Te Puea Herangi was born at Whatiwhatihoe, near Pirongia, on 9 November 1883. Her mother was Tiahuia, daughter of Tawhiao Te Wherowhero of Ngati Mahuta, the second Maori King, and his senior wife, Hera. Her father was Te Tahuna Herangi, son of William Searancke, an English surveyor, and Hariata Rangitaupa of Ngati Ngawaero hapu of Ngati Maniapoto. Te Puea was thus born into the kahui ariki, the family of the first Maori King, Potatau Te Wherowhero, in the difficult years following the wars of the 1860s and the extensive confiscation of Tainui lands. She was to play a crucial role alongside three successive kings in re-establishing the Kingitanga (King movement) as a central force among the Tainui people, and in achieving national recognition of its importance.
Te Puea's family moved when she was young to Pukekawa and then to Mangatawhiri, near Mercer, and between 1895 and 1898 she attended primary schools in Mercer and Auckland. She was known to her family as Te Kirihaehae. Her young adult years were exuberant, and she had several short-lived relationships. During one in particular – with a Pakeha, Roy Seccombe – she cut herself off from her people. Mahuta, Te Puea's uncle and successor to Tawhiao as king, himself intervened in about 1910 to draw her back. He had picked her out in her childhood as having unusual abilities, and had spent many hours passing on his knowledge to her; now he appealed to her to remember her duty to the Kingitanga and the people. Te Puea returned to Mangatawhiri and took up a burden that sat heavily upon her.
The early years in particular were difficult, because there was some resentment of her new position (her main support came from the people of Mercer and the lower Waikato); but she persevered with courage against the odds. She had her first test as a leader in 1911. Mahuta had decided to approve Maui Pomare as parliamentary candidate for Western Maori in place of Henare Kaihau, previously the nominee of the Kingitanga. Te Puea accompanied Pomare around the villages of the lower Waikato; her support ensured his election.
Te Puea's influence became more firmly established among Tainui people during the First World War, when she led their opposition to the government's conscription policy. She understood the sense of alienation that the military invasion, occupation and confiscation of land had imposed upon the people, and understood, too, that the Kingitanga held the key to restoring their sense of purpose. Te Puea was guided all her life by Tawhiao's sayings; more than anyone else, she gathered them together. During the war she drew on Tawhiao's words forbidding Waikato to take up arms again after he had finally made his peace with the Crown in 1881. She stood firm with those men who did not wish to fight a war that was not theirs, on behalf of a government that had dispossessed and scattered their people. But the government was impatient with what it saw as defiance and disloyalty, and compounded Tainui feelings of injustice by conscripting Maori only from the Waikato–Maniapoto district.
At this difficult time Te Puea's leadership was of great importance to Tainui. The revival of the Pai Marire faith, brought to Waikato from Taranaki by Tawhiao, helped to strengthen the people. Te Puea expressed her own opposition to conscription in specially composed waiata such as 'E huri ra koe', 'Kati nei e te iwi te kumekume roa' and 'Nga ra o Hune ka ara te pakanga', and gathered together the men liable for conscription at Te Paina (the pa she had rebuilt at Mangatawhiri) to support them. They were balloted in groups in 1918, then arrested and taken to Narrow Neck training camp at Auckland, where they were subjected to severe military punishments if they refused to wear uniform. Te Puea would travel north and sit outside where the men could see her from time to time; it gave them much-needed encouragement.
Te Puea was now determined to rebuild a centre for the Kingitanga at Ngaruawahia, its original home before the confiscation, in accordance with Tawhiao's wishes. She was dissatisfied with the swampy conditions at Mangatawhiri and wished to make a new start in the wake of the tragic influenza epidemic of late 1918, which had struck the settlement with devastating effect, leaving a quarter of the people dead. Te Puea gathered up 100 orphaned children from lower Waikato and placed them in the care of the remaining families. But she needed a better home for them. In 1920 Waikato leaders were able to buy 10 acres of confiscated land on the bank of the Waikato River opposite the township and by 1921 Te Puea was ready to begin moving the people from Mangatawhiri to build a new marae, to be called Turangawaewae. It seemed an impossible plan, given the distance the people had to travel and their lack of resources, and Te Puea was frank with them about the difficulties they would face. Years of hard work followed, draining and filling swampy scrub-covered land, and raising funds for the building of a sleeping house for visitors and, later, a large carved house intended as a hospital. They had also to overcome the attitudes of the Pakeha citizens of Ngaruawahia, who initially tried to have them removed from the borough.
