Edward James Te Aika Tregerthen, later known as Eruera Tihema Tirikatene, was born on 5 January 1895 at Te Rakiwhakaputa pa near Kaiapoi. His father, a carpenter, later a skipper of boats, wheat farmer and minister of religion, was John Driver Tregerthen. He had been one of the apostles of the South Island prophet Hipa Te Maiharoa and was to become the first South Island apostle of T. W. Ratana. John Tregerthen's mother, Emma Driver, derived her high rank in Ngai Tahu, Ngati Mamoe and Waitaha from her mother, Motoitoi, of Otago. His wife, Eruera’s mother, was Tini Noti Tuhuru Arapata Horau (Jane Albert) of Ngai Tahu; she was descended by senior lines from the ancestor Tuhuru of Westland, and was also related to Ngati Toa of Porirua.
A strong influence on Eruera in his childhood was Aperahama Te Aika, his great-uncle, who, with his wife, Mere Titawa, had brought up Eruera's mother. Eruera spent long periods with them at Tuahiwi, where he learned whakapapa and traditional lore including knowledge and fear of the powers of tohunga. Eruera was the eldest son; his birth was said to end a curse against the birth of male first-born which derived from the taking of the West Coast by Tuhuru. Eruera and his siblings were afraid of the occult powers of their mother; he came to reject these powers as a threatening and intimidating force.
Eruera's mother was Catholic but his father was Anglican, and Eruera attended St Stephen's Anglican Church at Tuahiwi; later, despite the long horse rides required, he was a keen participant in the Christchurch cathedral boys' choir. His membership ceased abruptly when he was punished for the pranks of other boys, leaving him with a sense of resentment against the Anglican church and injustice and a void in his religious attendance. He was educated at Kaiapoi Native School and at Kaiapoi District High School. At these schools he was punished for speaking Maori and later came to resent having been forced to regard it as a second language.
While at school he was a foundation member of the first boy scout patrol established in New Zealand. He was a good athlete and participated in many sports. About 1909 Eruera left school and became a cadet on a sheep farm at Hanmer, followed by a stint as a horse-breaker and stock dealer. About 1913 he moved to Wairarapa as a marriage had been arranged for him with the chiefly Te Whaiti family; the girl died before it could take place, but he continued on there as a horse-breaker, riding in local rodeos. He won a rodeo championship under the name Jim Tregerthen.
In 1914 he was too young to volunteer for the armed forces, so he rode to a recruiting station where he was unknown, and gave his name as Eruera Tirikatene, and falsified his age. He left for service abroad with the second Maori Contingent, and after three years in Egypt and France with the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion, he was promoted to sergeant. He was noted for his courage, bringing in wounded on his back while under fire. He initiated the Battalion band, playing the cornet. Discharged from the army on 7 May 1919, he settled at Kaiapoi on four acres of land his father had purchased for him out of his accumulated army pay.
On 17 December 1919, at Lyttelton, Eruera married Ruti Matekino Solomon (Horomona), daughter of Ngai Tahu chief Aperahama Tupahu Tahuna Horomona and his wife, Miria Henrici, a woman of rank from Ngati Pahauwera hapu of Ngati Kahungunu. The couple were to have 12 children, though two did not survive to adulthood. After his marriage and working with his brother-in-law, Rangi Solomon, Tirikatene set up a number of profitable commercial concerns: a dairy farm, a timber-milling business, a fishing fleet and two small ferries running between Port Levy and Lyttelton; this required him to become a certificated marine engineer.
During these years Rangi Solomon became a follower of the spiritual leader T. W. Ratana, and induced his mother, Miria, who was suffering from the effects of a failed operation, to visit the healer. Following her cure, the Solomon family remained at Ratana pa. Eruera and his family visited them in 1921. His multiple skills attracted the attention of Ratana (known as the Mangai), who asked Eruera to stay and predicted ‘a big thing’ for him. He marked out a house site for him, one of only two plots granted outside the Ratana family. Eruera, or Tiri, as he became known from his time at Ratana pa, was reluctant, alarmed by the religious leader's tohunga-like prediction regarding his future. Ratana saw a more important role for Tiri than his commercial ventures, and, mainly to assist his wife's family, Tiri agreed to stay.
