Page 1: Biography
Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe, Waitaha, Ngāti Raukawa; researcher, health, human rights and environmental campaigner
This biography, written by Kirsty Dunn, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018. It was updated in September, 2022. It was translated into te reo Māori by Charisma Rangipunga.
Erihapeti Rehu-Murchie was a Ngāi Tahu (or Kāi Tahu) leader and woman of mana, and a prominent activist in the fields of Māori welfare and health from the 1970s to the 1990s. She was a long-serving member and president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and an acclaimed researcher in the area of Māori women’s health. She also served on the Human Rights Commission and in a wide variety of other public positions. An accomplished actor, singer and orator, she also composed waiata and poetry.
Erihapeti Rehu, the daughter of Oriwia Hawea (Ngāti Raukawa) and John Piuraki Rehu (Ngāi Tahu), was born at Arowhenua, South Canterbury, on 30 December 1923. Erihapeti said of her tūrakawaewae: ‘My spot is from Moeraki north to Tuahiwi, Kaiapoi, Kaikōura, and Aoraki was central to our life.’ 1 At birth her name was registered at Elizabeth, against the wishes of her family who had chosen the name Erihapeti. She was always known as Erihapeti or Motoitoi as a child, though in later life she was sometimes called Elizabeth or Betty. Erihapeti spent her early years on the pā at Arowhenua.
Piuraki Rehu was a man of mana who was often called upon to settle disputes in the pā, while Oriwia was a rongoā (medical) practitioner. The couple were committed to providing their family with a good education which would enable them to pursue careers in the Pākehā world. Oriwia insisted that her family speak English clearly and correctly. Both Erihapeti and her sister Ranui attended Arowhenua Native School and Temuka District High School. Due to a lack of money, Erihapeti worked as a housemaid while Ranui finished her secondary education, and then Erihapeti went on to complete hers. Both sisters pursued careers as teachers.
In 1944–45 Erihapeti trained at Christchurch Teachers’ College, where she met fellow teacher Malcolm McGregor Murchie. They married in Wellington on 3 September 1946 and went on to have 10 children. As an adult Erihapeti was sometimes known as Erihapeti Rehu-Murchie, and on 3 October 1996 she legally adopted that name.
Acting career and married life
The family lived in Wellington, Temuka, Timaru and Dunedin before settling in Palmerston, Otago in 1956. Malcom taught at Palmerston District High School. The demands of a large family kept Erihapeti very busy, and her children remember her as an expert mother, cook, seamstress and homemaker who provided a loving and secure environment for her whānau.
During her time in Palmerston, Erihapeti was an active and accomplished actor. She had performed in, and directed, small productions at Teachers’ College, and when the playwright Bruce Mason saw her perform at the Palmerston Drama Club he offered her the lead role of matriarch Aroha Mataira in his play The pohutukawa tree. She performed the role for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service in 1960, with the Southern Comedy Players in Dunedin in 1963, and at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre in 1984. She continued to have an active stage and radio career until work and research on behalf of the Māori Women’s Welfare League became her priority.
Māori Women’s Welfare League and Ngāi Tahu
The Murchie family moved to Dunedin in 1962. Malcolm became head of the Art Department at King Edward Technical College (later Otago Polytechnic), where Erihapeti also taught te reo Māori classes with Clarkie Roberts. Erihapeti became increasingly involved in community life in Dunedin and, along with Wi Duff, was one of the prime movers in securing a site for the Araiteuru Marae. In 1963 she joined the Māori Women’s Welfare League, of which her mother had been a foundation member. She became more actively involved in the league’s work after her mother’s death in 1966, and her contribution was soon highly valued.
