), mango (dried shark), and kererū (wild pigeons) preserved entire in their own fat.
A master hāngi maker, Te Kani observed rituals of hygiene and cleanliness. No one was allowed upwind of the fire in case body odour permeated the stones; the breaking of wind evoked karakia. In season, small kūmara were placed in the hāngi after the food had been removed, producing, when dried, the delectable, very sweet, kao. He was fastidious in preparing and smoking eels over slow-burning pine branches. After being hung to drip and dry, the eels were stored for future consumption. His garden provided year-long supplies of potatoes, kūmara, manawa (an extra-sweet kūmara variety), corn, pumpkins, marrow, water melons, rock melons and strawberries. The best produce was invariably given away.
Te Kani had a wide circle of Pākehā friends, including musicians, sportsmen, old college acquaintances and a local sheep station owner to whom he taught the Māori language and waiata. He acted as consultant to author William Greenwood for his book The upraised hand, a history of the Ringatū church, and provided its whakapapa tables. He was a friend of the journalist Eric Ramsden, who referred matters of Māori protocol and Māori political analysis to him. Leo Fowler, who founded the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation's Māori programmes department, was influenced by Te Kani and his patronage of the Waihīrere Māori Club.
Although a son-in-law of Apirana Ngata, Te Kani was never in his shadow. He had his own mana and cultural prowess, which Ngata recognised. Ngata, together with scholar and linguist Pei Te Hurinui Jones, published Te Kani's texts and explanations of waiata from the Tairāwhiti region in Ngā mōteatea. For 40 years Te Kani attended hui as spokesperson for his tribe. This is poignantly acknowledged in his epitaph: 'He tirohanga kanohi no Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki i ngā marae o te motu' (He served as the eyes of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki on the marae of the land). He is also remembered for his consultation with other tribes. After the death of King Korokī, Te Kani was consulted about the appointment of his successor.
Te Kani was a graceful and charming giver. Greenstone clubs, flax baskets, taniko (material with ornate weaving), korowai (cloaks), tokotoko and even one of his priceless mako shark's-tooth ear pendants were given to visitors he thought worthy. He gave of himself, judging at Māori cultural festivals, playing the piano for the Pūhā school annual concerts, and accompanying hymns at the weekly church services. For many years he gave £1 to the Salvation Army, whose band would travel from Gisborne to play on the front lawn of Tower House.
For services to the Māori people Te Kani was appointed an OBE in 1959. He died at Tower House on 30 September 1966 and was buried in the burial ground at Parihimanihi, Waihīrere. He was survived by Te Rina and their adopted children.