His skills were put to good use as he took charge of machinery and harvesting arrangements. Under his direction hundreds of acres were cultivated and many tons of wheat and potatoes produced. He was involved in starting the Ratana Morehu Silver Band, and also used his skills in dentistry. Gradually he became a firm adherent of Ratana, being personally tutored by the Mangai in his home. He was attracted by Ratana's plans to free Maori from the fear of the powers of makutu possessed by tohunga, to use the Treaty of Waitangi to seek statutory equality and justice for Maori, and to put into Parliament Maori MPs who would work for changes to legislation inspired by the treaty. Tirikatene began to consider that the Mangai was a man inspired by God.
The new life at Ratana pa meant changes for the Tirikatene family. In the South Island they had been comparatively affluent; for the next 12 to 14 years Tirikatene was without any income. Even after his election to Parliament in 1932, he handed over his parliamentary pay to the Ratana movement according to a covenant imposed by the Mangai. At Ratana pa it was regarded as a privilege to serve. Tiri's children were born without medical assistance; he was 'midwife' for almost all of them. His South Island family assisted with gifts of money and produce, but the family at Ratana pa knew poverty.
For 17 years Tirikatene was one of Ratana's closest confidants. Valued at first mainly for his practical and organising skills, he was appointed by Ratana to lead the movement's inner councils on political matters. In 1928, when Ratana was selecting his four koata (quarters – his parliamentary candidates), Tirikatene was a natural choice for Southern Maori. Ratana bestowed on him the name Te Omeka (Omega), a name with special significance to Ratana signifying Tiri's close relationship to him. But even after Tiri's selection, the wheat harvest kept him at Ratana pa; there was no time to canvass his electorate or even to vote. In 1928 he missed election by the vote of the returning officer.
In 1930 Ratana appointed Tirikatene to the executive committee of the Ratana federation. In August 1931 he again appointed Tirikatene as candidate for Southern Maori; his policy was to be recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi and justice in settling Maori land grievances. A photograph taken at the time shows his dashing good looks and wavy hair. In September and October 1931 Tirikatene and the other koata – Haami Tokouru Ratana, Paraire Paikea and Pita Moko – negotiated with the New Zealand Labour Party on whether to become full members of the party or to retain the status of independent associates. The latter position was adopted.
The election, held on 1 December, saw Tirikatene narrowly defeated by Tuiti Makitanara. Negotiations continued with the Labour Party, and early in 1932 a special committee, including Tirikatene, was put in place to set down Maori claims under the Treaty of Waitangi; it was hoped that Harry Holland, the party's leader, would present them to Parliament. Holland visited Ratana pa in April 1932 and pledged to put Ratana's petitions and covenant before the Labour Party. But before further progress could be made Tuiti Makitanara died suddenly in June 1932, and Tirikatene won the subsequent by-election.
Waves of excitement rippled through the Ratana movement; at last the Mangai had a voice in Parliament. Ratana, his family and others – altogether a party of 57, later swelled by Ratana supporters from all over the country – escorted the koata triumphantly to Wellington. Toko Ratana and Paraire Paikea remained in Wellington to assist him. On 29 September Tirikatene made his maiden speech in the House, declaring his party to be the Ratana party, and immediately introducing the subject of the Treaty of Waitangi as he had sworn to do.
In Parliament Tirikatene frequently defended Ratana's aims and the administration of Ratana pa. In 1932 he presented the Ratana petition asking for the Treaty of Waitangi to receive statutory recognition. He took every opportunity to introduce the treaty into debates, several times reading out its three clauses. He spoke on the Ngai Tahu claim nearly every year and sometimes, in the absence or silence of the current member for Western Maori, he related the history of the confiscation grievances of Waikato and Taranaki.
