Sir Robert Mahuta: a flawed colossus

By Angela Gregory

"The bow of the canoe of Tainui has broken," was the verdict of the Prime Minister yesterday. Maori issues reporter ANGELA GREGORY traces the rise and sad decline of a great Maori leader.

In 1963 a young Maori miner with a European name reinvented himself.

With a Huntly solicitor as witness, 24-year-old Robert Jeremiah Ormsby changed his name by deed poll to Robert Te Kotahi Mahuta.

The name change was ambitious - Te Kotahi means "number one" in Maori, while Mahuta was the name of the third Maori King.

While broadly hinting at personal aspirations, the new name was at least in line with the young man's blood connections with the Maori royal family.

But despite those high connections and early promise, tragedy marked the last years of Sir Robert Mahuta, who died early yesterday morning, aged 61.

The one-time leadership qualities of the man credited with bringing to completion the first major Maori land settlement had become distorted into a dogmatic and autocratic personal rule.

Sick and embittered, Sir Robert single-handedly upstaged his own achievements through his uncompromising grip on tribal power.

He had come a long way since his birth in Te Kuiti on April 26 1939.

The son of a Maori mother and half-caste father, he was adopted at four weeks by the Maori King, Koroki.

He grew up with the royal family on the Waahi Marae, his first five years spent living in a raupo hut with dirt floors.

Through his grandmother Piupiu, he had direct bloodlines to Kingitanga, the Waikato-based Maori King movement - he was in his own right a member of the kahui ariki (paramount family).

Piupiu was the daughter of King Mahuta, who was the son of the second Maori King, Tawhiao. When King Koroki died in May 1966, he had no sons of his own, and his eldest daughter was not immediately regarded as the legitimate heir because of her sex.

Perhaps the young Mahuta spotted a chance for kingship.

But Michael King noted in his book Te Puea that Sir Robert was not considered of a sufficiently direct line of descent to be considered eligible to succeed King Koroki. Instead the mantle fell on Koroki's daughter Piki, who took her mother's name, Te Atairangikaahu.

The relationship between the Maori Queen and Sir Robert Mahuta has remained close. Together they had benefited from the wisdom, foresight and benevolent interference of the Waikato matriarch Te Puea, who ensured that the pair received solid high-school education.

King said Te Puea had stressed that Sir Robert and Dame Te Ata needed to learn, while not forgetting they were Maori. Education was for the benefit of the people, not themselves.

The one thing Te Puea did not want in the kahui ariki as a result of education was a replacement of Maori communal sensitivity by a strongly individualist, competitive, money-grubbing instinct.

Te Puea persuaded King Koroki to send Sir Robert to Mt Albert Grammar School in Auckland.

But while he had been the top student at Rakaumanga Native School, he left high school after three years, having failed School Certificate.

Manual jobs followed at coalmines, the Army, wharves and freezing works, but after marrying physiotherapist Riaha Edmunds he enrolled at night school, then studied at Auckland University.

Sir Robert was the first member of the kahui ariki to graduate from university at a time when Waikato had a lower percentage of graduates than other major tribes.

Armed with a master's degree in anthropology, he lectured in Maori studies at Auckland University, where he had been employed since 1969. In that year he had visited North America under the Ford Foundation exchange programme between North American Indian and Maori leaders.

In 1972, aged 33, he was installed as director of Maori studies and research at Waikato University.

Five years later he headed to Oxford University, where even in England he made waves for doing as he pleased.

In 1977 the English banned him from playing rugby union for life after the post-graduate student was discovered breaking the rules by playing rugby union on Saturdays and league on Sundays. Sir Robert laughed off the ban as ludicrous.

Halfway through his studies at Wolfson College, he was called home by Tainui elders to fight Government plans to move Waahi Pa to make way for the Huntly Power Station.

Although he never finished his doctorate, Herald records show that by the late 1980s he had somehow gained the title "Dr" Mahuta. It reverted to "Mr" by 1990, but reporters at the time say he had never corrected them.

