Wharetutu Te Aroha Solomon Score was born at Lyttelton on 28 January 1924, the daughter of Miriama Te Ahi Puhia Pitini-Morera (Beaton-Morel) and her husband, Rangi Wawahia Solomon Score. Although she was of chiefly birth in Ngai Tahu, there was little to suggest Wharetutu was going to have a decisive influence on the future of her people. Her father was a fisherman and her parents lived at Koukourarata (Port Levy), a Banks Peninsula community of small farmers and fishing people. In later life she recalled that the depression mattered little to them because they had so little to lose.
Wharetutu was a grand-daughter of the redoubtable Hariata Pitini-Morera, of Ngati Kuri of Kaikoura, and her husband, Hoani. Her paternal grandfather was Aperahama Solomon Score, a member of the influential Solomon family of Banks Peninsula. As a child she moved with her parents to Oaro, near Kaikoura, so that her mother could help nurse the ailing Hoani, who died in 1929. Here, Wharetutu came under the direct and powerful influence of the chiefly Hariata. Like her husband, she was a veritable storehouse of tribal knowledge and devoted much time and effort to imparting her learning to her grand-daughter.
The house at Oaro was a recognised meeting place for travelling Ngai Tahu and a centre of debate on tribal affairs, whakapapa and traditional history. Much discussion centred on the struggles over the Ngai Tahu claim and Wharetutu was thus exposed early to the great issue that was to dominate her later life. Her father, Rangi Solomon, was influential both tribally and in the Southern Maori electorate, and provided continuing family involvement in the claim when he assumed the regional tribal leadership after Hariata’s death in 1938. He became a member of the Ngaitahu Trust Board in 1946 and served (as deputy chairman from 1958) until his death in 1977.
On 25 September 1943, at Kaikoura, Wharetutu married labourer Alexander William Reid of Ngati Porou, with whom she had one daughter. He died in a car accident a year later, and on 31 January 1953, at Oaro, she married Poutu Te Rangi (John) Stirling, a bridge labourer, of Ngai Tahu and Te Whanau-a-Apanui; they were to have four sons. As her immediate family responsibilities reduced she began to emerge as a leader among Ngai Tahu beyond Kaikoura.
Following her grandmother’s example, Wharetutu Stirling became involved in conservation issues, particularly through the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, and campaigned successfully for the protection of historic areas and the restitution of traditional place names in Marlborough and Northern Canterbury. In the 1980s she served on the North Canterbury National Parks and Reserves Board. She also became deeply involved in the restoration of traditional arts within Ngai Tahu, a task in which she and her husband became closely associated with the noted Maori artist Cliff Whiting and weaver Te Aue Davis. Wharetutu was more a patron of this renaissance than a practitioner, but her profound knowledge of traditional lore and custom did much to give it focus and authority. She centred her creative attention on the development of the Takahanga marae project in Kaikoura and was a primary source of the traditions built into the innovative design of its meeting house.
When the claim process began to dominate Ngai Tahu life again in the early 1980s, Wharetutu Stirling emerged as a major participant, travelling as both witness and kaumatua to virtually all Waitangi Tribunal hearings and associated hui. She was also involved in many ancillary claims relating to the Kaikoura coast, a number of which had been pursued by her grandmother, Hariata. She regarded these claims as an inherited duty and pursued them relentlessly. Although she lived to see the tribunal’s main Ngai Tahu report (1991), she was to die before the ancillary claims were reported on in 1995.
Stirling was a lifelong and devoted Catholic, and took a maternal interest in the priests who serviced the Maori mission in the Kaikoura area. In 1986 she travelled to Rome as part of a Maori delegation seeking papal support for the appointment of a Maori Catholic bishop. When Pope John Paul II visited New Zealand later that year she presented him with a greenstone taonga on behalf of her people.
Despite her inherited and achieved status within Ngai Tahu, Wharetutu Stirling supported her family’s income by domestic and hotel-cleaning work. She was famed for her hospitality and generosity to visitors. A woman of singular presence and dignity, she died at Kaikoura on 31 March 1993, survived by her husband and children.