Eramiha Neke Kapua was one of the most eminent Maori carvers of the twentieth century. His father was the well-known Ngati Tarawhai carver Neke Kapua, and his mother was Mereana Waitere, the elder sister of Tene Waitere, another famous Ngati Tarawhai carver. Eramiha, sometimes called Eramihia or Eramihi Neke, was born probably at Ruato, Okataina, east of Rotorua, sometime between 1867 and 1875.
Eramiha Kapua belonged to Ngati Rangitakaroro, a hapu of Ngati Tarawhai, which had specialised in the art of carving. Their ancestry reached back to Ngatoro-i-rangi, the tohunga of Te Arawa canoe, whose powers were deemed to be passed down to his descendants through the whare wananga known as Maninihau at Te Koutu, Okataina. Eramiha's ancestors included Te Amo-a-Tai and his kinsman Te Iwimokai, Eramiha's great-grandfather. Their power as tohunga was feared and their carved work eagerly sought after. In the later nineteenth century, as the demand for canoes waned and the introduction of steel tools encouraged diversification, the `Okataina school', a group of carvers mostly of Ngati Rangitakaroro, turned to carving meeting houses. Eramiha was trained from boyhood by his father in the skills and rituals of carving.
In 1905 Eramiha assisted his father in carving a house in Rotorua for T. E. Donne, the general manager of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. The following year Donne reported to Augustus Hamilton, director of the Colonial Museum, that Eramiha was quite equal in ability to his father. The first major project in which Eramiha was employed as a carver was the model pa Araiteuru, designed by Hamilton for the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906. Eramiha and his kin group worked on it in the Colonial Museum, carving the waharoa (gateway) and pataka (storehouse), and also the paepae (threshold) for the runanga house. The group later lived in the pa itself for a time with more than 50 Maori from different tribal areas. For the entertainment of visitors, they were required to wear Maori costume (complaints were heard when they were found to be wearing patent leather boots), to store their food in the pataka and cook it in earth ovens, and to take part in ceremonies of welcome, haka and other dances. Their health was cared for by Dr Peter Buck; nevertheless, many of them sickened with influenza.
Both before and after the Christchurch exhibition Eramiha, his father and kin were intermittently employed, until 1910, on carvings for the government's model village at Te Whakarewarewa. Eramiha and Tene Waitere painted the pavilion there in traditional patterns. Between 1908 and 1910 he carved the house Ruaihona at Te Teko. From about 1910 the work for tourists and the government dried up, and the Okataina school disbanded as the Kapua family and their kin moved away to different locations. About 1905 Eramiha had married Wairata Ngaheu and moved to Te Teko, near Whakatane; they may have had one daughter and adopted a son. For almost 15 years Eramiha lived an obscure and unrecorded life earning his living as a farmer. He served on the Te Teko school committee from 1921 to 1925 and 1930 to 1931.
Like his father, Eramiha was a member of the Ringatu church and a registered minister or tohunga. In 1925 he directed a team of carvers in decorating the Tikitiki Maori Church, built as a Maori soldiers' memorial for the East Coast. The difficulty in obtaining carvers for this project drew Apirana Ngata's attention to the decline of Maori carving and other arts. Following the establishment of the School of Maori Arts at Rotorua in 1927, Ngata found that the tutors were all chisel carvers. Their work lacked the flowing lines and rounded beauty of former times because they were not using the toki kapukapu (steel adze). In 1929 he sent Pine Taiapa to the East Coast to find any remaining experts in adze carving.
