Iriaka Te Rio was born on 25 February 1905 at Hiruharama (Jerusalem), on the upper Whanganui River. Her father was Te Rio Te Hihiri of Ngati Haua (Ngati Hauaroa), a people based mainly at Taumarunui, and of Ngati Ruru, a hapu of Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi. He may also have had connections within Ngati Tuwharetoa. Her mother was Merania Te Karaute of Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi, also known as Te Uru Taiaha Merenia Te Karaute, and later in life as Delphine. Iriaka also belonged to Nga Poutama, and to Ngati Uenuku, a hapu of Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi. Educated by the Sisters of Compassion at their Hiruharama 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 Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana’s centre, later called Ratana pa. 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 Mangai, as Ratana 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 Ratana’s household and in 1925, with the encouragement of Te Urumanaao, Ratana’s wife of many years, she became a second wife to Ratana, to protect him from the infatuation of the young women who were among the visitors flocking to Ratana pa or to the Mangai’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 Ratana in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1928 Iriaka gave birth to a son, Hamuera (Samuel). His death from tuberculosis on 22 October 1934 was regarded in the movement as the price paid for the Mangai’s power over tohunga. His name became a title conferred on Ratana members of Parliament. In June 1937 she gave birth to Raniera Te Aohou Ratana, who eventually became tumuaki (president) of the Ratana church in the 1990s. By 1939 Iriaka had become one of the most influential women leading the Ratana movement.
After Ratana’s death that year, Iriaka married Matiu Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, a younger son of the Mangai and Te Urumanaao. The couple farmed a dairy unit at Whangaehu under one of the Maori land development schemes. After the death of Haami Tokouru Ratana, Matiu’s eldest brother, who had been the second tumuaki of the Ratana church and MP for Western Maori, Matiu was selected by the Labour Party to succeed him. He won the Western Maori seat in 1945. In 1946 he was chosen by the Ratana 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 Ratana’, 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 Ratana politics throughout her adult life, and was intimately acquainted with every phase of the alliance that had developed between the Ratana 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 Ratana movement, endorsed Iriaka Ratana as its candidate.
Her selection provoked attacks from Tainui leader Te Puea Herangi, who, at a large public meeting at Tuakau, 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, Ratana 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 Ratana 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 Maori 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 Maori, education, farm training for Maori youths, and the plight of the many young Maori 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 Maori 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 Maori Affairs with Maori welfare officers, and by such organisations as the Maori 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 Maori 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 Maori 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 Maori Affairs Committee, of the Ngarimu VC and 28th (Maori) Battalion Memorial Scholarship Fund Board and of the Maori Purposes Fund Board, and was elected to the Aotea and Waikato–Maniapoto District Maori Land Boards.
Iriaka conscientiously attempted to represent the interests of all her constituents. She opposed the compulsory acquisition of Orakei 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 Metekingi and others to bring about the Maori Vested Lands Administration Act, which prevented the alienation of ancestral lands, and she involved herself in the development of the vast Ohotu block. She worked with the owners of the Morikau estate to establish a hostel for their young people working in Wanganui and organised the return of Pipiriki lands from the Maori Trustee for local housing.
Ratana pa had grown up haphazardly on Ratana 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 Ratana’s greatest achievement was to turn this situation around. She brought people together for meetings from 1951, and bullied the Aotea District Maori Land Board into providing housing at Ratana pa rather than in the town of Wanganui. She went to the minister of Maori affairs, E. B. Corbett (and later to Walter Nash when he was prime minister), and invited him to Ratana pa to see conditions for himself. She succeeded in getting the ineffective Ratana Trust Board supported by a tribal committee under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945, which meant government subsidies could be sought to carry out the necessary works at Ratana pa. 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 Maori Council of Tribal Executives. Her denunciation of the 1967 Maori Affairs Amendment Bill was scathing: ‘This Bill is so revolutionary in destroying Maori interests and Maori ideals that no Maori 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 Ratana 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 Wanganui Hospital on 21 December 1981, survived by nine children and many grandchildren. She was buried at Aramoho cemetery.