Meanwhile, Sir Robert was galvanising 33 Waikato hapu to pull together the large Tainui land claim, wanting to get back as much as possible of nearly half a million hectares of Tainui land illegally taken by the Crown in 1863.

Dame Te Ata appointed Sir Robert to the Tainui board, and he was principal negotiator for the tribe's eventual $170 million Treaty of Waitangi settlement in 1995.

His tireless work saw him invested as only the second Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to Maori people.

The 1997 investiture at Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruawahia, was the 31st anniversary of the crowning of the Maori Queen.

There Sir Robert laid down a challenge to Tainui to double the amount of their Waikato land every generation.

He added that he planned to go fishing when he retired.

But what should have been an honourable retirement after his ground-breaking work was undone by illness and stubbornness, and the past year was one of conflict as a power struggle raged between Sir Robert and Tekaumaarua, the democratically elected ruling body which stripped him of some of his powers last July.

Behind the struggle was Sir Robert's fierce grip on the tribe's shaky finances.

Money from the treaty settlement was splurged on buying the Auckland Warriors, getting into dubious land and property deals and on Sir Robert's pet project, a multimillion-dollar educational centre for Maori in the Waikato.

But many of the tribe's investments turned sour and Tainui is estimated to have lost millions and owe banks and other financial institutions millions more.

Sir Robert's dogmatic approach proved that the Tainui kingpin found it impossible to even take his own advice.

In 1995 he had gone on record as saying he wanted the Tainui leadership to go back to the people away from the kahui ariki.

A year later he told the Herald he wanted the next generation trained to pick up the reins.

But as his range of illnesses got the better of him, perhaps clouding his judgment, nothing else seemed to matter when it came to his obsessions.

Sir Robert even horrified his cardiologist by refusing to give up cigars.

The skilled negotiator who drove through the first major Maori land claim settlement paid the ultimate price for putting his health second to tribal affairs.

He suffered badly from diabetes and last month he was admitted to Waikato Hospital with severe abdominal pains related to his kidney problems.

On Wednesday discharged himself prematurely.

Hours later, he was taken back to hospital, where he died at 12.15 am yesterday.

Tributes have flooded in acknowledging his standing and commitment.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said he was one of Maoridom's most prominent figures had made huge contributions.

"The bow of the canoe of Tainui has broken."

Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia was deeply saddened by Sir Robert's death and said he was one of the outstanding leaders of Maori society in modern times.

"Sir Robert's achievements are unsurpassed, irrespective of the troubles in recent times. The nation should not forget his energy and drive in terms of the ground-breaking Tainui settlement and also the education of his people."

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger remembered Sir Robert as an outstanding leader "a man of both vision and great courage."

Former Treaty Negotiations Minister Sir Douglas Graham said his death was "a great loss" to Waikato Tainui, Maoridom and the whole of New Zealand.

"They don't make people like Bob Mahuta very often," he said.

"He spent 30 years of his life negotiating with one Government or another trying to redress the wrongs done to the Waikato Tainui in the past."

The only reason Tainui got the assets it did was because Sir Robert "devoted a life to it," Sir Douglas said.

Professor James Ritchie, who worked with Sir Robert for more than 25 years, said his death was "the end of an era."

Sir Robert's body is lying in state at Waahi Pa Marae, at Huntly.

He is survived by his wife, Lady Raiha, and children Nanaia, who is Labour MP for Te Tai Hauauru, Tipa and Tukaroto, and four mokopuna.

Sir Robert was an adviser to the Maori Queen and served on many local and national boards.

He was a former member and president of the Waikato Savings Bank, a former member of the Maori Fisheries Commission, the Rhodes Scholarship Committee, New Zealand Academic Audit Unit, Foreign Aid and Development Committee, Board of Maori Affairs, New Zealand Planning Council, Maori Economic Development Commission, the board of Te Papa, and numerous other university forums.

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