John Mason Durie, usually referred to as Mason and known to Maori as Hoani Meihana Te Rama Apakura, was born on his father's farm at Aorangi, near Feilding, on 1 July 1889. His father, Robert Durie (Te Rama Apakura), was from the Ngati Tahuriwakanui hapu of Ngati Kauwhata; his mother, Hurihia (Heni), was a daughter of the Rangitane chief Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotu. Mason Durie's high rank, combined with his talents, predisposed him for leadership.
After attending Taonui School, Mason established something of a record at Te Aute College by matriculating at the end of his second year. He wanted to study medicine at the University of Otago but his parents persuaded him to stay closer to home. Wellington was an acceptable alternative and allowed him to study his other interest, the law. It also led him to join the Department of Public Health as a cadet, under the tutelage of Maui Pomare. In 1910 he transferred to the Native Department and by 1914 was a licensed interpreter and a clerk of the Native Land Court. Through his work he gained a valuable knowledge of Maori land title and of the problems that beset Maori farmers. This experience would enable him to make a unique contribution to his own people. For many years he was called on to assist with ownership determinations, the allocation of shareholdings, and the formation of reserves and trusts, as well as witnessing wills and translating official documents from Maori into English.
In December 1909, at Feilding, Durie had married Kahurautete Matawha of Ngati Rangatahi and Ngati Toa. His promising career in government service came to an end when he was asked to return to Kakariki, north of Feilding, to farm his wife's property. Durie unstintingly assisted members of Kahu's family in managing their interest in the Reureu block and in maintaining and extending Te Hiiri marae. After the death of his father in 1916, he took his family to live at Aorangi.
In the 1920s and 1930s Durie was well known as an owner and trainer of racehorses. Although his farming enterprises were seriously challenged in the depression, he remained solvent. His wise management during these difficult years, and later during the 1950s wool boom, ensured the retention of the land as a single block. In his lifetime he cleared and drained 250 acres to provide high-quality pasture land for some 50 dairy cows, 1,000 ewes and 50 or more beef cattle. His practical knowledge of farming and experience of Maori land law made him an ideal appointee to the 1953 Board of Maori Affairs, which had particular responsibility for Maori land development schemes.
In the depression he also supervised a river protection project, which provided employment for Maori men and facilitated urgent conservation work along the Oroua River. Durie's farm became a haven for many unemployed and destitute Maori, and after the depression his house became a home for youngsters placed by the Child Welfare Branch of the Department of Education.
During the Second World War the Maori War Effort Organisation was formed and Mason Durie became chairman of the Raukawa District committee, with an area extending from Apiti to Waikanae. After encouraging enlistment into the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion, and mobilising men and women for essential industries, the committee turned its attention to issues such as Maori employment and housing. The war effort organisations became the model for tribal and regional Maori committees under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945. Durie was the chairman of the Kauwhata Tribal Committee and the parent Raukawa Tribal Executive until his death, and when the Ikaroa District Council was formed he was nominated as its first chairman.
In the 1950s the Raukawa executive launched a major appeal to build a memorial to the Maori Battalion. It was decided that the memorial would be in the form of a hall in Palmerston North, with adjoining dining room, lecture room and flat. Durie would have preferred a series of memorial educational scholarships, but there was strong support for the centre. Along with his cousin Adelaide Poananga he devoted many years to fund-raising and planning, and in 1964 supervised the opening ceremony attended by the governor general, Sir Bernard Fergusson, and members of the battalion. Durie was also on the committee that organised the Maori side of the 1953 royal tour.
Despite his association with regional and national affairs, he never lost contact with people at the local level, including the Pakeha community in Feilding. He belonged to Birthright, the Feilding Jockey Club, the Manawatu and West Coast Agricultural and Pastoral Association, and was a life member of the Rangitikei Club. He was one of the first Maori members of the Feilding Masonic Lodge and one of the first to be appointed a justice of the peace.
Durie remained prominent in the affairs of Ngati Kauwhata, and was chairman of the Rongopai and Te Hiiri marae committees, and people's warden for the Rangitikei Manawatu Anglican Maori Pastorate. With his wife, Kahu, he maintained the Aorangi marae as a whanau marae, and saw to the erection there of St Luke's Chapel. Aorangi became the centre for the Maori pastorate and for many years the homestead was the venue for an annual Anglican garden party. As young clergy, Bishops Manuhuia Bennett and Whakahuihui Vercoe had both come under the influence of Mason and Kahu. In 1928 Durie had attended the crucial meeting with Apirana Ngata, F. A. Bennett and others in Parliament's Native Committee Room to discuss whether the first bishop of Aotearoa would be Maori or Pakeha. He later played a leading role in the restoration of Rangiatea Church in Otaki, and at its centennial in 1950.
Durie also made significant contributions to Maori education. In 1946 he was appointed to the Otaki and Porirua Trusts Board, which administered land at Otaki and Titahi Bay for the purpose of providing secondary educational grants to children from Ngati Raukawa, Te Ati Awa and Ngati Toa. In 1962 he was appointed chairman of the provincial committee to raise funds for the Maori Education Foundation. He was a strong supporter of Te Aute College, Hukarere School, the Otaki Native College, Feilding Agricultural High School and Hato Paora College.
For many decades Durie assisted his own people and those from other areas to maintain their links with hapu and iwi and developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of genealogy, especially for Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Kauwhata and Rangitane. He drew heavily on the records made by his maternal grandfather, Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotu, supplemented by his own notes carefully compiled at hui, land court hearings and whanau meetings. Because of his wide knowledge of Maori land succession in the area, he was influential in determining trustees for local marae and burial grounds – Kauwhata, Whakaari, Rongopai, Te Iwa, Aorangi.
In recognition of his services to the Maori people Durie was made an OBE in 1955. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had emerged as a leader for his time. Not only had he strengthened Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Kauwhata with the organisation of tribal and marae committees, but he had steadfastly supported his younger kinsman Wiremu Kingi Te Aweawe in maintaining the history and standing of Rangitane. He was one of the main supporters of Te Atairangikaahu when she was anointed Maori Queen in 1966. He and Kahu had earlier assisted Te Puea raise funds for the Turangawaewae marae at Ngaruawahia.
Mason Durie died on 20 April 1971 in the house where he had been born. He was survived by four children; a daughter had died in 1929, and Kahu in 1965. Durie had been comfortable in several worlds, and with humility and clarity of reasoning had worked for better understanding between Maori and Pakeha and between tribes, preferring patience and tolerance to confrontation or hasty decision-making. His descendants still farm the Aorangi property and have kept alive his interests in the church, medicine, education and Maori land law.