Story: Te Tomo, Te Tāite

Page 1: Biography

Te Tomo, Te Tāite

1871/1872?–1939

Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Raukawa historian, politician

This biography, written by Angela Ballara,  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.

Te Tāite Te Tomo was born probably in 1871 or 1872 near Ōtaki. His grandmother, Te Rerehau, a woman of chiefly rank of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, married Te Tomo (also called Tute) of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Raukawa. Te Tomo moved with Ngāti Raukawa to the Ōtaki area, taking with him his son, Tauaiti, later called Te Piwa Te Tomo. Te Piwa married Kerenapu Te Parehuia, whose father, Hēnere Te Herekau, was an Anglican minister of Ngāti Whakatere, a hapū of Ngāti Raukawa; their son was Te Tāite Te Tomo.

Little is recorded about his youth and education, but he was thoroughly trained in whakapapa and traditional lore; he developed a phenomenal memory and was treasured as an expert source of this knowledge all his life. As a young man he worked as a navvy, bushman, drain-digger, fencer, shepherd, shearer and bullock-driver; what English he knew was learned in these rural occupations.

Te Tāite Te Tomo married Kāretu Te Iti, of Ngāti Rongomaiwahine hapū of Ngāti Kahungunu. He had at least one son by this marriage, Tūrau Te Tomo, who, like his father, became an expert in traditional knowledge. Te Tāite settled with his wife's people at Ōpoutama on the Māhia Peninsula.

He was soon involved in local issues; in 1905, when the loss of 4,000 acres of his community's land was threatened because of an unpaid mortgage of £6,000, he interceded on their behalf with Archdeacon Samuel Williams of Te Aute. Williams gave Te Tāite a letter of credit which cleared the mortgage and saved the land. Part was later leased to repay their benefactor. In February 1913 he represented Ngāti Kahungunu in the attempt to revamp the Kotahitanga movement at Manutūkē. Te Tāite signed the movement's petition opposing the individualisation of Māori land titles.

The Manutūkē Kotahitanga was not Te Tāite's first introduction to politics. From 1909 he campaigned on behalf of the Reform Party, opposing Apirana Ngata's consolidation schemes. From 1911 he was organiser for Māui Pōmare, MP for Western Māori. Pōmare needed the support of representatives of the traditional tribal leadership, and Te Tāite could provide him with that from within Ngāti Raukawa of Manawatū and amongst Ngāti Tūwharetoa. In 1914 Te Tāite supported the candidature of Te Kani Pere against Ngata, and the following year was still opposing Ngata's early consolidation schemes. That Christmas he attended a King movement hui called to discuss their stance on involvement in the First World War.

In spite of Te Tāite's opposition to Ngata in politics, in matters pertaining to Māori culture they had a fruitful relationship. Probably Te Tāite's greatest achievement was his enormous contribution to Ngata's collection of waiata, first published in book form in 1928 as Ngā Mōteatea. Ngata said that Te Tāite possessed the most extensive knowledge, and compared him favourably to all the tohunga he knew. Pei Te Hurinui Jones acknowledged that he had a phenomenal memory, but criticised much of his material. Ngata himself criticised his tendency to evolve 'positive statements out of intangible impressions'. Nevertheless, a large number of Te Tāite's versions of waiata and explanations as to subject and source remain unchallenged. Te Tāite was also a prolific correspondent to Te Toa Takitini. In 1933 he taught Te Puea Hērangi the Tainui traditions based on the teaching of the elder, Marumaru. In the 1934 festivities held at Waitangi to mark the gift by the governor general, Lord Bledisloe, of the Waitangi Treaty House property to the country, Te Tāite judged the cultural competitions; he combined his awards with instructions on the proper performance of poi dances and waiata.

In 1926 Te Tāite was appointed to the newly established Tūwharetoa Trust Board. About this time, Te Tāite Te Tomo was farming land at Kākāriki, near Halcombe on the east bank of the Rangitīkei River. According to some sources, his first wife had died by this time, and he married Ngāhuia Matengaro.

After the death of Māui Pōmare in 1930, Te Tāite, whom Pōmare had designated his successor, contested the resulting by-election. The other candidates included Haami Tokouru Rātana, who represented the Rātana movement with tacit support from the United Party. Pei Jones represented the Young Māori Party with open support from Te Puea and good wishes but tactical silence from Ngata. Te Tāite was greatly assisted by the support of the Māori King, Te Rata, who was honouring his commitment to Pōmare's nominee even though other King movement factions had other preferences. Te Tāite Te Tomo retained the seat for the Reform Party with 3,921 votes; Toko Rātana came close with 3,101; Pei Jones had split the opposition with 886 votes.

Ngata was initially dismayed at Te Tāite's election, complaining that he would not fit the image of an efficient parliamentary representative. But during his parliamentary terms (he was re-elected with an increased majority over Toko Rātana in 1931) he recanted his former criticisms of Ngata and supported the coalition government wholeheartedly. Ngata patiently cultivated Te Tāite, taking him on a number of tours of the consolidation schemes; Te Tāite, seeing what was being achieved, became convinced of their worth. During the period of increasing criticism of Ngata's administration in 1933 and 1934, Te Tāite defended him on a number of occasions.

Although he spoke on all the issues confronting Māori – the confiscations, the effects of rating on communally owned land, instances of breaches of Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi – Te Tāite Te Tomo was less than effective in the House because of his lack of English language and formal education. He was one of the last of the old-style Māori MPs, regarding it as his duty and right to comment only on affairs affecting Māori. He frequently complained that he could not understand the proceedings and asked for bills and Hansard to be translated into Māori. He said that, like the majority of his people, he did not understand law, and he regarded the use of English alone in official documents as a form of deliberate disempowerment of his people. Similarly, he opposed the secret ballot for Māori because he said at least 7,000 of the 16,000 Māori of his electorate could not read and would make their marks opposite the wrong names. He used his speaking time to bring up local grievances from his electorate or to draw attention to instances of discrimination against Māori. His eloquence in Māori was frequently praised by his colleagues, as he used phrases from marae oratory, whakapapa and other traditional knowledge to illustrate his speeches. He served on the Native Affairs Committee, and sat on various boards and commissions including the Board of Māori Ethnological Research.

Another election loomed in 1935, and Ngata, Tau Hēnare (MP for Northern Māori) and Te Tāite became concerned at the rise of the Rātana movement. In November 1934 Te Tāite criticised Tahupōtiki Rātana in the House as an opponent of land consolidation. Rātana accused Te Tāite of saying that he, Rātana, wanted to make himself king of New Zealand. The triumvirate issued a series of pamphlets; one explained and justified the unemployment relief policy of the coalition; another accused the Democratic Party of bribing the King movement with a promise of an annuity of £1,500 for King Korokī. Despite the declared support of the King movement for Te Tāite, Toko Rātana took the seat with a margin of just 38 votes. Te Tāite tried again in the 1938 election, but the Rātana–Labour alliance was by then firmly established; he was unsuccessful.

Te Tāite Te Tomo developed bronchial pneumonia after a bout of influenza, and died suddenly and unexpectedly at Kākāriki on 22 May 1939. He was survived by his second wife, Ngāhuia, his son Tūrau, and several other children. Toko Rātana appealed successfully to the prime minister, M. J. Savage, for a government contribution to the tangihanga since Te Tāite's widow and other relatives could not manage all the expenses of the expected huge gathering. Te Tāite Te Tomo was buried at Kākāriki on 28 May 1939.

How to cite this page:

Angela Ballara. 'Te Tomo, Te Tāite', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4t9/te-tomo-te-taite (accessed 4 December 2020)