For weeks Taiapa searched without success. At last, Te Whare Moana of Raukokore told him that Eramiha Kapua was an expert in adzing. Ngata knew Eramiha and his work, and advised Taiapa to recruit him. Taiapa visited Eramiha on 10 January 1930; he found him on his Te Teko farm milking the cows and feeding the pigs. After the Ringatu prayer session when Eramiha's relatives were assembled, Pine gave an account of his search. One by one Eramiha's relatives spoke, urging him and his wife to accept the responsibility imposed by Ngata's dream of a carved meeting house on every marae. Even though they were both past their youth, they were encouraged to share their skills, not just in carving but also in waiata, haka, oratory and the women's arts of weaving and tukutuku. Eramiha, reluctant to agree to such a burden, gave the choice to Te Wairata. She agreed that they would go 'to feed the young men of the country’, who were ‘crying for the food' she and her husband could give.
In February 1930 Eramiha and Te Wairata took up their new duties at the carving school of Ohinemutu. Eramiha at once began instructing the students in the use of the adze, a practice he continued for 10 years. His pupils came from throughout the country and from Rarotonga. He taught them how to work in a smooth rhythm, often to the accompaniment of a chant or waiata; how to use the adze in a natural standing position, how to care for their tools and prepare the wood for carving; and how to use the grain of different timbers. He also told them the ancient names for different adzing techniques. His methods reduced the time needed for carving; using paring chisels could take up to 10 times longer than using an adze. Eramiha himself could visualise a finished carving in a slab or log before he began work, and could carve a figure with a minimum of initial sketching. He drew designs on the wood for his pupils, but as they became more expert he encouraged them to follow his freer style.
Eramiha had been a carver of the old tradition, strict in observance of tapu and ritual: he did not blow the chips away but gathered and burnt them; he did not allow women near his work; nor did he eat or smoke while carving. At the carving school, however, he told his pupils not to bother with tapu. He considered that since they did not know the full ritual they might offend against it inadvertently; it was spiritually safer for them to abandon tapu altogether.
As well as teaching, Eramiha began carving houses around the country. In 1932 he led a team working on carvings for the Ngati Raukawa meeting house in Otaki. The most important work was the Centennial House built in preparation for the 1940 centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. A small team studied regional carving styles at the Auckland Institute and Museum for a period before moving to Waitangi in 1934 to begin the work. The house was carved in various regional styles, with Eramiha providing most of the carvings and incorporating Arawa styles. Eramiha was already feeling his age and accepted more help than usual from his students. Eventually he could not continue and another team completed the building. He also worked on Nga Pumanawa-e-Waru-o-Te Arawa, carved in stages between 1936 and 1940 at Te Rotoiti. About 1940 Eramiha left the carving school and returned to Te Teko, where he trained his relative Te Kaka Niao Ngaheu (also known as Kaka Ahirau Niao) as his successor.
Eramiha's mana as the pre-eminent carver of his time remained high. In 1944 he was invited to Panguru by Whina Cooper of Te Rarawa to plan and carve her house. He brought two nephews with him and trained other carvers on the spot. In spite of the custom which prohibited women carvers, Whina herself took a hand in the carving. Following her disputes with a neighbouring marae, and criticisms from the local Catholic priest who objected to the portrayal of genitalia in carvings of the ancestors, the 105 carvings were stored unused for 30 years. For many years it was believed in Panguru that Eramiha had cursed the carvings because of the disputes associated with them, and had sworn that they would not be erected in Whina's lifetime.
In spite of his advancing age Eramiha continued to carve. Other houses he worked on included Tia at Te Puke (about 1945); Te Poho-o-Tuhoe Potiki at Waimako, Waikaremoana; Tuwharetoa at Matata; and in Northland, Tumatauenga at Ngati Hine's marae, Otiria, and Ngapuhi Moana Ariki at Mangamuka, both completed about 1947. Eramiha Kapua died at Te Teko on 7 July 1955; he was buried at Heherangi with Ringatu rites on 10 July.
Almost single-handedly, Eramiha Kapua passed on the skills of the old world to a new generation of carvers. In so doing he ensured that Ngati Tarawhai carving styles would dominate in the resurgence of house building that resulted from Ngata's dream that a carved house on every marae would express the continuing strength of Maoritanga.