Story: Te Atairangikaahu Korokī Te Rata Mahuta Tāwhiao Pōtatau Te Wherowhero

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Te Atairangikaahu Korokī Te Rata Mahuta Tāwhiao Pōtatau Te Wherowhero

1931–2006

Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Apakura, Ngāti Maniapoto; Māori queen

This biography, written by Rāhui Papa and Paul Meredith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.

Te Arikinui, Dame Te Atairangikaahu was the first woman chosen to lead the Kīngitanga (the Māori king movement). She served as Māori queen for over 40 years, the longest reign of any Māori monarch. Te Atairangikaahu came to enjoy a national profile, embodying Māori identity and symbolising Māori mana at a time when Māori were increasingly asserting their language, culture and rights under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Childhood and education

Pikimene Korokī Mahuta, later known as Te Atairangikaahu, was the eldest child of Korokī, of Ngāti Mahuta and Ngāti Korokī, and Te Atairangikaahu, of Ngāti Apakura and Ngāti Maniapoto. She was born at Waahi Pā on 23 July 1931, and it was said that a shooting star marked her birth. Piki, as she was known, was two when her father succeeded her grandfather to become the fifth Māori king. Piki had an older sister, Tuura, who was Korokī’s child from a previous relationship. Of the two girls, their grandfather, King Te Rata, declared, ‘Tuura is mine. Piki belongs to the world. Teach her well.’1 There were also several adopted children, including Robert Te Kotahi Mahuta.

Piki grew up around the Waahi Pā settlement, attended by hawini (those who looked after the royal family). Educated at the local Rakaumanga Native School, she was groomed for leadership from an early age. Her great-aunt, Te Puea Hērangi, prepared her to lead the Kīngitanga if the rangatira (chiefs) chose her for the role. Te Puea was a hugely influential figure in her early life.

At the age of 15 Piki was sent by Te Puea to Waikato Diocesan School for girls. She boarded at Te Rahui Wahine, a Methodist hostel for young women in Hamilton run by Sister Heeni Whakamaru and the Reverend A.J. Seamer, a retired minister. Here she acquired a knowledge of etiquette in the Pākehā world. At school she became a prefect and participated in sports such as fencing, hockey and swimming, and learned the piano and to read music. She also loved literature and poetry, and quoted verse at hui on several occasions. Waikato Diocesan School continues to present the Piki Mahuta Essay Cup for the best essay in English on a Māori perspective, and its Piki Mahuta Centre is a modern venue for performing arts and other functions.

While Te Puea wanted Piki to be comfortable in the European world, she considered it crucial that Piki retain a strong sense of communalism and not lose sight of her Māori identity. At home at Waahi Pā, the young princess could be found working in the communal gardens or the dining room. During the school holidays, she often stayed at Te Puea’s farm, where her tutelage continued. Te Ātairangikaahu later commented affectionately that Te Puea ‘was hard on me’.2She accompanied Te Puea on a trip to Tonga and Rarotonga in 1947, where Te Puea ensured that it was ‘Princess Piki’, not her, who was feted as the ariki (highest-born).

On 30 December 1953, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were welcomed at Tūrangawaewae on their first visit to New Zealand. The government consented to a Waikato request that the royal couple stop outside Tūrangawaewae marae, but Princess Piki invited the Queen and Duke to come inside. They agreed, to the cheers of the assembled crowd. Princess Piki led the royal couple onto Tūrangawaewae and into the meeting house Māhinārangi, with Korokī falling back. Many saw this as signalling his endorsement of Piki as his heir apparent. For Waikato, the brief visit was a symbolic recognition of the mana of the Kīngitanga.

A tono (arranged marriage) was expected for the daughter of the Māori king, but Piki was determined to choose her own husband. She fell in love with Whatumoana Paki of Huntly, who traced his whakapapa (genealogy) to both Waikato and Te Aupōuri, a northern tribe. Although he was the grandson of Hori Paki, a long-time servant of the Kīngitanga, Te Puea was entirely and publicly disapproving. The couple married in a small private ceremony in Huntly on 3 November 1952, a few weeks after Te Puea’s death. Princess Piki Mahuta became Princess Piki Paki and assumed the roles of wife and then mother. Together they had seven children: Heeni, Kiritokia e te Tomairangi, Tūheitia, Kiki, Mihi ki te ao, Maharaia and Manawa.

In his later years, King Korokī suffered from a prolonged illness. Princess Piki increasingly represented her father at tribal hui and other functions around the country, demonstrating her dignity and charm.

