Martha Sarah Kāhui Isaac (Īhakara) was born on 30 March 1895 at The Neck, Stewart Island. Her mother, Maryanne (Mereana) Louise Mapepe Isaac, was the daughter of Alice Pohe Whaitiri of Ngāi Taoka, a hapū of Ngāi Tahu, with descent lines also from Ngāti Mamoe and Waitaha. Martha’s father, Walter Bruce Joss, was second mate on the government steamer Hinemoa. In 1900 Mereana married fisherman David Wybrow and had another daughter. Little is known of Martha’s early life and education, but she was brought up mainly on Ruapuke Island and worked as a housemaid at Mataura for a short period.
Martha’s marriage, to Whare Īhaka Whakaka Hūtana in Wellington on 7 January 1915, was opposed by her family, who had selected for her a local man in order to unite the land of the two families. She eloped with only a few clothes. Hūtana, the son of Īhaka Whakakā Hūtana and his wife, Rina Īhakara, was from Pirinoa, in Wairarapa; his hapū was Rākaiwhakairi, a people of mixed Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Ira, Rangitāne and Ngāi Tara descent. He inherited land interests at Pūtangitangi, on the northern side of the Tūranganui River, where the family farmed together. Whare and Martha were to have three sons (one of whom died as an infant) and two daughters. They also took in two boys as informal adoptees, and later legally adopted their half-sister. In this way Martha began her surrogate parenting, which, despite many personal tragedies, was to see her successfully bring up 38 children.
Whare Hūtana died on 15 August 1929, leaving Martha to cope with the farm and the children on her own with little income. She began housekeeping for the family of David Warren, a local dairy farmer and sheep breeder, who gave her two cows and second-hand clothing that his children had outgrown. Other farmers in the district gave her culled heifers and calves, milk cans, a cart and an old horse, and she began a dairy operation. Martha and her sons hand-milked their 40 cows between them, and carted the milk five miles to the Pirinoa Co-op Dairy Company’s factory. When her piebald stallion bolted and smashed the cart, the directors of the dairy factory bought her a 1926 Dodge.
On 27 December 1936, at Pirinoa, she married Joseph William Bragg, a labourer. The son of John Kaipōrahu Bragg and his wife, Sarah Owen, he was of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Mamoe, and had been raised at Martha’s own birthplace at Stewart Island. After their marriage Joe assisted Martha on her farm and also worked for the Warren family. He grew vegetables (Martha had a flower garden) and took over the fencing and much of the other farm work. In 1941 Martha received a loan from the Native Department to build a new mechanised cow shed, at that time the most modern in the district. Eventually her milking herd numbered 80 to 100 animals.
Although Martha and Joe had no children of their own, from the 1930s she regularly took in disadvantaged children: some her kin, some orphans, and others neglected or abused children from local families. She fed and clothed them at her own expense, trained them in farm and domestic work, personal grooming and hygiene, and gave them without favouritism the love and firm discipline she gave her own children. From the 1940s the children were usually placed with her by Joe Hercock, the district child welfare officer at Masterton. She sent most of them to Pirinoa School, where on at least one occasion she berated the teacher for strapping one of them too severely; from then on he had to get her permission before punishing any of her children. When her boys got older and assisted with the farm work she paid them a small wage and helped them bank their money regularly. Almost all of the many children she brought up went on to make a success of their lives.
Probably in the 1950s Martha, whose second marriage was Anglican, turned to the Mormon faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did what it could to assist Māori families to be self-sufficient, teaching, for example, fruit-canning: Martha bought a canning machine and from then on preserved her fruit this way. In the early 1950s she revisited Stewart Island for the first time since her first marriage and worked the mutton-bird islands, taking some of her children with her. Her family recalled her strength and fitness at that time; she was able to swing an axe as well as the strongest of men. She was also active in the planning and building of the meeting house at Kohunui, southern Wairarapa, opened in 1956.
In 1961 Martha’s eldest daughter died of cancer aged 39, leaving five children from two marriages. Martha had already taken in the two children of the first marriage, and although now in her mid 60s she demanded that the other three be handed into her care. Her friend Ben Couch, a local businessman and leader (and future minister of Māori affairs), spoke on her behalf, and two of the children were awarded to her. Later she took in another granddaughter – the last of her fostered brood. Joe Bragg died on 22 April 1966, and in her last years Martha was cared for by one of her foster sons and his wife. She died on 26 May 1975 at Masterton Hospital, and was buried at Kohunui cemetery. She was survived by one son, and numerous foster children.
In a life scarred by the deaths of many of her immediate family, Martha Bragg, known to all southern Wairarapa as ‘Nan Bragg’, combined integrity with hard work. Abrupt and outspoken, she was always busy, and could knit and crochet as well as she could drive cows, dig ditches and mend fences. One of the many Māori women and men who assisted their people through voluntary child welfare work, she provided the best care in southern Wairarapa from the 1930s to the 1960s.