Maori Queen dies after 40 years on the throne

By Jon Stokes, NZPA

The Maori Queen, one of Maoridom's most respected leaders, has died.

Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, died at home in Ngaruawahia, near Hamilton, today after a long battle with failing health.

The longest-serving head of the Kingitanga movement was 75.

A statement from the family tonight said: "After a long period of illness Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu passed away peacefully at her residence at Turangawaewae Marae .... at 5.32pm. She was surrounded by her children, grandchildren and kaumatua."

The family said a tangihanga would be held at Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruawahia. Details of funeral arrangements were yet to be announced.

Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu was admitted to Waikato Hospital's intensive care unit after a heart attack a month ago but was discharged to her home.

Just after 6pm today, Tainui leaders told journalists that she had died.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said of Dame Te Ata's death that "a mighty kauri has fallen."

National Party leader Don Brash also expressed his sadness.

Miss Clark said Dame Te Ata had achieved a tremendous amount for Maoridom and New Zealand "with quiet dignity, humility, humour and warmth".

Dame Te Ata had been at the forefront of many initiatives from Maori language revitalisation to Maori education, welfare and the promotion of Maori culture, arts and sport.

She had been a unifying figure, using her mana to bring Maori and Pakeha together, Miss Clark said.

"Dame Te Ata departs this world leaving her people stronger for her leadership and dedication and having contributed to making New Zealand a better place for us all to live in. She will be greatly missed."

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said everyone had looked up to the Maori Queen, whether they were political figures or whanau.

Co-leader Pita Sharples said she had inspired the respect of prime ministers and presidents, world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and had been "utterly loved at home".

"She was cherished among people at all levels," he said.

Mrs Turia said Te Arikinui had led with humility and was always distinguished by her grace.

"She was an immense presence in our lives - her dignity, her compassion, and her visionary influence will be a huge loss to Maoridom," Mrs Turia said.

Among the contributions she had made included as patron of the Maori Women's Welfare League, of the National Kohanga Reo Trust, and of Nga Puna Waihanga.

"She was greatly loved by us all and we know the huge sorrow that will be felt by our people as the news starts to be passed on."

Dr Sharples said the Maori Party's "heartfelt' thoughts were with Dame Te Atairangikaahu's husband, children, grandchildren "and indeed all her people at this deeply sad time."

Dame Te Ata had just celebrated her 75th birthday a fortnight ago and the 40th anniversary of her coronation was celebrated in May.

Dame Te Ata was the Kingitanga movement's longest-reigning monarch and its first Queen. She became the movement's leader on May 23, 1966 when the 34-year-old Piki Paki (nee Mahuta), a mother of seven and daughter of the late King Koroki, was crowned.

Dame Te Ata was the sixth in line of direct descent from King Potatau 1, proclaimed the first king of the Kingitanga movement in 1858.

It has been traditional for the new leader of the King movement to be named before the old leader is buried.

In the March 2003 Mana magazine article, Dame Te Ata said she had been pondering her successor at the head of the Kingitanga movement: "My feeling at the moment is that the people are ready for a male heir to take over. But I haven't made up my mind yet."

Regarded as politically astute, Dame Te Ata was one of the quiet influences on Tainui to negotiate its 1995 settlement with the Crown over land grievances.

In February, she was admitted to Waikato Hospital for surgery on kidney stones and began receiving dialysis treatment earlier this year.

In May, a fatigued-looking Dame Te Ata spoke of her gratitude to the crowds of supporters gathered on Ngaruwahia's Turangawaewae marae to celebrate the anniversary of her coronation.

Speaking in Maori, she said that for the last 40 years she had spoken at length on the anniversary of her coronation, but now was unable to.

"In the past it was no problem to stand and speak for 30 to 40 minutes, now I can't these days. I get tired and struggle."

She spoke of a gratitude for the "days that have been given to me to be able to walk amongst you" and for the support she had received as the revered leader of the Kingitanga, or King, movement.

"I can't find words to express my gratitude. If I could find all the most beautiful words, I would put them together and lay them among you, to help me with my thoughts of affection."

In May, Prince Charles sent a message of congratulations to the Maori Queen, saying "our two families have enjoyed a wonderful friendship going back to 1953" when the Queen and Prince Philip visited the meeting house at Turangawaewae Marae.

"The 40 years of the leadership, courage and stability you have so far given to the people of Aotearoa New Zealand and indeed to the wider world ... is an immeasurable treasure."

She headed a movement which was founded in the 1850s to unify Maori, and protect Maori land and customs.

By then iwi leaders from around the country, began debating the idea of having a king, and the tough task of who should be given the title.

After numerous hui the head of the prosperous Waikato people, renowned leader and warrior, Potatau Te Wherowhero, became the first Maori King in 1858. It was one of the first attempts to create a pan-Maori group.

It however was severly damaged by the response from the colonial government which used concerns with the movement to implement one the largest of the New Zealand Wars, the Waikato War of 1863-64.

It resulted in the confiscation of more than a million acres of Maori land and the exile of the then King Tawhiao and his supporters to the region later to be named the King Country.

* On Wednesday, we'll publish reader tributes to the Maori Queen. Send yours, using the email link below.

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