Rangitihi Tahuparae

At home in two worlds

Last updated 10:27 09/10/2008
PHIL REID/The Dominion Post
SHOULDER TO SHOULDER: Rangitihi Tahuparae with former Sweedish prime minister Goran Persson after a Maori welcome when Mr Persson visited New Zealand in 2005.

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Rangitihi Rangiwaiata Tahuparae (John T, Tahu): B Taringamotu, March 22, 1939, m (1) Clare Moule 3s (1dec) (diss); (2) Lynne Griffiths 3d, (diss); (3) Rose White; d Putiki, Wanganui, October 2, 2008, aged 69. 
Self-styled "river rat" John Tahuparae rubbed noses with governors-general, politicians and royalty. As cultural adviser to the Crown, various chief executives and Wellington's mayor, New Zealand's first officially appointed Kaumatua O Te Whare Paremata also stood shoulder to shoulder with them.

You couldn't miss John, or Tahu, as he was known by friends and colleagues. Though not a big man in stature, he had a presence. Even at Parliament – his second home – he stood out. "He was always very dapper," nephew Che Wilson said. "He was a very smooth dresser – people knew him for his classy attire."

And his wit. "He was amazingly quick in both languages. Nobody kept [the parliamentarians] on their toes more than John. If he was at a hui, ministers, MPs, Maori leaders – whoever was there – would mind their Ps and Qs. He had an amazing brain."

Of Whanganui, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Arawa, Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Rauru, Ngati Ruanui and Ngati Apa Rangitane descent, Mr Tuhaparae was born in Taringamotu in Waikato and was adopted soon after birth by a grand-uncle and aunt, who raised him at Putiki on the Whanganui River. He attended the Ranana Catholic primary school and Hato Paora College in Feilding, and was trained as a tohunga.

"John grew up on the river. The river defined him," Mr Wilson said. "There's a local proverb, E rere kau mai te awa nui nei/ Mai i te kahui maunga ki Tangaroa/ Ko au te awa/ Ko te awa ko au. The river flows/ From the mountains to the sea/ I am the river/the river is me . . . that's John's, he was the first to say it more than 20 years ago. Now it's an acknowledgement of who we are."

After leaving school, Mr Tahuparae moved to Wellington, picking up a job at the Gear Meat freezing works in Petone.

In the late 1960s, after a trip to China where he trained in traditional martial arts, he established Whanake Rangataua – a school of martial arts that combined Asian and Maori elements and whose students ranged from schoolchildren to prison inmates and gang members – and Rangataua O Aotearoa, the Maori martial arts and crafts association. He was also involved with Nga Tamatoa, a protest group that aligned itself with the revolutionary wing of the Black Power movement in the United States, and was the driving force behind the Waitangi Day protests.

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He was a pioneer of Maori broadcasting and, before entering the public service, was a reporter with Te Karere, TV One's Maori news. More recently he was the cultural and spiritual adviser to film director Vincent Ward on River Queen.

"He was a man who lived in two worlds," former trainee Marist brother turned Black Power gang member and friend Denis O'Reilly said. "I knew him in Wellington as the karate instructor and the tuturu Maori man, but it wasn't till much later when he took on his mantle [of kaumatua] that I really got to know him. His knowledge of his spiritual, cultural and historical ancestry was legendary.

"He had the ability to relate to people from all races and all walks of life."

Mr O'Reilly recalled an incident in the late 1990s during the opening of the Korean ambassador's residence when Mr Tahuparae was asked to perform a tapu- lifting ceremony and swirls of mist appeared in the doorway.

"The Koreans were fascinated with the similarities between Maori and Korean culture . . . but their eyes sort of bulged out of their heads. It was quite freaky . . . whether it was just some trick of the light or wind or whether there was some spiritual presence, I don't know."

Seven years later the two were to meet again in very different circumstances. Mr O'Reilly's daughter was gravely ill in Hutt Hospital. Doctors had told the family she was going to die, and they called in a Catholic priest.

"Then my wife said she wanted the tohunga. So I called Tahu. It was two or three in the morning. Typically, he was supposed to be opening another building that morning, but he came up to the hospital.

"The priest looked at me sort of quizzically. I said, 'Look, Father, you handle the AD, and this fella will handle the BC.

"Tahu said karakia Maori and basically asked the river people not to let her go. He turned around and said she's going to be fine. The doctors were like, 'Bloody Maoris – what's this?' But there you go . . . she's fine.

"The doctors didn't understand it, and whether it was fate or what I don't know, but something certainly happened.

"The bloke was no saint and he never pretended to be. He was a sinner and a flirt . . . but there was no pretentiousness over his sacred role. When he went into that dimension, he walked in two worlds – there was Tahu, and then there was Rangitihi Tahuparae, this other persona where he went into a space and communed in a way that, as a Pakeha, I don't understand, but definitely recognise."

Mr Tahuparae was a member of the Wellington Tenths Trust and the Waitangi Tribunal. He played classical guitar and was a keen fisherman.

"He especially loved eeling and floundering," Mr Wilson said. "And he was very into his music. He liked to sing traditional chants while he played classical guitar. He liked doing things differently . . . he always said to me, 'Never let anyone finish your words. Always provoke thought. That's your job."'

Mr Tahuparae, who had been ill for several years, is survived by his wife Rose – "his rock" – and five children.

Sources: Che Wilson, Denis O'Reilly, Dominion Post library.

- The Dominion Post

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