Story: Wi Repa, Tutere

Page 1: Biography

Wi Repa, Tutere


Te Whanau-a-Apanui and Ngati Porou; doctor, historian, community leader

This biography, written by Irwin K. Jackson,  was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Tutere Wi Repa was one of a group of Maori who, in the early twentieth century, set out to put their professional training at the disposal of their people. Less well known than men such as Apirana Ngata, Peter Buck and Maui Pomare, he was to spend most of his life in comparative obscurity on the East Coast using his wide range of skills and knowledge for the benefit of the community.

The third child in a family of five brothers and six sisters, Wi Repa was born at Pahaoa, near Te Kaha in the Bay of Plenty, in 1877 to Ropiha (or Eruera) Wi Repa and his wife, Wahawaha Terehia or Wahawaha Apanui; he had tribal affiliations to Ngati Kahungunu, Te Whanau-a-Apanui and Ngati Porou. His paternal great-grandfather was Edward William Raper, a Pakeha whaler of Te Kaha. Wi Repa's formal education began at Te Kaha Native School in 1884. In August 1888 he was admitted to Te Aute College, which aimed to prepare Maori youths for professional careers.

Life in strange surroundings was difficult, but Wi Repa's dogged spirit stood him in good stead. He readily accepted the rigid discipline and the religious instruction, becoming the first president of the school's Christian Union. He was a determined student, and his academic progress was steady rather than spectacular. Domestic duties and tending the school animals left little spare time, but nothing was allowed to interfere with the students' primary objective of attaining the highest possible level of education.

Wi Repa rapidly developed his natural leadership qualities. A fine athlete, he captained the senior rugby team in 1896 and also excelled at tennis. When military training was introduced, he was one of the first officers of the college's cadet corp. While still a prefect in 1891 he became involved in the ambitious but short-lived Association for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Maori Race. Of more lasting significance was the Te Aute College Students' Association, established in 1897 when he was a teacher at the college. It went on to become the southern division of the Young Maori Party in 1909 and Wi Repa served on the executive for a time. At the 1897 inaugural conference he read a paper, 'Te Aute boys after leaving school'. Apirana Ngata, in his closing address at this meeting, forcefully advocated the need for Maori youth to follow medical careers to aid the struggle to improve Maori health. Wi Repa and Peter Buck took up the challenge. They passed their medical preliminary examination in Gisborne in 1898, qualifying for a government scholarship of £60 a year.

In 1899, in company with Buck, Wi Repa travelled to Dunedin to begin his medical studies at the University of Otago. He quickly adapted to university life, becoming involved in the students' association and the rugby, cricket and tennis clubs. He captained the university's rugby team and played for Otago in 1899 and 1903. His studies progressed slowly until he graduated MB, ChB in 1908. He then began work as a junior house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital.

Wi Repa went into private practice in Te Karaka, north-west of Gisborne. He still found time for sport, playing fullback for Poverty Bay in a match against the touring Anglo-Welsh rugby team in 1908. It was in Gisborne that Wi Repa married Merewhati Pitt, an attractive woman of gentle disposition with a distinctive moko on her lips and chin. They were never to have children of their own, but sometime after 1916 adopted Reginald Tututaonga Jackson, the son of a neighbouring Te Araroa family.

In 1912, one of Wi Repa's brothers was convicted of killing another during a fight; the subsequent publicity influenced Wi Repa's decision to leave Gisborne. He set up practice in Te Araroa and became the resident medical officer at the newly opened cottage hospital.

For a time there was a reluctance to accept a Maori doctor of unknown capabilities. Wi Repa found it difficult to convince sceptics of the need to improve sanitation in order to prevent outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis and typhoid fever. He was severe on those who scorned new methods and ideas for improving community health, and through his persistence his views eventually prevailed. His acceptance brought satisfaction professionally but not financially: many of his patients could not afford to pay him. His readiness to respond to calls at any time and place often involved lengthy horseback rides along deeply muddied tracks. District nurses provided assistance, particularly at the many births he attended.

Local civic administration claimed much of Wi Repa's spare time. He was a member of the Matakaoa County Council, the Hicks Bay Harbour Board, the Te Araroa Native School Committee, and various other bodies. A fluent orator in Maori and English, he was much in demand at important public occasions and on local marae. At other times he was called upon to lecture on Maori history and health at schools and he compiled a thorough study of tuberculosis trends in the area. In 1913 he was a member of Te Whakakotahitanga, which was attempting to re-establish the Kotahitanga movement.

Wi Repa was, on occasion, an adviser to the Native Land Court. A capable writer in both English and Maori, he contributed regularly to many publications on a wide variety of topics. He was an important contributor to Ngata's collection of songs and waiata, Nga moteatea, and in 1918–19 wrote, in excellent Maori, the history of Te Whetu-matarau pa. He was an authority on the Maori history of Poverty Bay.

Merewhati Wi Repa died in 1926. From Hicks Bay, where he moved after her death, Wi Repa continued to minister to the sick, riding on horseback to Te Araroa as the need arose. The winding up of the Hicks Bay Harbour Board meant a reduction in his public commitments; he eventually ceased to be a county councillor and gradually withdrew from the administration of local affairs. The introduction of guaranteed payments from public funds for doctors by the Social Security Act 1938 eased much of his financial burden. He supported schemes for the consolidation of Maori land titles, exchanging – but never selling – shares to achieve this.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War Wi Repa married Miria Ruha (née Tihore). Their first child, Sidney, died at an early age; a daughter, Terehia Tangiwai, was born in 1943. Wi Repa's involvement in the local war effort was governed largely by his work and his health. He was the principal speaker at most farewell functions to local soldiers, including his adopted son Tutu (as he was known) and his brothers, Everard and Sydney Jackson. He often accompanied the postmaster to deliver the telegrams announcing a death to the mainly Maori families of the area. A compassionate man, he mourned the loss of so many whom he had assisted in bringing into the world.

Wi Repa's health was now giving cause for concern; despite treatment at various hospitals, he gradually had to give up his medical work. On occasion he was able to welcome home the wounded and the survivors from the war, including his son and his brothers. He died on 25 October 1945 at Hicks Bay, survived by his wife and two children.

Tutere Wi Repa's selfless service to the people of Te Araroa and Hicks Bay earned him their deepest respect and affection. A reserved man, but not without wit and humour, he could have had his own achievements in mind when asked to provide a motto for the newly established Te Araroa Native District High School. His offering, 'He tohe ka tutuki' (success through tenacity), was accepted. It was a fitting motto for his lifetime of dedicated service.

How to cite this page:

Irwin K. Jackson. 'Wi Repa, Tutere', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 September 2020)