Iriaka Te Rio was born on 25 February 1905 at Hiruhārama (Jerusalem), on the upper Whanganui River. Her father was Te Rio Te Hihiri of Ngāti Hāua (Ngāti Hāuaroa), a people based mainly at Taumarunui, and of Ngāti Ruru, a hapū of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi. He may also have had connections within Ngāti Tūwharetoa. Her mother was Merania Te Karaute of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, also known as Te Uru Taiaha Merenia Te Karaute, and later in life as Delphine. Iriaka also belonged to Ngā Poutama, and to Ngāti Uenuku, a hapū of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi. Educated by the Sisters of Compassion at their Hiruhārama school, she learnt singing and piano, and was bright, talented and attractive.
When she was about 16, Iriaka Te Rio and her family visited a sick aunt at Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana’s centre, later called Rātana Pā. After a long stay her family returned home, leaving her to become one of the young people who made up the haka, poi and waiata troupes that accompanied the Māngai, as Rātana was known, around New Zealand. In 1924 she was one of a group who accompanied him on a tour of Britain, Europe and Japan. She played the piano in the girls’ band.
Iriaka lived in Rātana’s household and in 1925, with the encouragement of Te Urumanaao, Rātana’s wife of many years, she became a second wife to Rātana, to protect him from the infatuation of the young women who were among the visitors flocking to Rātana Pā or to the Māngai’s missions. Te Urumanaao became known as Te Whaea o te Katoa (the mother of all), and Iriaka was Te Whaeaiti (the little mother). Her special role was to train the women of the cultural groups, and she continued to travel with Rātana in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1928 Iriaka gave birth to a son, Hāmuera (Samuel). His death from tuberculosis on 22 October 1934 was regarded in the movement as the price paid for the Māngai’s power over tohunga. His name became a title conferred on Rātana members of Parliament. In June 1937 she gave birth to Rāniera Te Aohou Rātana, who eventually became tumuaki (president) of the Rātana church in the 1990s. By 1939 Iriaka had become one of the most influential women leading the Rātana movement.
After Rātana’s death that year, Iriaka married Matiu Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, a younger son of the Māngai and Te Urumanaao. The couple farmed a dairy unit at Whangaehu under one of the Māori land development schemes. After the death of Haami Tokouru Rātana, Matiu’s eldest brother, who had been the second tumuaki of the Rātana church and MP for Western Māori, Matiu was selected by the Labour Party to succeed him. He won the Western Māori seat in 1945. In 1946 he was chosen by the Rātana church’s synod over a rival, Homai Tamaiparea, as tumuaki of the church. Although Iriaka sometimes accompanied Matiu on his church missions as ‘the third Rātana’, she was often left to cope alone on the farm, milking 60 or more cows, heaving milk cans about and caring for her family of young children.
In 1949 Matiu suffered a serious car accident and died on 7 October when still in his 30s. Iriaka, despite her farming duties and being heavily pregnant with a seventh child, made known her desire to step into her husband’s place. She had been immersed in Rātana politics throughout her adult life, and was intimately acquainted with every phase of the alliance that had developed between the Rātana movement and the Labour Party. Early nominations for the seat included Uruteangina Wakarua and H. Te Moananui Hovell; Ralph Love was also interested. The Labour Party tended to favour John Te Herekiekie Grace, but, unable to ignore the large vote commanded by the Rātana movement, endorsed Iriaka Rātana as its candidate.
Her selection provoked attacks from Tainui leader Te Puea Hērangi, who, at a large public meeting at Tūākau, condemned the idea that any woman should ‘captain the Tainui canoe’. Te Puea revealed that she herself had been asked to stand in 1946, but had declined on principle. In the event, in a field of 10 candidates, Rātana was elected on 29 November 1949 with 9,069 votes, 6,317 ahead of her nearest rival, the National Party candidate, Hoeroa Marumaru. She gave birth to her youngest child in December, and, leaving some of her extended family to help her elder children with the farm and to care for the younger children, entered Parliament.
