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Pītama, Te Aritaua

1906–1958

Ngai Tahu leader; teacher, broadcaster, concert party producer

This biography, written by Angela Ballara and Riki Te Mairaki Pitama, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in January, 2002. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

Te Aritaua Pītama was born on 23 February 1906 at Tuahiwi, a Māori settlement north of Kaiapoi, the eldest of 12 children of Weretā Tainui Pītama, also known as Te Ruapōhatu or ‘Stone’ Pītama, and his wife, Te Hauraraka Anipi Manakore Maaka. His father, a native agent and farmer who became the founding chairman of the first Ngāitahu Trust Board, was of Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki, Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Ngāi Te Rakiāmoa and other hapū of Ngāi Tahu; his mother’s family came from Moeraki and Murihiku, intermarried communities of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe. Te Aritaua sometimes identified himself as Ngāti Hinematua, his mother’s main hapū.

Te Aritaua Pītama was brought up to be fluent in Māori at a time when this was becoming unusual for young Ngāi Tahu. His mother, Manakore, trained him in whakapapa and he was also a pupil of Teone Taare Tīkao. He may have attended primary school in Tuahiwi; he received his secondary education at Christ’s College, Christchurch, from 1918 to 1924, which gave him the advantage of being fully bilingual. After leaving school he was attracted to the Rātana movement. With his mother he taught at the Rātana pā school, before working for a period for a Palmerston North newspaper. He married Ethel Winifred Ball at Palmerston North on 23 January 1931; they were to have no children, but fostered many.

By 1934 Pītama had returned to Tuahiwi, where he worked as a labourer. Although not yet 30, he was regarded as one of the kaumatua there at the time of the visit of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, the spiritual leader and founder of the Rātana church and political party. Rātana had been invited to Tuahiwi to tangi for his son, Ārepa, who had been married to a South Island Māori, and to promote his movement and his petition on the Treaty of Waitangi. Pītama was one of the speakers who welcomed Rātana.

He also arranged for the mayor of Christchurch, D. G. Sullivan, to visit Tuahiwi during Rātana’s visit, to discuss the movement and its aims. Pītama passed on Rātana’s offer of a concert party to assist the mayor in fund-raising for the Mayor’s Relief of Distress Fund, and extended an invitation to the duke of Gloucester to visit Tuahiwi on his forthcoming tour; Pītama was put in charge of the Māori reception arrangements when the duke visited Christchurch later that year. Following the formal alliance of the Rātana movement and the New Zealand Labour Party, Pītama worked to establish the party among Māori in the South Island, and was an election organiser for Eruera Tirikātene. In 1936 he was a member of the party’s Māori Organising Committee.

In 1937 Colin Scrimgeour of the National Commercial Broadcasting Service recruited Te Ari Pītama as one of a team of Māori announcers for the ZB stations; Pītama announced for 3ZB for some years. From 1945, with the co-operation of the head teacher, he began training the older children of the Tuahiwi primary school in Māori waiata, haka and poi dances, and also in Latin motets, hymns and carols. With the permission of the North Canterbury Education Board he took his troupe on a short tour: four concerts and visits to Pākehā schools. This was followed by other ‘commercial’ concerts in the North and South Islands to raise funds to allow the group to visit Wellington to welcome home the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion.

In January 1946 the group of about two dozen children, billed as Te Roopu Pīpīwharauroa (or sometimes as Te Roopu Tamariki of Tuahiwi), performed a programme called ‘Māori Cavalcade’ in the Town Hall in Wellington, and later in Palmerston North. Pītama compèred the show, and at its various performances, which continued around the South Island in August 1946, explained that it was intended to portray the history of Māori in song and dance from the first arrival of Ngahue in Te Wai Pounamu to the departure of the Māori Battalion in 1940. It was also intended to be educational: Pītama said that none of the children under his charge could speak a connected sentence in Māori, and he hoped to introduce them to their own culture. The group visited all the main centres of the South Island, travelling more than 800 miles by bus.

Pītama visited Australia, probably in the late 1940s, to teach schoolchildren in New South Wales about Māori culture; this may have been his own initiative as the trip left him in financial difficulties. In December 1950 he resurrected Te Roopu Pīpīwharauroa, giving concerts wherever there were Māori settlements. He wanted to raise funds to renew the marae and meeting house at Tuahiwi, and to pay for a carved gateway planned as a memorial to the fallen South Island members of the Māori Battalion. By this time he was also beginning to develop the idea for a centre for Māori of the whole South Island. At first he planned to locate this at a revamped and refurbished Tuahiwi marae, but later revived an earlier idea for an urban marae in Christchurch. Pītama had been acting on his own mana, without the backing of Tuahiwi elders or the necessary official clearances, and no funds were forthcoming. His activities attracted hostile attention from officers of the Department of Māori Affairs, but they took no action other than enforcing his registration of concerts. Ngā Hau e Whā national marae was eventually opened after his death, using kawa (protocol) established by Pītama.

He was elected a member of the Ngāitahu Trust Board in 1953, representing the Akaroa district. In October 1956 he nominated Frank Winter as chairman of the board, and was himself elected vice chairman. In June 1957 he advocated that the board move its offices from Kaiapoi to Christchurch: Pītama felt that such a move would be in the interests of the majority of beneficiaries; eventually, after his death, the board carried out his suggestion. He also represented the trust board on the Canterbury regional committee of the National Historic Places Trust.

Te Aritaua Pītama became a Roman Catholic in 1957. He died aged 52 on 14 March 1958, in Calvary Hospital, Christchurch, and was buried on 18 March at Rāpaki. He was survived by his wife, and by four brothers and four sisters.

A brilliant speaker on marae, Te Aritaua Pītama had an ability to captivate his audience through his use of whakatauki (proverbial sayings), beautiful English, and classical allusions from Latin and Greek. A controversial figure, even at his tangihanga, throughout his adult life he strove to preserve Ngāi Tahu’s culture and adapt it for their developing needs. He tried especially hard to revive it and inculcate a love for it among the younger generation. His was a life devoted to his people.

How to cite this page:

Angela Ballara and Riki Te Mairaki Pitama. 'Pītama, Te Aritaua', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000, updated January, 2002. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5p29/pitama-te-aritaua (accessed 25 September 2021)