Page 1: Biography
Te Whakatōhea and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui; nurse, midwife
This biography, written by Patricia A. Sargison, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.
Ākenehi Hei, occasionally called Agnes by her Pākehā employers, was born probably in 1877 or 1878 into a leading Te Whakatōhea and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui family at Te Kaha, Bay of Plenty. Her mother was Maria Nīkora; her father, Heemi Hei. Her tribal affiliations included Te Whakatōhea, Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāi Tai, Tūhoe and Te Arawa on her mother's side, and Ngāi Tawarere and Te Whānau-a-Manu on her father's. She was educated at Te Kaha Native School from 1885 until 1892, then at the Ōpōtiki convent school and at St Joseph's Māori Girls' College in Napier.
Ākenehi Hei was much influenced by her elder brother, Hāmiora Hei, who introduced her to the ideals of Te Aute College Students' Association. In 1901, encouraged by Hamiora, Ākenehi became an assistant nurse and dresser at Napier Hospital. She was one of several Māori women undertaking a training programme suggested by Hāmiora (with the support of Apirana Ngata) and taken up by James Pope, inspector of native schools. They were to learn basic nursing skills, which would fit them to be 'efficient preachers of the gospel of health' when they returned to their villages. As 'good, useful wives and mothers' they would be able to counter the influence of tohunga, rear their children in the Pākehā way and bring a 'life-giving stream of real sanitary knowledge' to their people. In 1905 the scheme was extended to include full nursing training, and Ākenehi Hei became a probationer at Napier Hospital. She passed her final examination in June 1908, and then, the medical superintendent being 'well satisfied' with her work, was appointed theatre sister at the hospital.
The object of training Māori nurses was not, however, to have them work in Pākehā hospitals. In November 1907 the government had agreed that, once trained, Māori women would be employed as district nurses by the Department of Public Health. Hei was anxious to qualify, and undertook a midwifery course at St Helens Hospital in Christchurch, passing her final examination in December 1908. Because the department still did not have funds to pay Māori nurses, Hei then returned to Gisborne and began private nursing. Finally, on 11 June 1909, the department offered her a post in Te Kao, Northland, where local Māori required nursing assistance during a typhoid epidemic. For the next two months she worked there, and at Russell and Rotorua.
When responsibility for Māori health work was transferred to the Native Department in August 1909, Hei was completely overlooked, receiving neither a job nor the salary she had already earned. For a time she seems to have worked privately in Russell and Gisborne. Although she wrote several times to Wellington it was not until November that she was posted to New Plymouth. While based there, she also nursed at Jerusalem and Pipiriki on the Whanganui River.
Ākenehi Hei was in every way a pioneer. She faced not only the physical difficulties of travel and inadequate accommodation in isolated districts, but also many administrative hurdles. Her work was regarded as an opportunity to 'see how these Māori nurses act on their own responsibility'. She had to cope with departmental procedures and regulations, and with institutional racism; she had little support from officials concerned with minimising costs and a government not fully committed to Māori health work.
Hei's greatest difficulty was balancing the demands of her Pākehā training with the traditions of her people. 'Great discretion must be used not to offend the patient's beliefs,' she wrote, 'and at the same time uphold one's own mission'. At Te Kao, Hei adopted a hardline approach, using threats when her patients refused to follow her instructions; this caused the local Māori to turn against her. Deeply discouraged, she felt it pointless to continue.
As her experience grew, however, so too did her understanding of appropriate tactics. She recognised that her work meant the 'dissolution of some time-honoured customs' to which even the most educated Māori were still attached, and which contained things worth keeping. When she incorporated both Māori and Pākehā values, she found that Māori 'listened very attentively' and followed her suggestions. In Jerusalem she was able to get drains dug and houses moved to higher ground, and her patients isolated in an improvised hospital. The Taranaki Māori asked her to act as their spokeswoman when they requested a cottage hospital. Her ability and dedication to her task overcame initial opposition and became a beacon for others, both Māori and Pākehā, when a Māori health nursing service was officially established in 1911.
On 25 July 1910 she sought permission to go to Gisborne, where her niece was dangerously ill with typhoid. Within weeks she was also nursing both her brother and his wife, her nephew (who died in October) and two other typhoid patients. In November, worn out from work and anxiety, she succumbed to the disease herself and was admitted to Gisborne Hospital, where she died on 28 November 1910. She had never married.
Ākenehi Hei was described as a woman of fine character, educated and cultured, whose ideals of service to the Māori people gave her both the enthusiasm and courage to overcome the obstacles inherent in her chosen career. By her conscientious and devoted work she helped Māori towards improving their health standards. Her untimely death was regarded by both races as nothing short of a calamity.