Iriaka Rātana was to serve in the House for 20 years. She was an unusual politician in her early years, unsophisticated yet eloquent, gentle and invariably polite. She always saw the best in politicians’ efforts on behalf of Māori and interpreted government activity in the most positive light. The result was that she was listened to with respect by both sides of the House. She restricted her comments mainly to welfare matters: pensioner flats for ageing Māori, education, farm training for Māori youths, and the plight of the many young Māori moving to towns and cities to find work; she wanted hostels and trade training for them.
Iriaka painted heart-rending portraits of the hopelessness of some Māori lives, trapped in a descending spiral of poverty, unemployment, and lack of education and basic facilities. All these problems she saw as capable of solution by a caring, paternal Department of Māori Affairs with Māori welfare officers, and by such organisations as the Māori Women’s Welfare League. She constantly praised the league and was president of its Whangaehu branch and inaugural district representative for Aotea on the dominion executive. In her opinion Māori needed to leave behind some of their communal way of life in the search for integration, but should retain their language and identity. She frequently informed the House that though Māori sought equality, they still needed the paternal care of the government and the department. She upheld the Treaty of Waitangi as a ‘beacon light’ for race relations. She was a member of the Māori Affairs Committee, of the Ngārimu VC and 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Scholarship Fund Board and of the Māori Purposes Fund Board, and was elected to the Aotea and Waikato–Maniapoto District Māori Land Boards.
Iriaka conscientiously attempted to represent the interests of all her constituents. She opposed the compulsory acquisition of Ōrākei and fought hard to get the King Country liquor pact recognised and liquor banned from the area. She brought the needs of Waikato–Maniapoto land schemes to the House, and although she did not visit the Chatham Islands, drew attention to housing and other needs there. In 1954 she worked with Dr Rangi Metekīngi and others to bring about the Māori Vested Lands Administration Act, which prevented the alienation of ancestral lands, and she involved herself in the development of the vast Ōhotu block. She worked with the owners of the Morikau estate to establish a hostel for their young people working in Whanganui and organised the return of Pipiriki lands from the Māori Trustee for local housing.
Rātana Pā had grown up haphazardly on Rātana family land. In 1950 it had no proper roads, no sewerage, no water reticulation, and many of the houses were dilapidated with earth floors and no cooking or washing facilities. Overcrowding was rife, as were tuberculosis and other diseases. Individuals criticised, and successive governments reported on conditions, without doing anything. Iriaka Rātana’s greatest achievement was to turn this situation around. She brought people together for meetings from 1951, and bullied the Aotea District Māori Land Board into providing housing at Rātana Pā rather than in the town of Whanganui. She went to the minister of Māori affairs, E. B. Corbett (and later to Walter Nash when he was prime minister), and invited him to Rātana Pā to see conditions for himself. She succeeded in getting the ineffective Rātana Trust Board supported by a tribal committee under the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945, which meant government subsidies could be sought to carry out the necessary works at Rātana Pā. The result of her long hard struggle throughout the 1950s was water reticulation, surveys and titles, which permitted a housing programme, road development, sewerage and other benefits.
In 1958 Iriaka travelled on behalf of the government to Barbados to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference. In 1959 a car crash left her with severe chest and head injuries, and unable to attend to her parliamentary duties for over a year. Her health was weakened, but she worked on for another 10 years. In the 1960s she allowed herself to be more critical of the government and joined in criticism of the New Zealand Māori Council of Tribal Executives. Her denunciation of the 1967 Māori Affairs Amendment Bill was scathing: ‘This Bill is so revolutionary in destroying Māori interests and Māori ideals that no Māori who has the welfare of his race at heart could possibly be in favour of it’. But in her last speech she again expressed the inevitability and desirability of integration and optimism for the future of race relations.
In 1969 Iriaka Rātana retired from Parliament and public life to her farm. For 10 years she read, gardened and made korowai (cloaks ornamented with black thrums), which was her favourite hobby. In 1971 she was appointed an OBE. She died aged 76 at Whanganui Hospital on 21 December 1981, survived by nine children and many grandchildren. She was buried at Aramoho cemetery.