Page 1: Biography
Wright, Rūmātiki Ruth
Ngāti Kura; Māori welfare officer, community leader
This biography, written by Angela Ballara and Douglas Wright, 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.
Ruth Gray was born on 27 April 1908 at Pipiriki on the Whanganui River. She was one of many children of Robert Gray, a farmer of English and Māori descent, and his wife, Ngāraiti Tuatini of Ngāti Kura. Through her mother and grandmother, Ruth had connections to a number of other iwi, including Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi and Rangitāne. Among her ancestors was Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui.
Ruth was brought up by her maternal grandfather, Tuatini Te Waiho, and his wife, Maria Whakaeapa. Tuatini, who had numerous grandchildren already in his care, was reluctant to support another, and named her after his ailment, rheumatism (rūmātiki). He taught her traditional knowledge and customs and she also attended Pipiriki Native School. After her grandfather died when she was 16, Rūmātiki was cared for by her aunt, Huia Tuatini, at Mangapōrau, between Pipiriki and Hiruharama (Jerusalem). Huia trained her to appreciate domestic order and hygiene, healthy nutrition and such social niceties as fine crockery.
Rūmātiki worked in a local flour mill until her marriage on 27 May 1926 to Angus Hikatoa Wright, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, at Raetihi. Angus worked as a drover on Morikau station. Life was hard: Angus was often away and was sometimes not paid, food was often short, and Rūmātiki was isolated from her immediate family. They had three sons and a daughter. After the birth of her youngest son, Rūmātiki worked in the laundry at the Raetihi hospital, cradling her baby in a spare laundry basket.
During these years Rūmātiki was an active member of a number of women’s organisations. From 1928 she was a member of the Waimarino branch of the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union, a delegate to and voluntary organiser of the Ruapehu Federation of Women’s Institutes, and vice president of the Raetihi Women’s Institute. She was also a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand. Because of her leading role in the affairs of Raetihi, by the 1940s she was nicknamed by its European community ‘Mrs Rangatira Wright’. During the Second World War she worked with the Māori War Effort Organisation.
Rūmātiki’s ability to work well with both Māori and Europeans attracted official attention, and she was appointed a Māori welfare officer in 1947. Based at Hawera, she was responsible for a large area of Taranaki. Among her many duties she was to encourage the formation of groups aimed at improving Māori living standards. Among the most important of these were branches of the Women’s Health League, begun in the Bay of Plenty in 1937. Rūmātiki would gather the women of the community and explain the benefits of setting up a new branch of the league, their aims and duties. They should visit the sick, and report urgent cases to the district nurse; report on housing needs; encourage education and good housekeeping; foster Māori arts and crafts, sports and local talent of any kind; and hold functions to raise money for welfare or cultural projects. As one new branch secretary wryly reported: ‘It was like a bad dream to us when we heard the numerous duties we had to perform and though we don’t wish Mrs. Wright any harm we wished she had never shown her face in Taranaki’.
By August 1949 Rūmātiki had organised 24 branches of the Women’s Health League in Taranaki. Some of these were affiliated to the Rotorua Central Committee, but tensions were developing between the central committee, usually staffed by employees of the Department of Health, and the predominantly Māori branches. In April that year, Rūmātiki was offered a job as Māori organiser of the temperance movement, but wrote to Rangi Royal of the Department of Māori Affairs that she would not accept unless the central committee ceased hindering her work. She considered that, dominated by Pākehā, Māori women would lose heart, and asked for an organisation to be officially set aside for them. She suggested that the Department of Māori Affairs should control the health league because the work was best organised by the Māori women welfare officers. Royal was getting similar advice from other quarters, and during late 1948 and 1949 was coming to a similar view.
By October 1949 Rūmātiki Wright had been appointed Māori welfare officer in Hamilton. She continued to set up branches of the Māori Women’s Health League, and when the Department of Māori Affairs supported the formation of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, she turned her attention to establishing branches of this organisation.
By late 1951 Rūmātiki was recognised as the ‘Senior Lady Māori Welfare Officer’. She chaired the first dominion conference of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in Wellington in September 1951 and was dominion secretary for several months. But she preferred work in the field to office work, and before her term was finished she was replaced at her own request by Ralph Love. From 1952 to 1962 she was the Department of Māori Affairs representative on the dominion executive. Her tasks included attending branch meetings, introducing new welfare officers around their districts and to the league’s branches, and (frequently) being guest speaker at district conferences. In Hamilton, with other Māori welfare officers and league officials, she worked to develop an urban marae.
In 1958 Rūmātiki was part of a New Zealand women’s delegation of good will to the Soviet Union. The following year she was appointed an MBE, and also gained a pass in School Certificate English by attending night school. Also in 1958 it was decided that Rūmātiki, then stationed at Taumarunui as a welfare officer, should be seconded to the Māori Women’s Welfare League full time to undertake a recruitment drive to bolster flagging membership. Based in the Wellington head office of the Department of Māori Affairs, she travelled the country recruiting and reorganising league branches. The constant strain began affecting her health, and the league finally rearranged her itineraries so that she could have weekends free.
One of Rūmātiki’s major roles in the mid 1960s, working from Hamilton, was to foster Māori pre-school education by setting up playcentres and reviving other community organisations in rural centres. The playcentres in the Waikato–Maniapoto district were among the first to encourage use of the Māori language, foreshadowing the kohanga reo scheme. Subsequently, Rūmātiki visited Australian aboriginal communities to campaign for pre-school education with an indigenous component.
Rūmātiki Wright retired in the early 1970s, but she did not stop working. All her life she returned to Raetihi for weekends, preserving the family unit and caring for their land interests. Her children and many of her grandchildren were high achievers: the latter have the motto, ‘You only have to be half as good as grandma and you will be okay’. In her retirement she went to Australia for periods as a fruit picker and as a prawn packer. She was planning another working holiday in Australia when she died suddenly at Pōhara marae, at Arapuni, near Pūtaruru, on 15 December 1982, aged 74. She lay in state at Pōhara marae, and was then taken to Hamilton marae; afterwards she was brought home to Ōhakune and Raetihi. Close to 3,000 people attended her tangihanga. Three days later she was buried at the Raetihi lawn cemetery beside her husband, Angus, who had died in 1974.