Page 1: Biography
Ruru, Lena Matewai
Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki; community leader, sportswoman, pianist, Maori welfare worker
This biography, written by Tum Glover, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Rina Matewai Ruru, better known as Lena, was born in Gisborne on 5 June 1902, the sixth of eleven children of Henare Keepa Ruru and his wife, Maata Rewanga Paraone. Her birth coincided with the death of her mother’s aunt, Rina Matewai Balneavis (née Wilson), and as was customary the child was named after her. Lena’s mother was the daughter of Katerina Taumatua Wilson and her husband, Tiemi Paraone, of Ngai Tamanuhiri and Rongowhakaata. Her father was a chief of Te Whanau-a-Taupara, a hapu of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, with links to Ngati Kahungunu. His father, Karaitiana Ruru, had married Katopuha Brown, the daughter of William Brown, one of the first European settlers in Poverty Bay. Karaitiana’s father, Henare Keepa Ruru, was a prominent pro-government leader who did much to promote European settlement in the district.
Lena attended Te Karaka School, and then spent three years at Hukarere Native Girls’ School in Napier. After the death of her mother in December 1920, the family moved to Takipu marae, Te Karaka. There Lena cared for her semi-invalid father and two younger brothers, Jack and Eru. Later, the family purchased their own home in Te Karaka, where they remained until the 1950s, when Lena, Eru and two nieces returned to Gisborne.
During her time at Hukarere Lena was often picked up by her father and her uncle, Te Raumoa Balneavis (then private secretary to the native minister), on their way to Wellington with various petitions to Parliament. Lena acted as her father’s secretary and interpreter, researching and recording tribal history and whakapapa, and assisting him with petitions and counter-petitions to the Native Land Court and Parliament in such matters as the Mangatu blocks, East Coast Maori Trust lands and the Patutahi compensation claims. With her father, she had a strong interest in Waerenga-a-hika College, which stood on land donated by her great-grandfather, Henare Keepa Ruru. After the school’s destruction by fire in 1937 she maintained a lifelong involvement with the Waerenga-a-hika Trust Board, which assisted young Maori to achieve higher education.
After her father’s death in 1943 Lena and her brother Eru continued his work, dealing with numerous issues affecting Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki and Te Whanau-a-Taupara land and the Mangatu blocks. She became one of the first women to chair a Maori block committee (Whaitiri No 2), and served on the East Coast Maori Trust Council.
Lena Ruru had a keen interest in young people, and helped establish Te Karaka’s brownie pack, girl guides and rangers; by 1934 she was captain of Te Karaka Ranger Company. The following year, at the request of Ruth Herrick, chief commissioner of the girl guides, Lena and her rangers made a model of Popoia pa (the local chief Ruapani’s stronghold) for display in Melbourne; it was later donated to the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum. Ruru maintained her interest in guiding after her move to Gisborne and in 1952 formed the Turanga Ranger Company, of which she was captain. The only Maori ranger company in New Zealand, it played a major role at national and international guiding rallies, and prepared a handwritten, illustrated book on Maori history for the royal family in 1953.
Ruru’s other community activities included 17 years’ membership of the local Women’s Institute (later Country Women’s Institute). She was prominent in Anglican church affairs and was organist at St John’s Church, Te Karaka, for over 25 years; during this time she was also a Sunday school teacher. With her family she regularly attended Ringatu services held monthly at Takipu marae. A lover of the works of Shakespeare, she was involved in the amateur dramatics group Te Karaka Follies. During the Second World War Ruru helped form the Waikohu district patriotic committee, which sent parcels, letters and knitted comforts to men on active service. She also arranged entertainment for visiting American troops.
An active sportswoman, Ruru excelled at hockey, golf, tennis and badminton. She captained Te Karaka’s Tangata Rite hockey team and represented Poverty Bay in the 1930s. She was a foundation member of the Waikohu and Turanganui golf clubs and the New Zealand Maori Golf Association, serving as secretary of its Takitimu branch in 1952. She was also a gifted pianist, performing solo or as part of a dance band during and after the Second World War. She began playing in her 20s at local and school dances and fancy dress balls throughout Gisborne and the East Coast, and was constantly in demand for weddings and 21st birthday parties.
One of the highlights of Ruru’s life was her long association with the RSA, initially through its Waikohu branch. She played at all their functions, and (from a piano on the back of a truck) accompanied Anzac Day services at Te Karaka’s war memorial, which was sited on land donated by her great-grandfather. From the 1950s she was involved with the Gisborne RSA, playing at many reunions and functions, for which she always refused payment. In 1974 she was delighted to be granted honorary membership of the Gisborne RSA in recognition of her long association with ex-servicemen in the district.
From 1950 to 1956 Ruru was a Maori welfare officer with the Department of Maori Affairs. This was a new experience for her, as she had never been an employee of any organisation before, and was unable to drive a car. Undeterred, she took lessons, gained her licence and was soon on the road covering the Gisborne and Wairoa districts. She became a member of the Kahungunu District Council, and between 1950 and 1953 helped establish at least 11 branches of the Maori Women’s Welfare League, in places such as Mahia, Mangatu, Tuai, Huramua and Erepeti.
Ruru remained an active member of the Maori Women’s Welfare League, being awarded life membership through the Mangatu branch, and worked to improve educational and employment opportunities for young Maori. After retiring from Maori Affairs she was still sought after by a variety of local organisations, including the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society, the National Council of Women of New Zealand and the Red Cross. She continued with her music, and devoted more time to the garden she and Eru had developed at their Gisborne home, which was often the setting for social and political gatherings.
Lena had never married, and Eru’s death in 1969 was a devastating blow. The loss of her two remaining sisters in the 1970s left her the sole survivor of her immediate family. She had little time to be lonely, however, as she was constantly visited by her many friends, nieces and nephews, and their children and grandchildren. After a short illness, Lena Ruru died at Cook Hospital, Gisborne, on 26 August 1977. She was buried at Waerenga-a-hika cemetery.