A gifted orator, Erihapeti was effective in gathering support for many league objectives. In 1970, for example, she gave a memorable speech at Auckland’s Te Unga Waka Marae on behalf of the Dunedin chapter, opposing the upcoming All Black tour to South Africa. She was applauded for her contention that cancelling the tour could put a significant ‘dent’ in the unjust apartheid regime.2
A woman of natural dignity and commanding presence, Erihapeti was soon an influential leader within Ngāi Tahu and a driving force for change. An accomplished singer and orator, she was often called upon to represent the iwi in the public sphere. The wharenui (meeting house) at Arowhenua pā was known as Te Hapa o Niu Tireni (The Unfulfilled Promises of New Zealand), a reminder to visitors of the wholesale dispossession of Ngāi Tahu lands in the nineteenth century. Conscious of this, Erihapeti looked to a future in which Māori would be ‘kaitiaki ō te mauri ō te whenua (custodians of the spirit of the land)’ and directly involved with the ‘shaping of a culture distinctly Aotearoa New Zealand that blends Polynesian with … European elements.’3
League presidency and Rapuora
In 1976 the Murchie family moved to Wellington, where Malcolm had been promoted to a new job in the Education Department and Erihapeti completed a BA degree. In 1978 they moved to Rotorua, where Malcolm had been appointed as the first principal of Waiariki Community College. The move to the North Island saw Erihapeti take a more direct role in the Māori Women’s Welfare League at a national level. She was appointed its president in 1977, and during her three-year term she sought to make it more representative of Māori women by encouraging secondary and tertiary students to join. In her final address as national president, she stated: ‘[O]ur people are our greatest resource. Let us develop this resource … Let us seek initiatives that we may indeed fulfil our destiny as Māori, as leaders and as women.’4
As the league’s research director from 1981 to 1985, Erihapeti initiated the first national survey of Māori women’s health undertaken by Māori. In 1984, she published the fruits of this research as Rapuora: health and Maori women. The report was significant not only for its validation of Māori-generated research but also for its focus on Māori women in good health (including considerations of wellbeing, family, lifestyle and physical health) rather than employing standard health measures centred on ill health. In addition, Erihapeti fostered research in the area of prison inmate welfare by working with detention administrators and the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society. Erihapeti also represented the league overseas, attending a conference of the Associated Country Women of the World in Fiji and serving as a member of the Minister of Māori Affairs’ Māori Trade and Cultural Mission to the United States.
Human Rights Commission and other public roles
Erihapeti’s prominence in the league led to other public roles as her leadership skills were recognised more widely. From the early 1970s she served on a variety of bodies with a focus on whānau, tamariki (children), health, and education. Some worked to improve race relations, such as the Race Relations Committee and the Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality. Others, such as the Marae Subsidies Committee, and the South Island Māori Land Advisory Committee sought to promote aspects of Māori culture, while the Māori Women’s Development Trust provided support and mentoring to Māori women who were working to start businesses. She worked to improve public health through positions on the Medical Research Council, the Health Promotion Committee, the New Zealand Drug Foundation and the Alcoholic Liquor Advisory Council. She regarded children as society’s most precious asset, and worked to improve family life through work on the Committee for the Study of the Child in a Multicultural Society, the National Council of Women, Parents Centre, and other bodies. She was appointed a justice of the peace in 1986.
In 1988 Erihapeti was appointed to the Human Rights Commission, which was tasked with promoting human rights and hearing complaints about discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, or religious or ethical belief (expanded in 1993 to include race, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status, and sexual orientation). Erihapeti led the establishment of a bi-cultural governance model for the Commission. She was a member of the commission’s Māori Health Committee from 1991 to 1994, and of the United Nations Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 1988 to 1991. She retired from the commission in 1995, but served as its kaumātua until her death.
Later life and legacy
Erihapeti understood and responded to the changes facing indigenous peoples worldwide and championed the ability of Māori to conduct research and implement change in their own affairs, all the while lending a ‘quality and style to … tribal processes that was hugely enriching’. 5 In 1990, in recognition of her mahi (work), she was awarded the Queen’s Service Order (after twice declining it), the New Zealand Commemoration Medal, and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws (Victoria University of Wellington). She was appointed patron of the College of Nurses Aotearoa in 1991 and was awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Medal in 1993.
Erihapeti and Malcolm shifted to Whanganui on Malcolm’s retirement in 1990. Erihapeti died there on 5 July 1997 – the evening before she was to have been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She was 73 years old. Hundreds attended the takiauē to bid her farewell at Pūtiki Marae, Katihiku Marae and finally Arowhenua marae, where a thousand people gathered from all over the country and as far away as the United States to pay their respects to a woman recognised for her ground-breaking research, effective leadership and ‘dignified bearing’.6
In 2000 a post-doctoral research fellowship was established in Erihapeti’s name to be awarded to emerging leaders in Māori health research. In 2003 she was also honoured in ‘The trail of light’ artwork at Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul – a tribute to women who had made a tangible difference to the status and wellbeing of New Zealand women. Her legacy also continues in the waiata she composed and taught to her whānau.
Malcolm Murchie, who died in 2017, shared Erihapeti’s interests in politics, social justice, conservation and the arts, and supported her many public activities. A fluent te reo speaker, he worked with Erihapeti to improve the wellbeing of the Māori people and encouraged a bicultural atmosphere wherever he taught.
Erihapeti and Malcolm gifted this whakataukī (proverb) to their descendants: ‘Whāia ki te teitei’ (‘Aspire to great heights’). Many of them now have careers in health, education, law, arts and services which enhance the wellbeing of all. As a final tribute, her headstone bears the phrase, ‘He Taua tino rawe’ (‘A most wonderful grandmother’).
An earlier version of this entry was first published in Helen Brown and Takerei Norton (eds.), Tāngata Ngāi Tahu: people of Ngai Tāhu, Wellington, 2017. It is published with the permission of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.