Tirikatene's major concern was the poverty of his people. From 1932 to 1935 he spoke many times about Maori unemployment and the inadequate and discriminatory rates paid to Maori for relief work, pensions and family allowances, and drew attention to the need for a comprehensive Maori housing scheme. He demanded that Maori be allowed to qualify in their trades and rise in the ranks of the Native Department and favoured the secret ballot for Maori. He complained of the inefficiency of the Native Trust Office, the Native Department and the native land boards.
Although from the outset Tirikatene blamed the government rather than the native minister, Apirana Ngata, for discriminating against Maori and under-resourcing the department, Ngata was quick to take offence. He opposed Tirikatene's appointment to the Waitangi National Trust Board, promoting instead the candidacy of the Maori King. Ngata's poor relations with Ratana, and Harry Holland's support for Tirikatene's objectives, inclined Tiri to pursue a formal alliance with the Labour Party, and after he had been joined in Parliament in the 1935 election by Toko Ratana for Western Maori, the Mangai agreed. Tirikatene made the formal approach on 4 December 1935 by applying to join the party; Toko Ratana followed, and despite opposition from some of the non-Ratana Maori Labour supporters, from February 1936 they attended the Labour caucus.
As a supporter of the newly elected Labour government Tirikatene could influence the party's Maori policy. On 16 April 1936 he was appointed chairman of its Maori Organising Committee, which was intended to promote membership of the party in all electorates but also act as a Maori policy committee. Tirikatene circulated a letter to all Labour MPs demanding that it be Labour Party policy that relief work rates be the same for Maori and Pakeha. The abolition of discrimination against Maori and the establishment of genuine racial equality was one of Tirikatene's primary aims. His parliamentary speeches from 1936 reflect his unabashed joy, relief and gratitude at the racial equality inherent in the government's social welfare legislation. He attacked racism in all its forms throughout his parliamentary career.
Tirikatene also took every opportunity to push his right to address the House in Maori. He was initially permitted to do so and was later very bitter against the National government when their Speaker changed that ruling. He continued speaking in Maori.
In 1937 Tirikatene visited England, representing Maori at the coronation of George VI and attending the Empire Parliamentary Association conference. At the next coronation, of Elizabeth II, he provoked controversy with his claim that although 10 Maori happened to be in the armed services section of the New Zealand contingent, there was no official delegate of the Maori people.
In 1938 he was re-elected for Southern Maori with an increased majority. The following year the Mangai died. Prior to his death Tiri, always renowned for his physical strength, had carried him bodily up Mt Taranaki for one last visit to Te Rere o Kapuni, the stream that held great spiritual significance for Ratana. Toko Ratana, the Mangai's spiritual successor and kai-arahi (leader), was also Tirikatene's parliamentary colleague. He was a humble, gentle man and accepted Tirikatene's political leadership.
Late in 1940 Prime Minister Peter Fraser decided to appoint a Maori to the war cabinet. Fraser made it clear that he favoured Tirikatene, but Paraire Paikea, who had gained the Northern Maori seat in 1938, canvassed support for himself among the Auckland Labour MPs; he was duly appointed. Pleased at least that a Maori was in the cabinet, though disturbed by Paikea's display of personal ambition, Tirikatene supported Paikea in the House and worked with him to set up the Maori War Effort Organisation. When Paikea died in April 1943, Tirikatene became member of the Executive Council representing the Native Race and, later, chairman of a parliamentary committee overseeing the Maori War Effort Organisation.
