New book celebrates diverse lives of Ngāi Tahu members, emphasis on women

A new book is celebrating the rich and diverse lives of the people of Ngāi Tahu, bringing the history of the tribe into the present.

Spanning time, geography and kaupapa, 50 biographies of iwi members are explored in Tāngata Ngāi Tahu, Volume Two. Among those celebrated are wāhine toa, rangatira and tohunga, community leaders, activists and scholars, social workers, politicians, fishermen and farmers, sportspeople, adventurers, weavers, performers and many more.

There's a mana wāhine theme in this latest book, editor Helen Brown told The Hui, which developed in response to Tāngata Ngāi Tahu, Volume One which largely featured men.

One of the women featured is Rhoda Flora Orbell, also known as Laura, who was one of the handful of Māori who signed the suffrage petition.

"[She] was born in the late 1830s and led an ostensibly humble life. But then in 1893, through, really, a simple act of personal conviction in signing the suffrage petition with her daughter, she entered this quite special group of wāhine Māori," Brown said.

"We only understand that there are less than 20, somewhere between 10 and 20, Māori women in total across the country signed the suffrage petition and she is one of them."

Another featured wahine is Hira Traill, who was a proponent of the arts, composed music, carved pounamu, and was a political activist.

"She's carving pounamu in the 1930s and 1940s, which is quite unusual for a woman. But yes, she is also very, very political and she emerges as a really outspoken commentator on politics and social and economic issues," Brown said.

"And largely, we learn about her views through her letters to politicians, which are incredible, she's a firebrand with the pen, but also through her letters to the editor.

"She's also taking on the central Government. She's particularly opposed to the first Labour Government and [politician] Eruera Tirikatene, and strongly opposes him.

"And ultimately, she opposes the 1944 Ngāi Tahu settlement."

Traill didn't think it was adequate compensation and didn't think it should be accepted as a full and final settlement, Brown said. 

"She thinks that it should be more expansive. It shouldn't just deal with the Canterbury Land purchase, which it does, it should deal with all the other land purchases.

"After her passing, she is ultimately vindicated because all of those points are being picked up and interrogated and addressed through the Ngāi Tahu claim to the Waitangi Tribunal."

Brown said she felt a sense of relief getting the stories of the people of Ngāi Tahu down on paper so they can be remembered for more years to come.

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and the Public Interest Journalism Fund.