Story: Topia, Heni Hoana and Topia, Mereana

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Topia, Heni Hoana

1898–1964

Te Whakatohea and Te Rarawa; community leader, teacher, musician, carver

Topia, Mereana

1862–1960

Te Whakatohea; community leader, midwife, weaver

This biography, written by Agnes Patricia Daley and Janie Topia, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 4, 1998

Mereana Topia, better known as Maria, and her daughter Heni Hoana or Jane Topia, were outstanding leaders in their local communities. Among their many activities they fostered the practice of traditional Maori arts and crafts.

Maria was born, according to family information, on 20 August 1862 at Waiaua, Opotiki. She was the daughter of Mereana Tuki, a Whakatohea woman of mana, and Sanderson Black, the Pakeha captain of a coastal trader. Maria was the elder of two children; her younger sister, Mihikore, had a deformity and predeceased her. During one of her father's extended absences Maria's mother married Tairua Eria of Te Whakatohea. She subsequently had a large family and Maria was brought up as one of them. She had only about six months of formal education. She spoke in a sensitive, intelligent way in English and wrote it with some difficulty, but spoke and read Maori with ease. Moreover she had a sharp understanding of the fundamentals of economics and politics that was to stand her in good stead.

She met her future husband, Heremia (Mick) Topia around 1889. He was from Whangape, Northland, and was of Te Rarawa descent. Maria ran off with him, and although she maintained very strong bonds with her family did not return to Opotiki to live. She and Heremia eventually made their home at Bradleys Landing on the banks of the Northern Wairoa river, about six miles downstream from Dargaville. They had nine children: six girls and three boys.

The river was initially the main source of their livelihood. Kauri forests were being felled in the north and boats travelled upstream to collect the logs. Heremia, who worked in the logging industry, became an incorrigible gambler and Maria had to be constantly on guard to protect the family's assets. She made extra money from hooking logs that had broken away from rafts, and eventually freeholded and cleared her own property, setting it up as a dairy unit. She sold cream, raised a few pigs, and grew kumara, corn and watermelon; the family never went short of food.

Maria Topia's home was immaculate, with bed linen for visitors and fine china. She managed to save enough money for her daughters to have music and dancing lessons. Although she did not actively encourage her younger children to speak Maori or learn Maori crafts, Maria greatly valued her cultural inheritance and was herself a skilled weaver of kits and mats.

Always generous to other families in need and quick to respond to a call for help, she became midwife to the local Dalmatian and Maori families, who knew and trusted her as 'Granny Topia'. The excellence of the work she did was recognised by the local doctor, C. M. Mules, who in the 1930s recommended her for an honorary midwife's certificate, of which she was very proud.

Maria had been brought up as a Catholic and religion was an important part of family life. She read her prayer books in Maori daily and her children went to Catholic schools if possible. She was regarded as a pillar of the church and introduced many Maori families to the faith. Nevertheless, she seemed able to reconcile her beliefs with some spiritual concepts from her Maori background; for instance, in her later years she was often visited by a faith healer.

As her sons grew, Maria Topia resolved to settle them on their own land. By hard work and careful management she eventually achieved this ambition. Money for property purchases came from several sources. Her sons were superb entertainers with banjos, mandolins and guitars, and they were in demand for social occasions in the district; Maria handled their earnings. She grew huge gardens of strawberries, mainly for plants for Radley and Company, Auckland produce merchants, employing many local Maori women. She also expanded her dairying enterprise with the help of her sons, and acquired land with substantial timber resources.

Of her daughters, two – Ellen and Heni Hoana, better known as Jane – became teachers. Jane, the third child in the family, was born at Aratapu, near Bradleys Landing on 18 September 1898. From 1917 to 1926 she taught at the remote native school at Waikeri and in 1927 became the sole teacher at the newly opened Manukau Native School, Kaitaia. By 1928 the school had employed another teacher and Jane became the first headmistress. The Manukau school was at first accommodated in an old hall, but Jane pressured the Department of Education to build a new two-roomed schoolhouse with an adjacent teacher's cottage; these were completed in 1934. The grounds were landscaped by Jane, the pupils and their parents, and the school became the centre of community activities.

Jane Topia ensured that parents were involved in their children's education. She encouraged mothers to participate in lessons, and incorporated Maori culture in the curriculum. Ornamental weaving and kit making were taught with the help of the kuia (old women) of the district. Children learned action songs, such as poi and haka, and travelled to nearby schools to perform, thus raising funds and motivating other schools to develop their cultural programmes.