Elected Maori queen

King Korokī died on 18 May 1966. During the six-day tangi, 48 visiting rangatira (chiefs) deliberated on who should succeed him. Some traditionalists within Waikato believed that the male line of succession should continue, and suggested Korokī’s cousin Charlie Tūmate Mahuta. There was even talk that it might be time for the mantle of the Kīngitanga to be taken up by the Te Heuheu paramount family of Ngāti Tuwharetoa. However, in the end the rangatira’s decision was unanimous. Princess Piki was to succeed her father, with the title of Queen. The decision was conveyed to the grieving princess. She was reluctant to accept this title, preferring a Māori one such as ariki tapairu (a high-born chieftainess), but acceded to what the rangatira had decided. She made it strongly known, however, that she wished to mark her accession by taking the name of her mother, Te Atairangikaahu, who had died the previous year.

On 23 May 1966, on the day of Korokī’s funeral and in accordance with the whakawahinga (raise up) ritual, the bible which had been used to consecrate Pōtatau Te Wherowhero and subsequent Māori kings, was placed on the head of Princess Piki by Te Waharoa Tarapīpipi, a direct descendent of Wiremu Tamihana, the ‘kingmaker’ who had consecrated Potatau in 1858.

Kīngitanga spokesperson Henare Tūwhangai asked the assembly what her title should be. Suggestions of ariki, ariki toihau, and ariki taungaroa were met with silence. When Tūwhangai proposed kuini (queen), the now animated crowd responded in affirmation – ‘hei Kuini, hei Kuini, hei Kuini!’ (as a queen, a queen, a queen!).3 Princess Piki became Te Arikinui, Queen Te Atairangikaahu, and ‘te mokopuna a te motu’ (the child of the people) – an honorific referring to the fact that the Māori sovereign was elected by and belonged to the Māori people. In years to come, she would be known affectionately as simply ‘the Lady’.

Ceremonial leader

One of Te Atairangikaahu’s first concerns was the building of a new dining room in which to host the many visitors to Tūrangawaewae Marae at Ngāruawāhia, the formal seat of the Kīngitanga built under the guidance of Te Puea during the 1920s and 1930s. Te Atairangikaahu personally rallied the support of Waikato and others. Her efforts culminated in the opening of the dining room, Kimiora, by Queen Elizabeth II on 8 February 1974.

The Māori queen was responsible for hosting or attending numerous Māori gatherings and ceremonial occasions, not least her annual koroneihana (coronation) celebrations, Nga Marae Toopu hui, and the Tūrangawaewae regatta. Each year Te Atairangikaahu made a series of annual visits (poukai) to Kingitanga marae, which provided an opportunity for people to see her on their home marae and discuss the issues of the day. She also travelled the country to open buildings and exhibitions, and to attend events such as the tangihanga (funerals) of tribal leaders. She moved at ease amongst different communities and was as likely to be seen watching a rugby league match as at the opera or ballet. Te Atairangikaahu endeared herself to people with her grace, humility, and warm personality. Her speeches displayed a quick wit, a sense of humour and a depth of intellect.

At Tūrangawaewae, Te Atairangikaahu welcomed New Zealand governors-general, prime ministers and other politicians, along with British and other royalty, foreign heads of state and ministers, diplomats and religious leaders. Among the many visitors were Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan in 1973, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, in 1985, and Nelson Mandela in 1995. Pacific Island delegations were frequent visitors to Tūrangawaewae, and Te Atairangikaahu cultivated extensive relationships with Pacific chiefly lines and governments. In 1990 she hosted the Commonwealth Pacific Leaders.

Te Atairangikaahu also travelled extensively overseas. In 1975, she undertook her first official tour, accepting an invitation from the British government.  Along the way she visited India, where she was the guest of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. At the Vatican, Te Atairangikaahu was received in private by Pope Paul VI. The respect she garnered during such travel saw her sometimes take on a greater representational role, not just for the Māori people, but for New Zealand generally. For instance, she attended the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 as a member of the New Zealand delegation, and gave a speech. She was also a strong supporter of the Pacific Arts Festival held every four years.

Waikato Raupatu Settlement, 1995

The Waikato Raupatu Settlement in 1995 was a key event during Te Atairangikaahu’s reign. The Waikato-Maniapoto Maori Claims Settlement Act 1946 had established the Tainui Maori Trust Board to distribute Crown payments to the people whose lands had been confiscated in the 1860s. However, the 1946 settlement did not acknowledge that Waikato had been invaded, and the payments were not inflation-adjusted. Te Atairangikaahu supported the work of her brother, Robert Mahuta, the Tainui Maori Trust Board and Nga Marae Toopu to obtain more comprehensive redress, including the return of land.

Their efforts resulted in the first historical Treaty of Waitangi settlement relating to grievances about the loss of land. On 22 May 1995, the eve of the 29th anniversary of her coronation, Te Atairangikaahu signed the Waikato Raupatu Deed of Settlement with Prime Minister Jim Bolger at Tūrangawaewae. Factions within Waikato opposed the settlement, and there was opposition from iwi which rejected the government’s ‘fiscal envelope’, a cap on the total amount of funding available for historical Treaty settlements. Opponents were worried that the Waikato settlement would set a precedent and give mana to that policy. Te Atairangikaahu was undeterred by this pressure and had her hand on almost every detail of the ceremony and the occasion. She signed the Deed, and that November Queen Elizabeth II, with Te Atairangikaahu present, gave royal assent to the Waikato Raupatu Settlement legislation.