In these years a community was welded together under Te Puea's leadership. In the evenings an expert in haka taught the young people, and Te Puea formed a group named Te Pou o Mangatawhiri. Its name commemorates the pou (post) erected by the Kingitanga at Mangatawhiri beyond which Pakeha were not to acquire land or authority, an injunction they ignored. Te Pou o Mangatawhiri set out to raise the hundreds of pounds needed for the carved house by performing in halls and theatres throughout the North Island. Te Puea kept morale high on the tours, gathering the young people together to tell them stories and share her hopes with them, joking, jumping to her feet to show them how to improve their haka, how to pukana. In 1927 they toured the East Coast, where Apirana Ngata, MP for Eastern Maori, led Ngati Porou in giving strong support to the building of the carved house. It was the start of a long friendship between Te Puea and Ngata. At his suggestion the house was named Mahinarangi, after the ancestor who had united Tainui with the tribes of the East Coast. Six thousand people attended the hui to open the house in March 1929.
Other events of significance to the Kingitanga occurred in the 1920s. In 1927 a royal commission chaired by W. A. Sim considered the confiscation of land in the 1860s. It recommended the payment of £3,000 annually to Waikato as compensation; both the offer and some of the commission's findings were unacceptable, and negotiations over a settlement occupied the next 20 years. Te Puea was also increasingly becoming known outside Waikato. Her friendship with Ngata and Gordon Coates led her into frequent contacts with government officials, and another friend, Eric Ramsden, a journalist, persuaded her of the value of publicity for her work. Articles about 'Princess' Te Puea began to appear in newspapers and magazines.
With Turangawaewae marae established, Te Puea turned her attention to building an economic base for the people, dependent until now on seasonal wage-labour, and already feeling the impact of the depression. Ngata became native minister at the end of 1928, and his legislation providing for state loans to Maori farmers put land development within the reach of Waikato. The development schemes began on small pockets of land at Waiuku and Onewhero. Te Puea became the supervisor of the schemes and travelled constantly among them, taking families from Ngaruawahia to help with the work. She shared Ngata's vision of land development and dairy farming as the basis of strong communities; and as the farms were subdivided and homes and milking sheds built, she established or extended marae throughout Waikato. Sometimes she chose the place herself, as at Mangatangi and Rakaumanga, supervising all the arrangements from cutting the trees to plastering the walls with cement over soaked, cleaned sacks. At Mangatangi she named the house Tamaoho, and had a great canvas painted telling the story of Tamaoho, and the migration of Ngati Tamaoho long before from Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) through the Hunua Range into the Mangatangi area. The dining hall here is named for her: Kirihaehae. New marae were incorporated into the round of Poukai gatherings instituted by Tawhiao, which are still at the heart of the Kingitanga: an annual visit by the King – and, more recently, the Queen – to each marae to consult the people.
By the mid 1930s the Turangawaewae community was well established. In 1940 Te Puea was able to buy a farm close to the marae, which she hoped would bring in an income to sustain Turangawaewae. She and her husband Rawiri Tumokai Katipa (whom she had married at the wish of the kahui ariki in 1922) lived there for the next 12 years, and a whole generation grew up working on the farm. Te Puea left the Kingitanga strong because of the central beliefs with which the young people grew to adulthood: faith, dedication to the Kingitanga, respect for kawa, the importance of caring for visitors, and the value of hard work. Each day began and ended with Pai Marire karakia, drawing the people together from wherever they were working. This day-to-day expression of unity was of great importance to Te Puea; it reflected long-held Kingitanga beliefs that the burden of the wars and the confiscation must be carried by the people together if they were to find the strength to survive it. So Te Puea never mentioned hapu (though she was an acknowledged expert on whakapapa); nor did she encourage the people to identify themselves by hapu. They thought of themselves as Waikato.
For more head to: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h17/herangi-te-kirihaehae-te-puea