Tirikatene was keen to continue this new experience for modern Maori – running their own affairs – after the war. But while he worked on proposals for extending the organisation’s work into peacetime and keeping control in Maori hands, the government planned to create an agency controlled by the Native Department. Tirikatene and the Ratana MPs called a conference at the Ngati Poneke Maori Association club rooms in October 1944, followed by others at Opoutama and Ratana pa; his plans endorsed there, Tiri, assisted by his unofficial secretary, Ralph Love, drafted a bill for Maori social and economic reconstruction, which would have set up a national Maori welfare and reconstruction agency in which tribally elected and district councils utilised government resources to conduct Maori affairs. The bill, eventually passed as the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945, took in many aspects of Tiri's draft, but was a disappointment to him; the independence of the tribal committees and executives was undermined by departmental supervision.
After the 1946 election Maori expected Tirikatene to be native minister, but the prime minister, Peter Fraser, took the position himself; Tirikatene remained as member of the Executive Council representing the Maori Race. He put the views of the Maori MPs on the administration of Maori affairs to the Labour caucus in 1947. Only cosmetic changes took place, the word 'Maori' replacing 'native' in government activity; Tirikatene himself was made minister in charge of the printing and stationery department, a palpable sop to Maori disappointment.
Tirikatene achieved some successes in the period from 1946 to 1949. A settlement was made in the Waikato–Maniapoto claim, and the Taranaki deal was completed. Almost every year from his election Tirikatene had related the grim details of the Ngai Tahu claim in the House and demanded redress. He realised the financial limitations, however, and accepted the £300,000 given in the Ngaitahu Claim Settlement Act 1944. He had conducted more than 80 meetings to get Ngai Tahu consent. Tirikatene was appointed president of the Ngaitahu Trust Board.
From 1949 to 1957 Tirikatene was in opposition, his role largely confined to guiding the other Ratana MPs and acting as chairman of the Maori Advisory Council and Maori Policy Committee of the Labour Party. In Walter Nash's 1957–60 administration he was minister of forests, and minister in charge of printing and stationery. Prominent Maori leaders had requested his appointment as minister of Maori Affairs. However, the prime minister took the portfolio; Tiri was his associate but Nash, in rejecting his policy suggestions, made it clear that this was a window-dressing appointment. Tirikatene and Nash clashed frequently over Maori policy, Nash being opposed to Maori seeking autonomous solutions to their problems. In 1960, however, Tirikatene prompted the government to pass legislation recognising Waitangi Day as a national day of thanksgiving. Tiri was an energetic minister of forests, pushing through the first road to Maungapohatu in opposition to the advice of his department; and on 22 November 1959, issuing the Ruatoki Declaration, a plan for the conservation management of Urewera forests, which also allowed some commercial return to the Maori owners.
Tirikatene had been made a justice of the peace in 1935; in 1960 he was knighted. His last years, again in opposition, saw no diminishing of his enormous workload. He sat on many important bodies, including the Maori Purposes Fund Board. He continued to express his gratitude to the Labour Party for writing racial equality into law. Throughout his career much of his parliamentary salary went on expenses related to his job; financial support came from the family crop farm at Kaiapoi. He relied on volunteer helpers, particularly his children: Te Rino ran the farm, with help from Rima; Whetu was his electorate secretary; and Dobson, a promising trombonist, left school early to work as his secretary. One son, John, a fighter pilot, was killed in an air accident in Auckland during the Second World War.
On 11 January 1967 Tirikatene rose early, as was his custom, and with Te Rino went to cut down a stand of pine on their Kaiapoi property. When the last tree was felled, Tirikatene sat down on a log, said 'Good, we’ve completed the job, Rin, well done son,’ then closed his eyes and died. His tangihanga, attended by over 2,000, was at Te Hiwi Marama marae, Kaiapoi, and he was buried at Kai-a-te-Atua cemetery, Kaiapoi. He was survived by his wife, Ruti, six sons and two daughters. His daughter, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, succeeded him as MP for Southern Maori. At his tangihanga, Turi Carroll said that he had been the greatest of all Maori leaders.