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Story: Te Kurapa, Hikawera

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Te Kurapa, Hikawera


Tūhoe tohunga, horse-breaker, farmer, Ringatū leader

This biography, written by Pou Temara, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

Hikawera Te Kurapa was born at Rūātoki in 1907. His father, Te Tuhera Te Kurapa (also known as Te Kurapa Te Ao), was a shearer of Ngāti Tāwhaki hapū; his mother, Matahera Te Hira of Te Urewera hapū, was a grand-daughter of Te Whenuanui I, the Tūhoe chief who with his daughter Te Mauniko (Matahera’s mother) fought at the battle of Ōrākau against government soldiers in 1864. Hikawera was adopted and then raised by Te Whenuanui II, also known as Rangiteremauri. One of his earliest memories was witnessing the carrying of the body of his great-grandfather on to Te Whai-a-te-motu marae at Mātaatua, Ruatāhuna: Te Whenuanui I had died in 1907, and in 1910 he was exhumed from Te Waimako, Waikaremoana, and carried back up the mountain on horseback and on men’s shoulders to the marae.

When Hikawera was of school age, Te Whenuanui II put him into the care of Haniko Te Ao, his paternal grandfather, at Rūātoki. But when Hikawera was seven he ran away from school and back to his adoptive parents at Ruatāhuna. His completion of the long, two-day journey on horseback with no food was a sign of his future hardihood. When a school was opened at Ruatāhuna in 1917 he became a pupil.

The activities of Hikawera’s elders at Ruatāhuna were centred around prayer and chants; the prophetic sayings of Te Kooti and whakapapa were constantly studied and taught. His grandfathers and elder relatives were among the most respected tohunga of those times, and eventually Hikawera became dedicated to this work. He learned Tūhoe history from Paitini Wī Tāpeka, and Haniko Te Ao and others fostered his spiritual growth. Many students were taught, but he was the one of whom most was expected.

During his youth he was also trained in forest lore and bird hunting, and was shown the special birding sites, the places to hunt pigs, and the eeling spots belonging to Te Urewera, Ngāti Tāwhaki and the other hapū based around Ruatāhuna. He was taught about the boundary marks of his various hapū, the location of sacred sites, and the places where tipua (demons or evil spirits) and taniwha lurked in the rivers. He believed in demons and monsters but did not let his fears rule him. His mind was slippery as an eel, but sharp, and though small in stature he feared neither man nor beast. He was an expert at breaking in ill-tempered horses and skilled at catching wild cows in the bush. Because of his prowess at wrestling cows he was called ‘Hopu Kau’ (Cow Catcher) by his family. He was also known as Te Wherowhero (The Red), for the reddish colour of his hair.

When restoration work was begun about 1924 on Te Whai-a-te-motu, Te Urewera’s meeting house at Ruatāhuna, Hikawera took part. His first task was pit-sawing timber at Hukanui, from where the planks were loaded on to sledges and hauled by horses a considerable distance to the house site. He was instructed in carving by Te Whenuanui II, but when the work on Te Whai-a-te-motu was completed his interest in carving waned.

It is thought that Hikawera married his first wife, Tauwehe Ruth Ripaki Noa Heke of Ngāti Manunui, between 1924 and 1928. They lived at Ruatāhuna. There were four children of the marriage, but all were fostered out because Hikawera often travelled to Gisborne to seek work and was away for long periods.

He eventually separated from Tauwehe and in January 1946 married Carolyne Kuratāpirirangi Rangiahua, at Ruatāhuna. They were to have 13 children, with Hikawera acting as midwife at most of their births; two boys were born in the bush. Later they moved to Kanihi on the north side of the Whakatane River to farm sheep. This land was in the bush and could only be reached on horseback. After two years Hikawera realised the farm would never prosper as so many sheep were killed by pig hunters. They drove the remnants of their stock, including sheep and cattle, down the bed of the Whakatāne River to Hanamahihi, an area between the Urewera forest and the river. When travelling from Hanamahihi to Rūātoki or Ruatāhuna to fetch supplies, Hikawera was several times delayed by floods for up to two weeks. However, his wife, Kuratāpirirangi, knew how to use a gun to hunt pigs or birds or kill stock.

With the hope that the children could attend school, the family returned to Ruatāhuna in 1955. Their eldest child was 10 and had not been to school. They lived at Te Weraiti, Ruatāhuna, making a living by farming cattle.

While living in the bush Hikawera had not neglected his Ringatū faith, and had conducted prayers each morning and night. As his elders, the leaders of the Ringatū church, successively died, Hikawera became a leader and authority in the Ringatū parishes of the Ruatāhuna district. He was responsible for the last plantings of first-fruits crops (for religious offerings), and was a tohunga capable of the highest tasks required in the church, from the conduct of services to the healing of the sick with organic medicine or by spiritual means. Through whakapapa, and through his spiritual and traditional Māori knowledge, he became the acknowledged guardian of the community of Ruatāhuna, as Paetawa Miki was at Maungapōhatu.

From the 1960s wananga (discussion groups) were set up by John Rangihau to study Tūhoe lore and custom, and Hikawera was one of the principal speakers. Those he nurtured on traditional history, ancient waiata, chants and powerful incantations felt that they had established links with the old world. He also taught his own children and grandchildren.

In the late 1970s trouble erupted between Te Urewera hapū and the Tūhoe–Waikaremoana Maori Trust Board over the board’s proposal to amalgamate lands at Ruatāhuna. Hikawera was the leader of Te Urewera’s cause, and he threatened that at any time he could break the power of the trust board over Ruatāhuna. Te Urewera’s claim inland was eventually confirmed, and the Court of Appeal quashed the proposed amalgamation of Ruatāhuna lands. But the cost was heavy and ongoing. Te Urewera considered that the price of conciliation was the death of one of Hikawera’s sons.

Hikawera Te Kurapa died at Ruatāhuna on 15 May 1985. Tūhoe gathered to give him a prolonged farewell at Mataatua, where he is buried. He was survived by his widow, and eight sons and seven daughters of his first and second marriages.

How to cite this page:

Pou Temara. 'Te Kurapa, Hikawera', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5t9/te-kurapa-hikawera (accessed 12 August 2022)