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Celebrating our Maori Leaders Apirana Turupa Ngata

Apirana Turupa Ngata was born at Te Araroa on the East Coast on 3 July 1874. He had connections with the leaders of Ngati Porou. His hapu included Te Whanau-a-Te Ao, Ngati Rangi, Te Whanau-a-Karuai and Ngati Rakairoa. His father, Paratene Ngata, was a storekeeper, a progressive farmer, a Native Land Court assessor and an expert in tribal lore. His paternal great-uncle Rapata (Ropata) Wahawaha had led Ngati Porou troops on the side of the Crown during the wars of the 1860s. Apirana Ngata was greatly influenced by both men and spent some of his early years living in Rapata's household. Throughout his life he followed their policy of loyalty to the Crown and empire. His mother, Katerina Naki (or Enoka), was the daughter of an itinerant Scot, Abel Knox, and Ngata once said that this Pakeha ancestry was the source of his methodical habits, but otherwise he did not regard it as important. It was his upbringing as a Maori and a speaker of Maori, under the watchful care of Paratene and Rapata, that he valued more. Nevertheless, they were insistent that he be educated in the learning and skills of the Pakeha so that he could turn them to the benefit of Ngati Porou and the Maori people.

Ngata began his schooling at the age of five at the Waiomatatini Native School. It was actively supported by the local community led by Rapata and Paratene. After four years Ngata was sent to Te Aute College where, under headmaster John Thornton, Maori pupils were grounded in the Classics and prepared for matriculation, university and the professions. However, Thornton encouraged pride in their race and imbued them with a mission to save their people from social disintegration, even, as it was feared at the time, extinction. Ngata was an apt pupil in all respects.

Ngata's involvement in Maori concerns and attempts at leadership commenced in his student days. In 1891–92 he travelled the Ngati Porou villages with Reweti Kohere and others giving talks on health reform. These were not always well received. Ngata's ideas were immature, untempered as yet with an understanding of his people's problems. It was almost unprecedented that such a young man should challenge older leaders.

After eight years at Te Aute, Ngata matriculated with such good marks that he was awarded a Te Makarini Scholarship which enabled him to study at Canterbury College.

Here he combined arts and law, completing a BA in political science in 1893 (an MA was added later). He shifted to Auckland, where he was articled to the solicitors Devore and Cooper, and completed his LLB in 1896. He was the first Maori to complete a degree at a New Zealand university.

Ngata was at this time an attractive and engaging young man, with short-cropped hair and a dashing moustache. Like his father he was short, but immensely strong. In 1895 he married Arihia Kane Tamati, also of Ngati Porou, at Whareponga. Theirs was a prolific marriage: 11 of their children, six daughters and five sons, survived to adulthood. Soon after Ngata was articled as a solicitor, he and Arihia returned to the East Coast where he built her a splendid home, Te Wharehou (later known as The Bungalow), at Waiomatatini. Here, during Apirana’s many absences on political affairs, Arihia held the family together for many years.

Though he could have become a prosperous lawyer, Ngata did not practise. Instead, with Thornton's imperative upon him to ameliorate the condition of the Maori race, he threw himself into reforming their social and economic situation. This time his efforts were more successful; as a qualified lawyer his mana rose enormously amongst Maori. From 1899 he was sought after for hui throughout the country, and numerous articles by him appeared in Maori newspapers publicising his ideas for social and economic reform and discussing the place of Maoritanga in the modern world. Throughout his earlier career he was forced to work hard to overcome the suspicions of tribal elders, especially outside the East Coast, a result he achieved through charm, clear vision and persistence.

Ngata soon became involved with the Te Aute College Students' Association, formed at an inaugural conference in February 1897. At this conference he was a star attraction; he read four papers and led the discussion of others. In 1899 he became travelling secretary for the association and in later years helped to organise annual conferences.

Local affairs began increasingly to occupy Ngata's time. At home he was gradually taking over from Wahawaha and his father the leadership in land development and reform. Ngati Porou had been more fortunate than other tribes in preserving their land: while they had leased some of their hill country to Pakeha, they retained most of their better land in tribal ownership. Under Wahawaha and Paratene Ngata they had started sheepfarming in the last two decades of the century. The young Apirana greatly expanded this activity, and by 1916 Ngati Porou had 156 flocks and a total of 180,919 sheep. They invested heavily in pasture improvement, buildings and equipment, including mechanical shearing machines, although Ngata was careful to control their level of debt. Ngati Porou wool was bringing top prices.

He also took over from his elders and further developed a system of incorporation. This kept the title in tribal ownership but allowed the farms to be developed as viable units; managers (sometimes Pakeha) were employed and local owners were used as farm labour and also paid a dividend from any net profits. The incorporations were brought under the control of the Maori land councils in 1903. At the same time Ngata was experimenting with another land reform measure, designed to overcome excessive fragmentation of titles caused by decades of individualisation through the Native Land Acts and Native Land Court. Ngata began to exchange and consolidate individual fragments of land to form contiguous holdings, starting with the Waipiro block on the East Coast in 1911. Later that system was applied to other Ngati Porou lands and to other tribal territories.

Although acutely aware of the danger of excessive indebtedness, Ngata realised the need for credit if Maori owners were to develop their land. He believed that they should manage their own credit and marketing of produce in place of the Pakeha stock and station agencies. In 1912 he founded the Waiapu Farmers' Co-operative Company, which was owned and financed by Ngati Porou farmers and their incorporation; shares were also held by Te Whanau-a-Apanui and Ngai Tai. It began with an initial subscription of £12,000. Ngata combined an intimate knowledge of farming with his legal expertise to promote progressive farming and land tenure reform. He was determined to demonstrate that with skill, leadership and management, Maori could farm their land as successfully as Pakeha. Although he began all his reforms with Ngati Porou, Ngata always tried to encourage other tribes to follow their lead.

Ngata was also making his way in national affairs, particularly through his association with James Carroll, a minister in the Liberal government since 1892 and minister of native affairs from the end of 1899. Ngata assisted Carroll with the drafting of two important pieces of legislation, both designed to allow Maori a greater say in their affairs.

The Maori Lands Administration Act 1900 provided for the establishment of land boards, controlled by Maori, to administer the sale or lease of their land. The Maori Councils Act 1900 provided for elected councils to undertake a number of local government and health functions. Although their powers were quite limited, the councils were received with enthusiasm by Maori communities. Altogether 19 were established, including a Horouta District Maori Council of the East Coast with Ngata as chairman. However, some of the other councils got into difficulties, largely due to excessive enthusiasm and to inexperience in accounting. In 1902 Ngata was appointed organising inspector to try to sort out their troubles, but he resigned the position in 1904. He had decided to return home and to prepare for a larger task.

In 1905 Ngata contested the Eastern Maori parliamentary seat against the long-standing incumbent, Wi Pere. With solid support from Ngati Porou, Ngata won by over 750 votes.

He was to retain the seat, surviving challenge after challenge, until 1943, becoming in that time 'father' of the House. He was a superb parliamentarian. A skilled debater, he could fill the parliamentary galleries whenever he rose to speak. He took his duties very seriously and shunned much of the social side of parliamentary life. He was a diligent member of the Native Affairs Committee and soon became Carroll's right-hand man. He served with the chief justice, Sir Robert Stout, on the 1907–8 Native Land Commission. They were critical of the government's use of pre-emption to purchase Maori land below value, and recommended that tribes with very little remaining land should have it permanently reserved. However, they conceded that other tribes with ample lands, for instance in the central North Island, could be encouraged to sell or lease some of it.

Finally, they castigated governments of the past for having done nothing to encourage or assist Maori to farm their own land.

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