The Maori Queen is dead. Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu died on Tuesday at the age of 75, after a reign of more than 40 years. She will be buried according to strict protocol on the sacred mountain of Taupiri. Dame Te Ata was the longest serving head of the Kingitanga movement - the royal line, which started almost 150 years ago in an effort to stem the loss of native lands to the flood of white settlers arriving in New Zealand.
She died in her ancestral home in the North Island Waikato town of Ngaruawahia and many mourners have congregated in the area to pay their respects. A family spokeswoman said she was "tireless in terms of ensuring there were good relationships throughout all peoples of New Zealand” while Prime Minister Helen Clark said: "A mighty kauri (tree) has fallen."
Dame Te Ata gained the largely ceremonial title of queen the day her father was buried in 1966. She was recognised as a cultural ambassador for the Maori people who make up approximately 15% of New Zealand’s 4.1 million population. Her successor is expected to be named during the week of mourning. Although the throne is not hereditary, one of her seven children will inherit the post if tradition is followed. She gave a rare interview in 2003 and hinted that one of her sons would succeed her. "My feeling at the moment is that the people are ready for a male heir to take over," she said.
Dame Te Ata was the only natural child of Koroki Mahuta and Te Atairangikaahu but had many adopted siblings.
The office of Māori Queen holds no constitutional function, but Te Atairangikaahu was an avid supporter of cultural and sporting events and commonly appeared in a figurehead role at locally held, international political events involving indigenous issues. The Kingitanga, or Maori King Movement, is seen as an important expression of Maori unity and today holds an established place in New Zealand society. This has not always been the case, however. In the early 1850s, a movement was formed to establish a King in order to unify the Maoris and avoid the ‘divide and rule’ policies so successfully used by the British in other countries. In the Waikato War of the 1860s, the government attempted to destroy the movement, which it considered a threat to the authority of the British Crown.
The Treaty of Waitangi had been signed in 1840 but contained major issues of translation from English into Maori. The Maori had no word for sovereignty in their language. Ambiguity over the meaning of the word plagued the treaty for many years and remains the object of much controversy and political debate. The Treaty itself is short, consisting of only three articles. The first article of the English version grants the British monarch sovereignty over New Zealand. The second article guarantees to the chiefs, their continued chieftainship, and ownership of their lands and treasures (taonga). It also specifies that Māori will sell land only to the Crown. The third article guarantees to all Māori the same rights as all other British subjects. The treaty was never ratified by Britain and carried no legal force in New Zealand until receiving limited recognition in 1975. Many settlers did not appreciate that Māori owned land communally and that permission to settle on land did not always imply sale of that land. Under pressure from settlers the Colonial Government gradually ignored the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi and permitted settlers to settle in areas that had uncertain ownership. Māori began resisting the alienation of their homelands to the British settlers and eventually led to war.
Potatau Te Wherowhero was formally selected as first Maori King by a meeting of chiefs of the tribes held at Pukawa, Lake Taupo in April 1857. He was crowned King Potatau during elaborate ceremonies held at his marae in Ngaruwahia in 1858. Potatau achieved good rapport with early NZ governors but never ceded sovereignty to the Crown. He died before the Waikato War started in earnest in 1863. The government wanted to obtain the fertile Waikato lands for European settlement, but the King movement, which was centred there, resisted the loss of land and control. This proved to be a great calamity for the Maori people and resulted in the confiscation of millions of acres of tribal territory. A compensation claim was not settled until 1995. Along with her brother, Sir Robert Mahuta, the Queen, Te Āta, brought to conclusion the Waikato raupatu (confiscation) claim. This settlement delivered compensation for the confiscation of lands and an official apology from the Crown. The claim settlement was a particularly significant event for Waikato people, as they secured a range of resources and economic assets. Older structures of the King movement remain in place, supplemented by initiatives such as Tainui Endowed College, a university graduate facility, and Raukura Hauora o Tainui, a major provider of health services.