Page 1: Biography
Puketapu, Īhāia Pōrutu
Te Āti Awa leader, butcher, roading contractor, labourer
This biography, written by Te Rira Puketapu, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.
Īhāia Pōrutu Puketapu was a prominent leader of Te Āti Awa of the Wellington and Hutt Valley districts. He was born at Waiwhetū in the Hutt Valley on 7 February 1887, the eldest of four brothers and one sister. His father, Hapi Tūtūā Puketapu, and mother, Mihi Kōrama Woodgate, both belonged to Te Matehou, Hāmua, and Puketapu hapū of Te Āti Awa. Īhāia’s mother was also of English lineage, being a grand-daughter of James ‘Worser’ Heberley, a well-known identity during the early European settlement of Wellington. One of Īhāia’s paternal great-grandfathers was Te Rira Pōrutu of Te Matehou, a principal leader at Pipitea pā and a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi. His wife, Te Awa, was closely related to the Taranaki prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai.
As a young man of 18 or 19, Īhāia was taken to Te Whiti and other elders of Parihaka in Taranaki to learn the ancient teachings and philosophies of his people. This period was to have a strong influence on the rest of his life because of a prophecy given to him by Te Whiti which he took to mean that he was to carry out Te Whiti’s mission of creating goodwill and co-operation between the Māori and Pākehā of Wellington. Fulfilment of this sacred trust was his dream for 50 years.
Much of Puketapu’s working life was spent as a freezing-works butcher, roading contractor and, in later years, a building labourer. He was associated with the New Zealand Labour Party in its formative years and was to develop close friendships with Māori MPs and leaders such as Peter Fraser and Walter Nash. As a member of the first Labour government’s Māori advisory committee, his influence was felt among parliamentarians and government officials. He was involved in the push for recognition of Māori rights that resulted in the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945.
In 1937 the government proposed taking Te Āti Awa’s land at Waiwhetū to subdivide for state housing. The proposal was abandoned when Puketapu was able to prove that the land was one of the blocks set aside for Māori at the time of the New Zealand Company’s purchase of the Hutt Valley. The land was subsequently taken under the Public Works Act 1928 in 1942–43. Puketapu then entered into negotiations with the government, which agreed to build state houses for Māori living on it. Puketapu firmly resisted plans to scatter these houses among the Pākehā community and insisted that his people be kept together. He won his point, and 24 houses were constructed.
In the late 1940s many young Māori began to move into the Hutt Valley in search of employment. The Te Aroha (Hutt Valley) Māori Association was founded to organise sporting and cultural activities for them. This led to a vigorous revival of inter-tribal relationships in the Wellington area. Puketapu saw that the growing community needed a focal point, and the association began raising funds to build a meeting house. The Te Aroha Māori Concert Party held fund-raising concerts and help was enlisted from the local MP, Walter Nash, and from service clubs. The framework of the building was completed in May 1959, and the work of providing carvings and tukutuku panels began. Some of these came from the house built for the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in 1940, but many new ones were provided by a team of carvers headed by Hōne Taiapa of Ngāti Porou and by tukutuku and whāriki (mat) weavers supervised by Ngaroahiahi Waiwai of Tūhoe and Roa Wharepōuri, a step-daughter of Apirana Ngata.
The house, named Arohanui ki te Tangata, was the fulfilment of the prophecy given to Puketapu by Te Whiti half a century earlier. The carved figures around the fence represented the principal migration canoes, making it a house for all Māori; the contributions to its building made by the Pākehā community meant that it was also a house for both races. Its interior included free-standing carvings representing Te Whiti and his fellow prophet, Tohu Kākahi. The house was officially opened in September 1960, the year in which Puketapu was made an OBE for his service to the Māori people.
Īhāia Puketapu married twice. His first wife, Amīria Ake Ake, whom he had married at Hāwera about 1907, died in 1916. On 15 March 1930, at Wellington, he married Vera May Yeates. Puketapu died at Lower Hutt on 1 July 1971. He was survived by his second wife, six of seven daughters and three sons.