Story: Tutaki, Robert Panapa

Page 1: Biography

Tutaki, Robert Panapa


Ngati Kahungunu; shearer, trade unionist

This biography, written by John E. Martin,  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.

Robert Panapa Tutaki (also known as Tutaki Panapa Stewart and Robert Tutaki Panapa) was born probably in 1887 or 1888 at Ruahapia on the outskirts of Hastings, the son of Arapera Te Ngaaero and her husband, Panapa Tuari (Stewart), of Ngai Toro-i-waho hapu, descended from both Ngati Kahungunu and Rangitane. Bob Tutaki was one of a large family. On leaving school he worked for the Post and Telegraph Department as an apprentice but soon followed his father into shearing. He quickly became an expert, and after shearing more than 330 sheep in a day received a bronze medallion from the company that manufactured the Wolseley shearing machine.

Tutaki was strongly influenced by his father, who was an Anglican lay reader. Panapa Tuari held evening prayer services in the sheds and exerted strong moral control over the Maori men and women in his gangs. Tutaki was similarly influential when he himself became the shed boss. By the time he was 18 Tutaki was a ringer (the fastest shearer in the shed). At the same age he joined the Wellington Shearers' Union, then in the process of formation. From that time he was a stalwart union member and organiser. In 1915 the shearers' union became part of the New Zealand Agricultural and Pastoral Workers' Union, which in turn became the New Zealand Workers' Union in 1919.

Tutaki began his union activity as a shed representative, collecting dues from those he worked with. In 1908 he was involved in negotiating the path-breaking Wellington shearers' award that gave £1 per 100 sheep for the first time. He was undoubtedly present at the crucial meeting of Maori shearers in October 1909 that demanded representation in the union. As a result, the first Maori organiser was appointed and the union was subsequently careful to include Maori interests. In 1916 Tutaki was very active in fighting to ensure that Maori gangs would not accept less than 25 shillings per 100 sheep.

During the First World War the shearers' union successfully raised wage rates. After the war, in the context of economic uncertainty, sheep owners in Hawke's Bay and other parts of the lower North Island attempted to break the New Zealand Workers' Union. In 1920 they financed a breakaway organisation, the Mataara Maori Shearers' Association. This body accepted wage cuts and attempted to entice Maori away from the Workers' Union through four organisers who travelled around the district offering free medical services to members.

The Workers' Union organiser soon obtained Tutaki's assistance. Tutaki was at that time shearing in a shed owned by the president of the Mataara Association, Keepa Winiata, but he was able to enrol the entire shed apart from the owner's daughters. Over the following two seasons he toured Hawke's Bay to counter the influence of the Mataara Association. He rode many thousands of miles on his motorcycle and in the process wore it out; the union gave him a new one, but declined his request for a Ford car. Tutaki was instrumental in retaining the union's Maori membership and the Mataara Association seems to have gone out of existence after 1921.

Tutaki had left shearing to work for the union during the season. In 1921 he was elected the area's representative and official seasonal organiser, positions he would hold almost continuously for nearly four decades. He was also on the union's executive council for many years and on its management committee. Having settled in Fernhill near Hastings, he was actively involved with the Fernhill School and the village committee, and was on the executive of Hawke's Bay's Tamatea Maori Council.

During the 1920s Tutaki and other organisers held large meetings in district pa prior to shearing to ensure the adherence of local Maori. Tutaki was also active in working to improve the often abysmal living conditions of Maori shearers; at the time many runholders did not provide proper sleeping quarters or adequate food.

From the mid 1920s, as the influence of the Ratana movement took hold, Tutaki spoke out about its implicit anti-union message. T. W. Ratana argued that his movement would take care of all Maori needs and that Maori had no need to join a union. Tutaki believed that the Workers' Union and the New Zealand Labour Party offered better chances of improvement. In 1928, at a time when few Maori supported the Labour Party, Tutaki stood as its candidate for Eastern Maori against the sitting member, Sir Apirana Ngata. Labour leader Harry Holland addressed a large meeting of Maori at Fernhill. Although critical of Ratana, Tutaki sought his support in the election, but Ratana put his weight behind his own candidate. Tutaki, standing as T. P. Stewart, came a very distant third behind Ngata and the Ratana candidate, Pita Moko.

During the depression Tutaki, like many others, disappeared from the union records as the union collapsed and a large proportion of its members had to resort to relief work. He became a union delegate and organiser again in 1936 and had a hand in the resurrection of the union. By 1937 Tutaki was the Hawke's Bay organiser for the Labour Party's Maori Advisory Council. He claimed to be the sole Maori delegate at the 1937 National Industrial Conference, which formed the New Zealand Federation of Labour. In 1938 he organised a massive Maori ceremony at Moteo pa to honour Arthur Cook, the powerful secretary of the union.

During the Second World War Tutaki became a Maori recruiting officer (second lieutenant) for Hawke's Bay in addition to his union activities. He was also actively involved in manpowering Maori shearers for the war effort. For these services he was made an MBE in 1949.

Tutaki's commitment to the Labour Party eventually transgressed the bounds of trade union solidarity. In 1947 he unwisely spoke out about the watersiders' confrontation with the Labour government. His view – as reported in the press – was that the Maori of Hawke's Bay and the East Coast would assist the government to break the strike by manning the wharves. The report precipitated his resignation as an officer of the union, and he was strongly admonished at the next annual conference before being grudgingly reinstated.

Tutaki was married at Omahu on 2 May 1950 to a widow, Taniko Tahau Hanara, also known as Taniko Paora. He was a widower by this stage but the details of any earlier marriages are not known. There may have been a son of a previous partnership.

Tutaki kept his place in the union virtually until his death, by which time he was the union's oldest active member. In 1956 he was unable to attend the annual conference because of ill health and in 1957 he stood as usual but in unprecedented fashion was not elected as delegate. He was employed again for a short period during the season, but his health was not good and he indicated that he would not be able to take the road the following season. He died before then, on 27 September 1957 at Hastings, and was buried at Omahu. His wife had died earlier that year.

How to cite this page:

John E. Martin. 'Tutaki, Robert Panapa', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2020)