The settlement created optimism for the future of the Waikato iwi, though in the years that followed there were unprofitable investments and political infighting amongst the members of the new governance body, Te Kauhanganui, and its executive, Te Kaumaarua. Factions wrestled for control of the tribe’s corporate entities. Much of the criticism was directed towards the now Sir Robert Mahuta, Te Atairangikaahu’s representative on Te Kaumaarua, who had her unwavering support. The dispute led to litigation against Te Atairangikaahu; for many in Waikato, taking their ariki to the High Court was not merely unforgivable, but unthinkable. They saw the technicalities of Pākehā law as in conflict with Kīngitanga tikanga (custom). Te Atairangikaahu expressed her pain and anger in a lengthy speech to a special tribal gathering at Tūrangawaewae. Her loyal followers rallied around her, and eventually the leadership crisis abated. A more prudent approach to its investments also saw the tribe begin to prosper.

Advocacy for Māori language and culture

Te Ataairangikahu lent her mana and influence to a number of causes. Among other roles, she was patroness of the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the kōhanga reo movement. She was a tireless advocate for Māori women and for the importance of the Māori language for the young. Her presence at Māori Women’s Welfare conferences added mana to the event and her speeches enthused attendees. Her visits to kōhanga reo inspired and encouraged whānau and kaiako (teachers) to persevere with the task of teaching the language to the mokopuna (preschool children). She supported the biennial national kapa haka festival, along with the kapa haka performed on the banks of the Waikato River and at Tūrangawaewae Marae. She also supported other Māori arts, including the renaissance in weaving. When she launched Miriam Evans’ and Ranui Ngarimu’s book The art of Māori weaving in 2005, she gave a moving tribute to the art of weaving and the skills and talents of weavers.

In 1970, Te Atairangikaahu became the first Māori woman to be made a Dame of the British Empire when she was invested by Queen Elizabeth II herself. In 1987, Dame Te Atairangikaahu became a founding member of The Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest civilian honour. She also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato in 1979, and an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Victoria University of Wellington in 1999. In 1986 she was made an Officer (Sister) of the Most Venerable Order of St John. One of Creative New Zealand’s supreme awards is named Te Tohu Aroha mō Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu in her honour.

Final illness and death

Dame Te Atairangikaahu celebrated the 40th anniversary of her koroneihana (coronation) in May 2006, though it was clear during the week-long celebrations that she was not well. A highlight was a royal gala concert by senior kapa haka groups, whose compositions paid her homage; it was yet another illustration of the affection felt towards her by so many. Recorded tributes included a filmed message from Prince Charles, who wore a cloak gifted to his father during the 1953 royal visit.

On 15 August 2006, after an extended period of illness, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu died, less than a month after her 75th birthday. Her six-day tangihanga at Tūrangawaewae Marae was comparable to a state funeral. People came in their thousands to pay their respects, so many that the New Zealand Defence Force was brought in to help the marae feed the visitors. Such was her mana and the outpouring of grief that her funeral was broadcast live on three television channels, to more than 430,000 people. An estimated 100,000 visited Tūrangawaewae during the mourning period. Messages of condolences came from all around the world, including from Queen Elizabeth II.

After extensive discussions, Te Atairangikaahu’s eldest son Tūheitia was chosen to succeed her as Māori monarch. Following the tradition of the whakawahinga ritual, Tūheitia was consecrated next to the casket of his mother on the day of her funeral. Te Atairangikaahu was conveyed by her tribal waka (canoe) Tumanako down the Waikato River to the sacred mountain Taupiri Kuao. Thousands lined the riverbank, and a mass poroporoaki (farewell ceremony) was conducted at Taupiri. Te Atairangikaahu was buried in a private ceremony on the lower summit of the mountain, a place reserved for the Māori monarchs.

Footnotes:
  1. Carmen Kirkwood. Te Arikinui and the millennium of Waikato. Ngāruawāhia, 2001, p. 23. Back
  2. Quoted in Michael King. Te Puea: a biography. Auckland, 1977, p. 303. Back
  3. Queen Te Atairangikaahu: the first twenty-five years. Ngāruawāhia, 1991, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Rāhui Papa and Paul Meredith. 'Te Atairangikaahu Korokī Te Rata Mahuta Tāwhiao Pōtatau Te Wherowhero', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2018. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6t4/te-atairangikaahu-koroki-te-rata-mahuta-tawhiao-potatau-te-wherowhero (accessed 18 October 2018)