Story: Asher, John Atirau

Page 1: Biography

Asher, John Atirau

1892–1966

Ngāti Pūkenga and Ngāti Pikiao leader, hotelier, interpreter, racehorse owner

This biography, written by Ringakapo Tirangaro Asher-Payne,  was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

John (Jack) Atirau Asher was born at Tauranga on 8 August 1892, the 10th of 11 children of Katerina Te Atirau, a high-ranking woman of Te Arawa, of Ngāti Pukenga and Ngāti Pikiao descent, and David Asher, a Jewish trader and hotel proprietor. His father was a strict parent and raised the children away from hotel life. The Tauranga Domain near the family home in Devonport Road was a favourite haunt of the six Asher brothers, five of whom were to become prominent rugby union and league players. John Atirau followed his father's interest in horse racing (David was secretary of the Te Puke and Tauranga racing clubs), and he was to become a successful owner, racing Rohe Pōtae and Tino Ariki and the trotters Our Amy and Our Change.

From an early age John Atirau spent much time with his maternal grandmother, Rāhera Te Kahuhiapō, from whom he learnt the history and genealogy of his people. Around 1906 he went to Wellington to live with his sister, Katherine Te Rongokahira, and her husband, Charles Rere Parata, who was to become MP for Southern Māori in 1911. Tūreiti Te Heuheu Tūkino V, member of the Legislative Council and a friend of Charles Parata, took a great interest in John and employed him as his secretary. Te Heuheu recognised the leadership qualities of his young secretary and decided to take him to his home at Tokaanu. Te Heuheu then searched for a suitable bride for his protégé and chose Paekitawhiti Ngākuru, the puhi of the prominent Paurini family of Ngāti Kurauia, the Tokaanu sub-tribe of Ngāti Tūwharetoa. This arranged marriage, which gave John Asher tribal status, took place in Tokaanu on 21 July 1919. The couple were to have seven daughters and four sons. John was then employed by his sister Annie and her husband, Robert Jones, who owned the Tokaanu hotel, general store and billiard saloon. When Robert and Annie died he became licensee of the hotel.

As a first-grade licensed interpreter Asher conducted much Native Land Court business, emerging as one of the most colourful figures connected with Ngāti Tūwharetoa. One of his first major actions was to help negotiate the sale of the bed of Lake Taupō to the Crown in 1926. Known as a tough negotiator, he was to direct the tribe's financial activities for more than 40 years.

In 1935 Asher was nominated as Democrat Party candidate for Western Māori. Because of his own strong tribal connections with the Tainui tribes, the Kīngitanga leader Te Puea Hērangi invited him to make his headquarters at Tūrangawaewae marae. However, his bid was unsuccessful.

As chairman of the Tokaanu Tribal Committee in 1946 and also the Tūwharetoa No 4 Tribal Executive, John Asher led two strong committees which did extensive work relating to land development, employment, housing and the upgrading of marae and meeting houses. From 1955 he served on the original Taupō County Advisory Committee, becoming first chairman of the Taupo County Council in 1962. During these years he conceived the idea of pine forests on Ngāti Tūwharetoa land in the Taupō basin. He was secretary to the Tūwharetoa Trust Board from 1959 to 1964 and was responsible for consolidating tribal land and financial assets. The Paurini family donated land for the Kuratau Māori School in the Tokaanu district and John Asher was a member of the Tūwharetoa Advisory Committee.

In 1961 he was involved in a conference to explain the 1953 Town and Country Planning Act to Māori, many of whom had only a vague knowledge of how local bodies prepared town planning schemes and how they affected Māori. During 1964 he was a persistent advocate for the proposed Tūrangi township and played a pivotal role in negotiations with Crown officials. In 1965 he served as first chairman of the Tūrangi Liaison Committee. However, continued ill health caused him to stand down. One of his last tasks on the committee was, together with two other members, to name the streets in the new town of Tūrangi. All the names are of Ngāti Tūrangitukua origin, save one: Atirau.

John Asher became a noted authority on Māori history, particularly of Ngāti Tūwharetoa. He built up a valuable collection of first-edition New Zealand books, much of which is now in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. An important Ngāti Tūwharetoa leader, he played a bridging role between Māori and Pākehā worlds. He was appointed an OBE in 1965 and when the Queen Mother visited Tūrangi in April 1966 he welcomed her to the town. He died at Kōrohe, Tūrangi, on 14 December that year, survived by his wife, six daughters and four sons. Paekitawhiti died on 10 June 1974 and was buried alongside him at Tokaanu.

How to cite this page:

Ringakapo Tirangaro Asher-Payne. 'Asher, John Atirau', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4a21/asher-john-atirau (accessed 22 June 2021)