The life and legacy of renowned Māori activist Titewhai Harawira, who has died aged 90

He tōtara haemata kua hinga - a prominent leader has fallen.

The renowned activist and Ngāpuhi stalwart Titewhai Harawira died on Tuesday night at 90 years old.

She dedicated her life to advancing Māori and championing the Treaty of Waitangi.

Every year at Waitangi, Harawira was a figure who stood out among the masses. While small in stature, the Ngāpuhi matriarch had enormous mana.

She was a crucial figure in the 1975 Māori land march with the late Dame Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard.

Harawira pushed for the recognition of te reo Māori as a member of Ngā Tamatoa. 

In 1979, she began a six-year fight for the Treaty of Waitangi to be honoured and demanded the celebrations be shut down until it was. 

But her legacy wasn't without controversy. In 1989, she spent nine months in jail for assaulting a patient in a mental health unit she was in charge of.

She was also a polarising figure on the marae. In the 1990s, she appointed herself as escort for the many dignitaries, including prime ministers, who descended on Waitangi. Some she supported, others she challenged.

In 1998, she told then-Opposition leader Helen Clark to sit down when she tried to speak on the marae, something only men are permitted to do under tikanga Māori. 

"My marae, I am very firm about taking second place in men's games," Harawira said in 1998.

Harawira called out the Māori men willing to overlook tikanga at the detriment of their own Māori women.

"Titewhai reminded us that it should be Māori women first given that privilege but all women should be listened to and respected," solicitor and Māori advocate Annette Sykes told Newshub.

Unapologetic and fearless, Harawira fought her entire life because "there is no justice in this country for Māori".

Former MP Hone Harawira, who is one of her eight sons, confirmed her death in a Facebook post on Wednesday morning

"She's the one who gave us the strength to take the hard road. It's a hard road the road of activism," he said in an interview with 60 Minutes.

Tributes for Harawira have been flowing in since people found out about her death.

"One person's protestor is another person's freedom fighter," Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis told Newshub.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said: "Just heard and want to mihi to Titewha. To her hapu and iwi."

Ngāti Whātua leader Dame Naida Glavish said: "She lived her life to the fullest, she actually drove what she believed in. I cannot imagine Waitangi without her."

While Waitangi will be notably different this year without its staunchest leader, her whānau and iwi will undoubtedly uphold her legacy. 

One that will be honoured in the coming days as her body begins its final journey from her home in Auckland to her beloved whenua in the north this week.