Apirana Ngata

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Apirana Ngata

Sir Apirana Turupa Ngata (3 July 1874 - 14 July 1950) was a prominent New Zealander politician and lawyer. He has often been described as the foremost Maori politician to have ever served in Parliament, and is also known for his work in promoting and protecting Maori culture and language.


Early life

Ngata was born in Te Araroa, to a Maori famaily, a small coastal town about 175 kilometres north of Gisborne. His iwi was Ngati Porou, and his father was considered an expert in traditional lore. Ngata was greatly influenced both by his father and by his great-uncle Ropata Wahawaha (who had led Ngati Porou forces in the Maori Wars). Ngata was raised in a Maori environment, speaking the Maori language, but his father also ensured that Ngata learned about the Pakeha world, believing that this understanding would be of benefit to Ngati Porou.

Ngata attended primary school in Waiomatatini before moving on to Te Aute College, where he received a strong Pakeha-style education. Ngata performed well, and his academic results were enough to win him a scholarship to Canterbury University College (now the University of Canterbury), where he studied political science and law. He gained a BA in politics in 1893 before completing an LLB at the University of Auckland in 1896. Ngata's success marked the first time a Maori person had completed a degree at a New Zealand university.

A year before finishing his law degree, Ngata had married Arihia Kane Tamati, who was also of the Ngati Porou iwi. Shortly after Ngata's legal qualifications were recognised, he and his wife returned to Waiomatatini, where they built a house. Ngata quickly became prominent in the community, making a number of efforts to improve the social and economic conditions of Maori across the country. He also wrote extensively on the place of Maori culture in the modern age. At the same time, he gradually acquired a leadership role within Ngati Porou, particularly in the area of land management and finance.

Ngata's first involvement with national politics came through his friendship with James Carroll, who was Minister of Native Affairs in the Liberal Party government. Ngata assisted Carroll in the preparation of two pieces of legislation, both of which were intended to increase the legal rights enjoyed by Maori. In the 1905 election, Ngata himself stood as the Liberal candidate for the Eastern Maori seat, challenging the incumbent Wi Pere. He was successfully elected to Parliament.

Early political career

Ngata quickly distinguished himself in Parliament as a skilled orator. He worked closely with his friend Carroll, and also worked closely with Robert Stout. Ngata and Stout, members of the Native Land Commission, were often critical of the government's policies towards Maori, particularly those designed at encouraging the sale of Maori land. In 1909, Ngata assisted John Salmond in the drafting of the Native Land Act.

In late 1909, Ngata was appointed to Cabinet, holding a minor ministerial responsibility for Maori land councils. He retained this position until 1912, when the Liberal government was defeated. Ngata followed the Liberals into Opposition.

In the First World War, Ngata was highly active in gathering Maori recruits for military service, working closely with Reform Party MP Maui Pomare. Ngata's own Ngati Porou were particularly well represented among the volunteers. The large Maori commitment to the war, much of which can be attributed to Ngata and Pomare, created a certain amount of goodwill from Pakeha towards Maori, and assisted Ngata's later attempts to resolve land grievances.

Although in Opposition, Ngata enjoyed relatively good relations with his counterparts across the House in the Reform Party. He had a particularly good relationship with Gordon Coates, who became Prime Minister in 1925. The establishment of several government bodies, such as the Maori Purposes Fund Control Board and the Board of Maori Ethnological Research, owed much to Ngata's involvement.

During this time, Ngata was also active in a huge variety of other endeavours. The most notable, perhaps, was his involvement in academic and literary circles - in this period, he published a number of works on significant Maori culture, with Nga moteatea, a collection of Maori songs, being one of his better known works. Ngata was also heavily involved in the protection and advancement of Maori culture among Maori themselves, giving particular attention to promoting the haka, poi dancing, and traditional carving. One aspect of his advocacy of Maori culture was the construction of many new traditional meeting houses throughout the country. Yet another of Ngata's interests was the promotion of Maori sport, which he fostered by encouraging intertribal competitions and tournaments. Finally, Ngata also promoted Maori issues within the Anglican Church, encouraging the creation of a Maori bishopric. Throughout all this, Ngata also remained deeply involved in the affairs of his Ngati Porou iwi, particularly as regards land development.

In 1927, Ngata was awarded a knighthood, only the third Maori (after Carroll and Pomare) to receive this honour.

Ministerial career

In the 1928 elections, the United Party (a rebranding of the old Liberal Party, to which Ngata belonged) won an unexpected victory. Ngata was returned to Cabinet, becoming Minister of Native Affairs. He was ranked third within Cabinet, and occasionally served as acting Deputy Prime Minister. Ngata remained extremely diligent in his work, and was noted for his tirelessness. Much of his ministerial work related to land reforms, and the encouragement of Maori land development. Ngata continued to believe in the need to rejuvenate Maori society, and worked strongly towards this goal. In 1929, both Ngata's wife and eldest son died of illness - this had a great impact on Ngata, but he eventually returned to his former level of activity.

In 1932, however, Ngata and his Department of Native Affairs were coming under increasing criticism from other politicians. Many believed that Ngata was pressing ahead too fast, and the large amount of activity that Ngata ordered had caused organizational difficulties within the department. An inquiry into Ngata's department was set up, and in the course of the investigation, it was discovered that one of Ngata's subordinates had falsified accounts. Ngata himself was criticised for a disregard for official regulations, which he had often felt were inhibiting progress. It was also alleged that Ngata had shown favouritism to his Ngati Porou iwi, although no real evidence of this was ever presented. Ngata, while denying any personal wrongdoing, accepted responsibility for the actions of his department and resigned from his ministerial position.

Many Maori were angry at Ngata's departure from Cabinet, believing that he was the victim of a Pakeha attempt to undermine his land reforms.

Later life

Although Ngata had resigned from Cabinet, he still remained in Parliament. In the 1935 elections, the Labour Party was triumphant - Ngata went into Opposition, although the new Labour government retained many of his land reform programs. Ngata remained in Parliament until the 1943 elections, when he was finally defeated by a Labour-Ratana candidate, Tiaki Omana. He stood again for his seat in the 1946 elections, but was unsuccessful.

Despite leaving Parliament, Ngata remained involved in politics. He gave advice on Maori affairs to both Peter Fraser (a Labour Prime Minister) and Ernest Corbett (a National Minister of Maori Affairs), and arranged celebrations of the Treaty of Waitangi's centenary in 1940. In the Second World War, he once again helped gather Maori recruits. In 1950, he was appointed to Parliament's upper house, the Legislative Council, but was too ill by this time to take his seat.

Ngata died in Waiomatatini on 14 July 1950. He is remembered for his great contributions to Maori culture and language. His image appears on New Zealand's $50 note.mi:Apirana Ngata


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