Opinion: Remembering the women of Kurahaupo

Off to the distance:  Rangitoto (d'Urville Island), where Hinepoupou resided with her Ngati Kuia relatives.
Marion van Dijk/Fairfax NZ

Off to the distance: Rangitoto (d'Urville Island), where Hinepoupou resided with her Ngati Kuia relatives.

OPINION: March 8 was International Women's Day. Around the world and throughout New Zealand communities organised events highlighting this year's theme: Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50:50 by 2030.

According to the United Nations, women and girls are on the "frontlines of poverty conflict, climate change, food insecurity and global economic crises". It continues, "The contribution and leadership of women and girls are central to finding a solution to these issues", which, states the UN, is, "imperative for sustainable growth".

These observations certainly apply here, and particularly in the case of Maori women. As such, it is an appropriate time to remember some of the exploits of local Maori women.

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In the Maori world female ancestors have always been recognised for their leadership qualities, though often their stories are overshadowed by male ancestors whose exploits in warfare seem to invoke more excitement. But let us not forget that there were many women known for their fighting abilities.  

In the mythological realm women were often viewed as oracles or repositories of knowledge. For instance, it was from Murirangawhenua whom Maui acquired his magical hook that he in turn used then to fish up islands. The eponymous ancestors of many iwi were often female. In this area, for instance, we have Ngati Kuia. Hapu (sub-tribes), many of whom we  rarely speak of these days, took the names of female ancestors also, including, Ngai Te Heiwi, Ngati Hinekauwhata, and Ngati Wharepuka.  

One of the most well-known woman from this area is Hinepoupou. Her story is one of strength and resilience.

According to tradition she resided on Rangitoto (d'Urville Island) with her Ngati Kuia relatives. Her husband, intent on ridding himself of her, planned a trip to Kapiti Island under the pretence of harvesting a moss used in the manufacturing of perfume, it was here that he was going to abandon her. It was the case, then, that Hinepoupou, her husband, brother in law, and two pet dogs, made the trip to Kapiti.

As Hinepoupou went about her work her husband deserted her. Undeterred, Hinepoupou constructed a raft and began the arduous journey home. When she grew tired she recited incantations summoning Kaikaiawaro, the tribal deity that had for generations protected the descendants of Matuahautere.

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Hinepoupou indeed made it home. Despite her ordeal she discovered a number of new fishing grounds. As for her husband, he would realise to his detriment that marrying a woman of Hinepoupou's station brought with it privileges, obligations, and consequences.   

Another woman of great repute was Tamairangi. Known not just for beauty, she was also a gifted composer and singer. As it would transpire it was these talents that would save her life and that of her son, Te Kekerengu.

Tamairangi lived during a period of great change for tangata whenua in this area, change brought about by the musket and the migration of new peoples into the Cook Strait region. During the inter-tribal fighting of the late 1820s, Tamairangi was captured by Te Rangihaeata, the Ngati Toa chief who would in 1843 kill 23 New Zealand Company settlers at Tuamarino. When Te Rangihaeata heard Tamairangi's lament for her people he placed her and Te Kekerengu under his protection. 

Te Kekerengu had a reputation for promiscuity, a reputation that would soon prove correct, when he was discovered in a compromising position with one of Te Rangihaeata's wives. Tamairangi and Te Kekerengu made a hasty escape to the South Island where they sought refuge with their relatives. The party stopped at Arapaoa Island, but were quickly moved on by the locals who feared retribution from Ngati Toa. They then travelled south to Kaikoura and Omihi, here the fugitives were given shelter, but it was not long before Ngati Toa learnt of their whereabouts. When Omihi was attacked Te Kekerengu evaded capture, his Ngai Tahu hosts would pay dearly.

The story of Tamairangi and Hinepoupou aptly highlights the oft-quoted expression, 'ma te wahine, ka ngaro te tangata' - by women and land men do perish. The inference here is that women can exhort men to act.

These Kurahaupo women lived over 200 years ago, at a time very different from our own. The intervening years have produced many other outstanding female leaders who have spearheaded the advancement of their communities. It should not be forgotten that their successes were hard fought for. Obstacles, from both within and outside of their communities, had to be overcome.

The example set by their female forebears was, I am sure, constantly in the back of their minds. 

Dr Peter Meihana, of Blenheim, is Ngati Kuia, Ngati Apa ki te Ra To, Rangitane, and Ngai Tahu. He teaches history at Massey University.

 - The Marlborough Express

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