Page 1: Biography
Paewai, Manahi Nitama
Rangitane and Ngati Kahungunu; doctor, rugby player, local politician, community leader
This biography, written by Manahi Paewai, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Manahi Nitama Paewai, sometimes known as ‘Doc’ Paewai, was born on 8 June 1920 at Makirikiri, south of Dannevirke. His father, Nireaha (Niki) Paewai of Ngati Te Rangiwhakaewa hapu of Rangitane, was a farmer. His mother, Apikara Walker, was of Ngati Rakaipaaka hapu of Ngati Kahungunu. He was christened Manahi after his paternal great-grandfather, a leader of Te Kotahitanga in Hawke’s Bay, and Nitama after Needham Lambert, mission president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand; he was known to his family as Nitama.
Nitama’s early childhood was based around family and the Mormon church. Rugby was also an important part of his life. Niki Paewai was an accomplished player, and Nitama’s uncle, Lui Paewai, was a member of the 1924 All Black team, The Invincibles. Players such as George Nepia and Cliff Porter frequented the family home and Nitama would listen for hours in awe as they recounted their games. He received his first lessons on how to throw and catch the ball and how to tackle from Nepia.
In 1926 Nitama’s family shifted to the United States, where Niki Paewai studied for three years at the Utah State Agriculture College, graduating with a BSc in agriculture. Nitama attended the Woodruff school in Logan City and was baptised in the Logan Temple, Utah, on 12 June 1928. On the family’s return home in 1929, Nitama continued his primary schooling at the Dannevirke South School. In 1934 he entered Dannevirke High School, where he excelled in public speaking, athletics, cricket, boxing and rugby. In 1938 he was vice captain and wicket-keeper for the First XI, boxing champion, captain and half-back for the First XV, and head boy. Paewai enrolled in intermediate science at the University of Otago in Dunedin in 1939. He attended the university’s medical school from 1940, and in 1945 graduated MB, ChB. Following his graduation, Paewai worked for two years at Auckland Hospital. He undertook further studies at the University of Utah College of Medicine in 1957.
While in Dunedin, Paewai established himself as a rugby player of exceptional talent who was tough, courageous and intelligent. In 1939 he played for Te Waipounamu in a Prince of Wales Cup match, and for Otago University. From 1940 to 1943 he played for Otago province, in 1941 for New Zealand Universities and in 1942 for the South Island army team. He also played for the South Island in 1943. In 1944 he played several games for Auckland.
In 1946 he moved to Wellington. That year was probably the pinnacle of his rugby career and yet, ironically, his most disappointing. He represented Wellington, and played for the North Island, New Zealand Maoris, and New Zealand Army. He was named only as a reserve in the All Black team that played the touring Australians, and did not take the field; he was regarded as unlucky not to have played for New Zealand. In 1947 he served for a short time as locum to Hokianga doctor G. M. Smith, before moving to Kaikohe, where he entered general practice. He played rugby periodically for North Auckland until 1952 and for the New Zealand Maoris in 1950 and 1951. Paewai was awarded the Tom French Cup in 1950 as the season’s most outstanding Maori player.
On 2 February 1949 Nitama Paewai married Hineapa Meha, daughter of Stuart and Ivory Meha, in the Mormon chapel at Tamaki (Tahoraiti), Dannevirke; they were to have five daughters and three sons. As well as establishing his medical practice, Paewai became involved in a wide range of organisations and activities in Kaikohe. He was divisional surgeon to the St John’s Ambulance Brigade from 1947 to 1961, vice president of the Kaikohe Free Kindergarten, president of the Kaikohe branch of the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society, and a member of the Board of Governors of Northland College (1962–80). As a rugby administrator, he was a co-selector of the New Zealand Maoris team in 1955–56, a member of the Maori Advisory Board of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, and a council member of the North Auckland Rugby Football Union from 1953 to 1956. For over 10 years he was a Kaikohe borough councillor; he then served as mayor from 1977 to 1980. He ran a housing scheme in Kaikohe and had at one time planned to open a small clothing factory in order to ease unemployment in the area. He was a tireless worker for his church, which he served in many positions.
Nitama Paewai also served as secretary of the Tokerau District Maori Council of Tribal Executives, became a leading Rotarian in Kaikohe, and served as chairman of the Kaikohe Maori Welfare Committee. He acted as leader on four group tours to the United States and Canada, was involved with the Hillary Commission for Recreation and Sport, and was a scout area chaplain. Paewai chaired the Waitangi marae committee for seven years. He was appointed a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John in 1966, made an OBE in 1967, and given an award of merit for his services to the scouting movement. He shifted to Auckland in 1979 to join a medical partnership, while commuting to Kaikohe to perform mayoral duties. From 1980 to 1983 he served on the Auckland City Council, and from 1984 to 1986 he was a Mormon missionary in Singapore, Malaysia and India.
Not afraid of controversy, Nitama Paewai once called for the phasing out of Maori rugby and he was a firm supporter of sporting contacts with South Africa. After a visit to the Philippines, he condemned psychic surgery and faith healing. He was critical of the welfare state and of ‘hand-outs’ which discouraged work and thrift.
Manahi Nitama Paewai died at Auckland on 10 October 1990; he was survived by his wife and children. His body was returned to Dannevirke, where he lay in state on the Makirikiri marae. He was buried at the Kaitoki Maori cemetery at the feet of his father.