Wereta Tainui Pitama, also known as Te Ruapohatu or ‘Stone’, was born, probably in 1881, at Rapaki, just south of Christchurch. His father was Teoti Pitama Karatiti, a farmer, of the Canterbury Ngai Tahu hapu, Ngai Tuahuriri and Ngai Te Rakiamoa. His mother, Harirota Pohata, was from the Moeraki and Murihiku communities of Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe.
From February 1894 Wereta attended Te Aute College under the name George Pitama. His distant cousin, William Daniel Barrett, was also there and the education they received enabled them to work on behalf of their people in the Native Land Court, and to take a leading role in the affairs of Ngai Tahu from a comparatively young age. Pitama probably worked as an unofficial native agent, but made his living farming family lands.
On 6 June 1905 at Rangiora, Pitama married Te Hauraraka Anipi Manakore Maaka. She was the daughter of Hoani Maaka, an influential leader of his community, and was connected through her mother, Meri Horomona, to the large and influential Solomon family. The couple were to have at least six sons and five daughters.
Pitama came to prominence at a time when the long-standing Ngai Tahu claim had taken important steps forward. The Canterbury claim derived from the low price paid and the inadequacy of reserves made in 1848 for the Ngaitahu block, otherwise known as Kemp’s Purchase. In 1920 a commission concluded that compensation of £354,000 was owed to the descendants of the owners. In 1923 legislation authorised the Native Land Court to identify the potential beneficiaries and in 1924 the government agreed that a special sitting of the Native Land Court should be held to do this. On 30 October that year, Pitama signed one of several petitions asking that the court be held at Kaiapoi.
The court opened at Tuahiwi on 19 January 1925, with the chief judge of the Native Land Court, R. N. Jones, presiding. Pitama was chairman of a committee elected to assist with proceedings, and Barrett was also a member. In court, lists of beneficiaries were read out and accepted or challenged by the committee and elders. A study group was held concurrently, and Pitama was one of the compilers of a genealogy establishing the descendants of those who had lived within Kemp's Purchase in 1848. A dispute developed over who should be included, and a rival committee was established which considered that all Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe should be beneficiaries. Pitama was the leader of those who wanted to include only the descendants of people who had lived within the bounds of Kemp’s Purchase. The court’s rulings favoured his views and his committee agreed to a resolution on the relative shares of the beneficiaries on 4 March 1925.
Many appeals were made against the decisions, and the Native Appellate Court heard them in Christchurch in 1926. Pitama’s committee again sat throughout the hearing. It was arduous work, unpaid, and often the committee members found themselves paying the court fees of the appellants. At times they had to travel to Wellington, or to the settlements of the appellants on claim business; their expenses mounted. Despite the settling and gazetting of the list of beneficiaries, the government still showed no eagerness to meet the claim. Pitama and Barrett attempted to arrange for a deputation of Ngai Tahu to meet the prime minister, Gordon Coates, but to no avail.
On 15 February 1929 at Christchurch, Pitama and others met Sir Joseph Ward, now prime minister, who promised that the claim would be dealt with in the next parliamentary session, but no progress towards a settlement of the claim took place. On 12 March Pitama and Barrett forwarded a petition to the native minister, Apirana Ngata, asking for financial assistance for the members of their committee. By August a total payment of £500 had been approved, with some committee members, including Pitama, receiving approximately £40. This payment was the first step in regularising the position of Pitama’s committee. The Native Land Amendment and Native Land Claims Adjustment Act 1928 had authorised the setting up of a Ngaitahu Trust Board to negotiate a settlement with the government. Its members were gazetted on 1 July 1929 and Pitama was elected its first chairman.
Meanwhile, court sittings continued to determine the claim’s beneficiaries and their successors. Pitama, whose views on the limitation of claimants were unpopular, was no longer chairman of the committee, but he was kept busy on the Committee of Investigation, as it was sometimes called, seeing new claimants every day. His task became harder as bureaucratic confusion increased.
No further progress on the claim was made. By 1930 Pitama had separated from his wife and was living with his mother and three of his daughters at Tuahiwi. Suffering from rheumatism, he was confined to a wheelchair. In early April 1930 his family believed they saw a portent of his death in the form of a black dog, believed to be the caretaker of the family cemetery. Over Pitama’s protests they prepared him for his death and laid him out on his bed. Further portents followed, and on the morning of 5 April he was found dead. He was buried in the family cemetery at Tuahiwi. Because of the circumstances surrounding his death, the grave was left unmarked. He was survived by his wife and 11 children.
Although it was not until 1944 that an initial settlement with Ngai Tahu was reached, Pitama’s role was important. He helped to establish the Ngai Tahu beneficiary list used by Ngai Tahu families throughout the twentieth century, and some of the most comprehensive genealogical records kept by any tribe. His constant lobbying of the Native Department had kept up the pressure to achieve a settlement of the Ngai Tahu claim.