Mereana Tōpia, better known as Maria, and her daughter Hēni Hoana or Jane Tōpia, were outstanding leaders in their local communities. Among their many activities they fostered the practice of traditional Māori arts and crafts.
Maria was born, according to family information, on 20 August 1862 at Waiaua, Ōpōtiki. She was the daughter of Mereana Tuki, a Whakatōhea woman of mana, and Sanderson Black, the Pākehā 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 Ēria of Te Whakatōhea. 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 Māori 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) Tōpia around 1889. He was from Whāngāpē, 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 Ōpōtiki 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 kūmera, corn and watermelon; the family never went short of food.
Maria Tōpia'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 Māori or learn Māori 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 Māori families, who knew and trusted her as 'Granny Tōpia'. 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 Māori daily and her children went to Catholic schools if possible. She was regarded as a pillar of the church and introduced many Māori families to the faith. Nevertheless, she seemed able to reconcile her beliefs with some spiritual concepts from her Māori background; for instance, in her later years she was often visited by a faith healer.
As her sons grew, Maria Tōpia 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 Māori 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 Hēni 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, Kaitāia. 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 Tōpia ensured that parents were involved in their children's education. She encouraged mothers to participate in lessons, and incorporated Māori 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 Māori 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 Tōpia 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 Māori land into blocks, and the practice of improved farming methods and diversification. She also helped settle a Māori claim to land at Lake Ōmāpere by writing letters to government officials to inform them of the issue.
It was during this period that Jane Tōpia undertook to carve and build a Māori meeting house for her mother at Bradleys Landing. Although she had lived most of her life in the north, Maria Tōpia could never quite satisfy her yearning for her Ōpōtiki 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 tūrangawaewae, 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 tōtara 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 Ruatōria. 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 Māori 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 Kāpehu 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 Tōpia 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 Ōpōtiki to take up a teaching position at the Ōmarumutu Native School. She became involved in the war effort, overseeing the preparation of food parcels for local men in the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, and initiating various fund-raising activities. Altogether over £1,000 was raised for the resettlement of Māori servicemen. She helped find jobs for returning soldiers and was behind the establishment of a youth club and a cultural club.
Jane Tōpia left the Ōpōtiki area in the mid 1940s after being posted to Waiiti Native School (later Rotoiti Native School), Rotorua. There she met Peter Pikikōtuku Īhāia, a clerk in the Native Department who was of Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent. She married him at Waiaua, Ōpōtiki, 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 Māori 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 pā 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 Īhāia purchased a dairy and home cookery business at Ngongotahā 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 Tōpia 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.