Matiu (Matt) Te Hau was born at Omarumutu, near Opotiki, on 11 July 1912, the son of William Turakiuta Cooper of Ngati Kahungunu, a licensed interpreter, and Koparepare Matiu, of Ngati Ruatakenga hapu of Te Whakatohea. Unable to keep her son, she gave him to her sister Aporina. Matt was born with a congenital defect in his right eye, which gave him his characteristic enigmatic appearance of a highly intelligent man, squinting in studied concentration. His foster parents, Aporina and Waea Te Hau, lived at Te Waiiti, not far from Omarumutu, the principal marae of Te Whakatohea. In his childhood he spent a good deal of time at Omarumutu, attending the native school and playing around the marae, and consequently grew up a fluent speaker of Maori with a deep knowledge of marae protocol. He was raised as a Catholic.
At a time when few Maori went on to high school, Matt Te Hau cycled seven miles each day on a dusty metalled road to attend Opotiki District High School. He later moved to stay with his uncle Kauri Matthews (Matiu) at Te Ngaio on the outskirts of the town. Matt’s diligence at school was rewarded when he passed the matriculation examination in 1929. At that time, however, even with matriculation work was hard to come by. As the depression deepened, he left Opotiki to find work on dairy farms in Taranaki.
Eventually, Te Hau landed a job as one of Tipi Ropiha’s chain men in a surveying gang for the Native Department. He helped survey the Ngati Hine block in Northland, where he was well regarded because of his family connections. His time among Nga Puhi gave him an intimate knowledge of their major families, their connections and their land interests.
In 1939 Matt Te Hau was accepted as part of the first intake of Maori students into Auckland Training College. His colleagues in this pioneering experiment of affirmative action were George Marsden, Nuki Williams, Johnny Pile, Johnny Rogers and Witana Matthews. Well known for his wit and his wicked sense of humour, Te Hau became the kingpin of the college Maori club and a mentor to the younger students.
Te Hau was groomed for leadership by Sir Apirana Ngata, who invited him to attend the first Young Maori Conference at Auckland University College in 1939. Unfortunately, the plans made at the hui were put on hold by the Second World War. After studying English and history at Auckland University College, Matt enlisted in the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion in mid 1940. On 14 December, at Remuera, he married Arohanui Ngahiwi Kawe of Ngati Maniapoto from Porootarao, Waitomo. He entered camp in January 1941. Ever the arch trickster, he is said to have passed the eyesight test by hoodwinking the medical officer: when told to cover his good left eye, he ostentatiously raised his left arm, and then quickly slipped it across to his right eye. He reached the rank of sergeant, but his poor eyesight was further impaired by sand in Egypt, and a slight wound to his hand led to his discharge in September 1943.
On his return Te Hau took up his first teaching appointment at Ruatoki Native School in Tuhoe country. Mischievously, he taught his class Te Whakatohea’s victory haka over Tuhoe, ‘Te kotiritiri, te kotaratara’. When the innocent pupils demonstrated their new skill at home to their parents, they were flummoxed by the consternation of their elders.
Although Matt and Aroha had been happy living in a close-knit tribal community, he decided he wanted to be part of mainstream society. Late in 1946 he applied for and won a post at Orakei School. From there he resumed his university studies part time, completing his BA in 1949. He then landed a post at the Normal Intermediate School adjacent to the teachers’ college in Epsom, where he was involved in training student teachers. With no children of their own, Matt and Aroha wanted to adopt Arnold Wilson, a bright student whom Matt identified as a talent for the future. When he moved to Auckland, Te Hau persuaded Wilson’s parents to place him in his care. The youngster went on to university to become the first Maori to graduate with a diploma in fine arts.
By the 1950s Te Hau was known widely as ‘Uncle Matt’ to the growing number of Maori students at the Auckland teachers’ college and university. One in particular who was grateful to Te Hau was the carver Pakariki Harrison, who was evicted from the teachers’ college hostel, Rae House, in 1950. Matt took the wayward student in and saved him from being thrown out of college. Years later, when Harrison carved the University of Auckland’s meeting house, Tanenui-a-Rangi, he gave Toroa, the commander of the Mataatua canoe, a cast eye as a tribute to Uncle Matt.
In 1951 the university advertised a part-time lectureship in Maori language. As a native speaker, Te Hau was well qualified, but the job went to Bruce Biggs, an academic qualified in linguistics. To his credit he was always supportive of Biggs, teaching part time in Maori studies and collaborating with him to produce Maori audio tapes for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service.
In 1952 Matt and Aroha Te Hau had a son. The following year his career took a new turn when he was appointed to work with Maharaia Winiata as a Maori adult education tutor in university extension. He took responsibility for the Northland region, while Winiata worked in Waikato. Their courses in Maori language, culture, history, carving and weaving were held off-campus, usually in Maori communities. Matt engaged the master carver Henare Toka to establish a carving and tukutuku school in the Maori Community Centre in Fanshawe Street, Auckland. At this time Te Hau was a member of the Aotearoa Marae Society, where he worked closely with Arapeta Awatere and Whina Cooper. The society’s goal was to build a marae for urban Maori, but when it disbanded, he diverted the carvings from the school to the Te Puea Memorial Marae project in Mangere.
In the meantime, back at Omarumutu, Ngati Ruatakenga were having great difficulty securing funds to complete their new hall and dining room. The marae committee raised money through kohi (family levies), dances and card evenings, but when these avenues were exhausted building stalled. Te Hau advised the committee to designate their project as a war memorial to qualify for government subsidies. This advice halved the time needed to complete the project.
One of the most influential programmes initiated by Te Hau and Winiata was the revival of the Young Maori Leaders’ Conferences to address the issues of land, health, housing and education. Matt was organising secretary for the first post-war gathering in Auckland in 1959. Its effect was immediate, as requests for conferences came in from around the North Island. Regional meetings were held at Kaitaia, Ngaruawahia, Whakatane and Gisborne in 1960, and at Tauranga, Taupo, Rotorua and Wairoa in 1961. These conferences, and the Hunn Report’s findings on Maori educational failure in 1960, triggered the establishment of home-work centres and education advancement societies. The 1962 conference at Ruatoria launched the playcentre movement in Maori communities, and discussed family planning issues. Ironically, the following year Aroha and Matt had a daughter.
Te Hau organised the leaders’ conferences by recruiting university lecturers from Maori studies, anthropology, history, law and other disciplines to act as resource people. His team for Northland was known as ‘Te Hau Circus’, because they knew how to enjoy themselves after-hours with the locals.
Beside his professional activities, Te Hau was also active in politics as a long-standing member of the New Zealand National Party. He was party secretary for the Northern Maori electorate in 1954 and chairman from 1965 to 1974, and again in 1978. He served three terms as Maori vice president of the party and was a member of its national executive (1963–65, 1969–71 and 1975–77).
In 1973 Matt Te Hau was made an OBE for his services to the Maori people in adult education and community affairs. He served over 10 years as chairman of the Waitemata Tribal Executive, and when it was replaced by the Auckland District Maori Council (under the Maori Welfare Act 1962) he was its founding chairman and delegate to the New Zealand Maori Council until 1970. He was also the foundation chairman of the Orakei marae trust board, serving until his death. Te Hau died on 9 November 1978, after doing what he liked best: playing a round of golf and fraternising with his many acquaintances at the Remuera Golf Club. He was survived by his wife and children. His body lay on Te Unga Waka and Orakei marae before his burial at Porootarao cemetery.