Obituary: Sir John Turei

By Arnold Pickmere

By ARNOLD PICKMERE

Maori leader. Died in his 80s.

Sir John Joseph Te Ahikaiata Turei, a Tuhoe rangitira and elder statesman, became one of the most respected figures in Maoridom through a long life of involvement with the community and many bodies, including the Waitangi Tribunal.

As a Maori leader - and an eloquent orator with great pride in the Maori language - he did not believe in the confrontational style of protest. His trust lay in the art of peaceful settlement through talk.

And he was critical of Maori who railed over past injustices and yet voiced their grievances in monolingual English.

"How can you resolve things speaking in an alien tongue?" he asked in 1983. "The past can only be seen in the language of your ancestors."

Sir John, among the last New Zealanders to receive a knighthood before they were abandoned by the Government, lived his life under an uncommonly broad span of influences.

He spent his youth in his ancestral surroundings of rural Ruatoki, near Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty. And after World War II he lived in urban Auckland, dealing with the various difficulties the city held for Maori and Pacific Islanders.

He was raised on a farm on Tuhoe country in the Depression and knew poverty in a family which had very little in the way of comfort.

"It was just a matter of survival in those days towards the end of the Depression," he told the Herald in interviews in 1983 and later.

"But I suppose I was more fortunate than most in the valley because Dad milked cows. Anyone with more than five cows could survive. You could say I was brought up under a cow's tit. Milking was something I had to do from the age of six."

The Maori people in the valley had their own cheese factory and there was help from some wealthier European farmers.

The bottom line was that if you milked cows you were allowed credit to buy necessities. If you did not, you had to rely on the family and the community.

Young Turei, who was brought up by his grandmother, got very little schooling.

"I got the old proficiency exam which entitled me to two year's secondary education ... but because of a very poor family background it was not possible."

Before World War II, he worked in the timber industry, and in 1939 joined the Maori Battalion.

But because, he was told, he had special qualities he was kept in New Zealand at first, training other recruits for overseas.

Turei later saw service with the battalion in the Middle East and Italy. The soldier, brought up in the Ringatu faith, found what he called modern Christianity on the battlefields in Italy and returned from the war a Presbyterian.

The young man also found that the bright lights of overseas had dulled the appeal of isolated Ruatoki as a permanent home. So he took up taxi driving in Auckland, an experience which gave him valuable training in meeting "all sorts".

Turei, twice honoured for his services to Maori, the knighthood in the 2000 New Year honours and a CBE in 1995, was regularly asked for advice by government departments and other bodies.

He played a leading role in the development of Maori language as a foundation member of the Radio Aotearoa Board. He was also a foundation member of the Lion Nathan Scholarship Board for Young Maori achievers and led cultural delegations to China, South Korea, India and the United States.

But his contact with his own people was always important. His appointment in the early 1980s by the Maori synod of the Presbyterian Church to help the needy of any race and creed put him in touch with many disadvantaged and distressed people in the Owairaka and Blockhouse Bay, Mt Roskill and Hillsborough areas of Auckland.

His role in this social work varied to meet the demands of the moment - a confidant, or an angry teacher, or even an accountant trying to bring a touch of sanity to a family budget. He was a sympathetic presence but not when he considered misfortune largely of a family's own making.

About 40 per cent of the families he visited were of his own race and he thought that living in the city they missed their elders and the family marae.

When there were plenty of jobs in the 50s and 60s that was alright, but when bad times came they were not prepared and had forgotten the advice of earlier years - "keep your family ties, listen to the old people and their wise counsel".

That was what he did himself. When tired and depressed he used to travel home to Ruatoki to seek such wise old people.

He would return to Auckland his "batteries recharged" - but saddened that precious links with the past were becoming increasingly tenuous.

Sir John Turei died peacefully last Saturday with his wife Lady Te Huinga and whanau at their home in Blockhouse Bay. He lay in state at Te Tira Hou Marae in Panmure and on Tuesday was taken home to his ancestral marae Rewa Rewa in Ruatoki.

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