Like her mother, Jane was practical and community-minded. She introduced to Manukau the Maori Women's Institute, at which domestic skills such as sewing, gardening, and jam, pickle and preserve making were taught. A talented musician, she played the piano, accordion, violin and clarinet, and formed a band which played for dances to raise funds for local projects. She was also a proficient tennis and golf player and promoted inter-marae tennis and table tennis tournaments and the development of a golf course. She was a skilled horsewoman and competed in gymkhanas.

Jane Topia was apparently involved in a local land development scheme as a consultant and paymaster in the early 1930s. Such schemes, which were fostered by the Native Department, encouraged the consolidation of Maori land into blocks, and the practice of improved farming methods and diversification. She also helped settle a Maori claim to land at Lake Omapere by writing letters to government officials to inform them of the issue.

It was during this period that Jane Topia undertook to carve and build a Maori meeting house for her mother at Bradleys Landing. Although she had lived most of her life in the north, Maria Topia could never quite satisfy her yearning for her Opotiki people and their ways. After a dream of her dead sister, which she interpreted as a sign, she was determined that the meeting house should be built for her family as a turangawaewae, a place to call their own. Jane travelled to the East Coast to learn the skills of carving from master carver Pine Taiapa and, returning to Manukau, purchased the totara and kauri to begin the task in her spare time. The finished house, 20 feet by 12 feet, was fully carved, with some of the figures in the porch resembling those of the meeting house at Waiomatatini, near Ruatoria. In completing the project, Jane was one of a few women who have been prepared to defy the tradition that carving is a tapu activity to be undertaken only by men. Most of the interior furnishings were made by Maria, who rowed out along the river and collected bullrushes; these were used to line the house, with toetoe stalks adding further insulation. She drew designs on the rafters, painted them in traditional colours, and added shell ornaments. The house was named Rangikurukuru after one of Maria's ancestors and was opened before a crowd of 600 people on 13 April 1936. The local MP, Gordon Coates, was a special guest.

Maria's husband Heremia had died in 1935, and she lived in the carved house for the rest of her life. She remained physically active and involved in the community into her old age. She was a Labour supporter and in 1958 was a guest at a function in Dargaville attended by the prime minister, Walter Nash, at which local Maori presented her with a cloak. She died, aged 98, on 4 December 1960. Her tangihanga was held at Rangikurukuru; hundreds of mourners came from all over the North Island to pay their respects. She was buried at Kapehu cemetery, on a high and windy hill overlooking the Northern Wairoa river, where she had spent her adult life.

After the experience of carving the meeting house, Jane Topia taught her new skill to the older boys at Manukau school. Throughout her life she practised the craft, carving walking sticks, furniture and figurines. She developed other talents, publishing a serialised story in a local newspaper. Around 1940 she moved to Opotiki to take up a teaching position at the Omarumutu Native School. She became involved in the war effort, overseeing the preparation of food parcels for local men in the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion, and initiating various fund-raising activities. Altogether over £1,000 was raised for the resettlement of Maori servicemen. She helped find jobs for returning soldiers and was behind the establishment of a youth club and a cultural club.

Jane Topia left the Opotiki area in the mid 1940s after being posted to Wai-iti Native School (later Rotoiti Native School), Rotorua. There she met Peter Pikikotuku Ihaia, a clerk in the Native Department who was of Ngati Tuwharetoa descent. She married him at Waiaua, Opotiki, on 17 May 1947 in a large wedding attended by her many friends and relations. The couple settled in Rotoiti; they had no children but fostered young relatives.

Once again Jane became involved in community affairs with the Women's Health League, an organisation for Maori women which had been established in 1937 at Rotorua. The Rotoiti football club was initiated with her help, she encouraged sports tournaments between marae, and again established a band of local musicians. She helped raise funds for the model pa at Rotoiti, which opened in 1960. Such was her involvement in the Rotoiti community that every one referred to her affectionately as 'Auntie Jane'.

Jane and Peter Ihaia purchased a dairy and home cookery business at Ngongotaha and Jane resigned from teaching in the early 1950s to work at this. She died at Rotorua Hospital on 4 April 1964, survived by her husband. Like her mother, she was mourned by people from all over the North Island. She was buried at Rotoiti. The house that she and her mother built still stands. Maria Topia had asked that it be left to rot after her death: minor repairs are made to help it survive, but no one is prepared to undertake a complete restoration. Although it is dilapidated, Rangikurukuru is unique and beautiful, a tangible reminder of the vision and courage of two remarkable women.

How to cite this page:

Agnes Patricia Daley and Janie Topia. 'Topia, Heni Hoana and Topia, Mereana', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 4, 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4t23/topia-heni-hoana (accessed 24 July 2017)