Emarina Rōpata, usually known as Lena, was born at Te Poho-o-Tiakiwai marae, in Wairoa, northern Hawke’s Bay, on 21 August 1915. Her parents, Wheti Rōpata, a dairy and sheep farmer, and his wife, Waimātai Pāora, were both of Ngāti Kahungunu; their main hapū were Ngāti Kurupakiaka and Ngāti Puata. She was also connected to Ngāti Awa through her paternal grandfather, Rōpata Riini.
One of five children, Lena was raised on the marae by her paternal grandmother, Teni Te Waho Toromata, and her second husband, Peta Pakuku. She spoke only Māori in her pre-school years, but from the age of six was extensively educated in both the Māori and Pākehā systems of knowledge. Her grandparents allowed her to do no domestic chores, and although Peta Pakuku, an expert in whakapapa, did not approve of women having a deep knowledge of genealogy, he taught her much of what he knew. Each day he rowed her across the Wairoa River to school; later, Lena attended Wairoa District High School and Hukarere Native Girls’ School, where at 16 she passed her matriculation exams. At Hukarere she was often punished for talking too much by being made to eat her meals standing up.
When Lena left school about 1931 there were few employment opportunities in Wairoa. Although her family wished her to become a teacher, she worked for several years as a typist in the Māori agents and interpreters office run by her relatives Sydney Carroll and H. E. (Dick) McGregor. When McGregor discovered that she knew shorthand, he insisted that all dictation be done by that method. Lena protested that Māori had too many vowels to be written in shorthand; McGregor told her to take Māori dictation in English shorthand, then type up the letters in Māori.
In 1936 Lena became a junior teaching assistant at Ruatāhuna. While teaching at Te Araroa she met Robert (Bob) Manuel, a labourer from Rangitukia. He was the son of Rāpata Manuel (Mānuera) and his wife, Tira Rukuata; Rāpata was of Te Whānau-a-Takimoana and Tira of Ngāti Hokopū, both hapū of Ngāti Porou. Lena and Bob were married at Wairoa on 31 October 1938 in an Anglican ceremony presided over by the Reverend Hēmi Huata. They were to have a daughter, and later two sons. In 1947 the family moved to Wairoa, where Bob took over the Rōpata family farm, Nukuroa, and Lena continued her teaching career at Wairoa and North Clyde primary schools. From 1941 she also studied for her interpreter’s qualifications, and in 1945 was licensed as a first-grade interpreter.
By this time Lena Manuel was becoming well known through her voluntary work. She was active in the Anglican church, as secretary and then chairman of the local vestry, and had a close working relationship with many leading Māori clergymen. She became the first secretary of the Taihoa branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, beginning a long association with the organisation; much later, in the 1980s, she was the league’s representative for the Tairawhiti district. Also from around 1951, she was for many years secretary of the Kahungunu Tribal Executive, under Turi Carroll and his successor, Tom Ormond.
In 1954 Lena Manuel joined the Department of Māori Affairs as a welfare officer for the Wairoa district. Her work included assisting Māori with problems relating to housing, employment, education and the courts. She helped place a number of young people into trade training or government service in the cities. In 1960 the Māori Women’s Welfare League expressed concern that she was overworked: her district extended from Mōhaka in the south to Tolaga Bay in the north, over 130 miles on rough, hilly country roads. The department agreed that another officer should be appointed at Gisborne, but said that it had no available resources. Manuel continued to work for the department as a welfare or community officer until she retired about 1980.
Although she had long been involved in voluntary associations and community work, in many ways it was after her retirement that Lena Manuel emerged as a national figure. She chaired the Wairoa (later Wairoa Waikaremoana) Māori Trust Board, and was a member of the Wairoa and the Hawke’s Bay hospital boards. She also served on the boards, councils or committees of Wairoa College, Taihoa marae, the district kōhanga reo trust, the Tairāwhiti District Māori Council, the New Zealand Māori Council, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (which made her an honorary life member in 1995), and various land incorporations, including Ōhuia, which looked after the land interests of Ngāti Kurupakiaka. Her life became a round of meetings up and down the country. She was a matriarchal figure rather than an intellectual leader, able to bring together and inspire people to work for the same aims, whatever their differences.
In 1984 she was appointed an MBE, receiving her medal in a special investiture at Taihoa marae, Wairoa. In 1986 she was appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal; her expertise in the Māori language led to her acting as interpreter for the tribunal in the Ngāi Tahu case. She received the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal and in 1991 was made a QSO. Lena Manuel died at her home in Wairoa on 16 August 1996. Bob had predeceased her in 1979, but she was survived by her three children, all of whom were following her example of leadership and service. She lay in state at Taihoa marae for three days, and was buried at Kiwi Road cemetery, Wairoa.