Edward James Te Āika Tregerthen, later known as Eruera Tīhema Tirikātene, was born on 5 January 1895 at Te Rakiwhakaputa pā near Kaiapoi. His father, a carpenter, later a skipper of boats, wheat farmer and minister of religion, was John Driver Tregerthen. He had been one of the apostles of the South Island prophet Hipa Te Maihāroa and was to become the first South Island apostle of T. W. Rātana. John Tregerthen's mother, Emma Driver, derived her high rank in Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha from her mother, Mōtoitoi, of Otago. His wife, Eruera’s mother, was Tini Noti Tūhuru Arapata Hōrau (Jane Albert) of Ngāi Tahu; she was descended by senior lines from the ancestor Tūhuru of Westland, and was also related to Ngāti Toa of Porirua.
A strong influence on Eruera in his childhood was Āperahama Te Āika, his great-uncle, who, with his wife, Mere Tītawa, had brought up Eruera's mother. Eruera spent long periods with them at Tuahiwi, where he learned whakapapa and traditional lore including knowledge and fear of the powers of tohunga. Eruera was the eldest son; his birth was said to end a curse against the birth of male first-born which derived from the taking of the West Coast by Tuhuru. Eruera and his siblings were afraid of the occult powers of their mother; he came to reject these powers as a threatening and intimidating force.
Eruera's mother was Catholic but his father was Anglican, and Eruera attended St Stephen's Anglican Church at Tuahiwi; later, despite the long horse rides required, he was a keen participant in the Christchurch cathedral boys' choir. His membership ceased abruptly when he was punished for the pranks of other boys, leaving him with a sense of resentment against the Anglican church and injustice and a void in his religious attendance. He was educated at Kaiapoi Native School and at Kaiapoi District High School. At these schools he was punished for speaking Māori and later came to resent having been forced to regard it as a second language.
While at school he was a foundation member of the first boy scout patrol established in New Zealand. He was a good athlete and participated in many sports. About 1909 Eruera left school and became a cadet on a sheep farm at Hanmer, followed by a stint as a horse-breaker and stock dealer. About 1913 he moved to Wairarapa as a marriage had been arranged for him with the chiefly Te Whāiti family; the girl died before it could take place, but he continued on there as a horse-breaker, riding in local rodeos. He won a rodeo championship under the name Jim Tregerthen.
In 1914 he was too young to volunteer for the armed forces, so he rode to a recruiting station where he was unknown, and gave his name as Eruera Tirikātene, and falsified his age. He left for service abroad with the second Māori Contingent, and after three years in Egypt and France with the New Zealand Māori (Pioneer) Battalion, he was promoted to sergeant. He was noted for his courage, bringing in wounded on his back while under fire. He initiated the Battalion band, playing the cornet. Discharged from the army on 7 May 1919, he settled at Kaiapoi on four acres of land his father had purchased for him out of his accumulated army pay.
On 17 December 1919, at Lyttelton, Eruera married Ruti Matekino Solomon (Horomona), daughter of Ngāi Tahu chief Āperahama Tūpahu Tahuna Horomona and his wife, Mīria Henrici, a woman of rank from Ngāti Pāhauwera hapū of Ngāti Kahungunu. The couple were to have 12 children, though two did not survive to adulthood. After his marriage and working with his brother-in-law, Rangi Solomon, Tirikātene set up a number of profitable commercial concerns: a dairy farm, a timber-milling business, a fishing fleet and two small ferries running between Port Levy and Lyttelton; this required him to become a certificated marine engineer.
During these years Rangi Solomon became a follower of the spiritual leader T. W. Rātana, and induced his mother, Mīria, who was suffering from the effects of a failed operation, to visit the healer. Following her cure, the Solomon family remained at Rātana pā. Eruera and his family visited them in 1921. His multiple skills attracted the attention of Rātana (known as the Māngai), who asked Eruera to stay and predicted ‘a big thing’ for him. He marked out a house site for him, one of only two plots granted outside the Rātana family. Eruera, or Tiri, as he became known from his time at Rātana pā, was reluctant, alarmed by the religious leader's tohunga-like prediction regarding his future. Rātana saw a more important role for Tiri than his commercial ventures, and, mainly to assist his wife's family, Tiri agreed to stay.
His skills were put to good use as he took charge of machinery and harvesting arrangements. Under his direction hundreds of acres were cultivated and many tons of wheat and potatoes produced. He was involved in starting the Rātana Mōrehu Silver Band, and also used his skills in dentistry. Gradually he became a firm adherent of Rātana, being personally tutored by the Māngai in his home. He was attracted by Rātana's plans to free Māori from the fear of the powers of mākutu possessed by tohunga, to use the Treaty of Waitangi to seek statutory equality and justice for Māori, and to put into Parliament Māori MPs who would work for changes to legislation inspired by the treaty. Tirikātene began to consider that the Māngai was a man inspired by God.
The new life at Rātana pā meant changes for the Tirikātene family. In the South Island they had been comparatively affluent; for the next 12 to 14 years Tirikātene was without any income. Even after his election to Parliament in 1932, he handed over his parliamentary pay to the Rātana movement according to a covenant imposed by the Māngai. At Rātana pā it was regarded as a privilege to serve. Tiri's children were born without medical assistance; he was 'midwife' for almost all of them. His South Island family assisted with gifts of money and produce, but the family at Rātana pā knew poverty.
For 17 years Tirikātene was one of Rātana's closest confidants. Valued at first mainly for his practical and organising skills, he was appointed by Rātana to lead the movement's inner councils on political matters. In 1928, when Rātana was selecting his four koata (quarters – his parliamentary candidates), Tirikātene was a natural choice for Southern Māori. Rātana bestowed on him the name Te Ōmeka (Omega), a name with special significance to Rātana signifying Tiri's close relationship to him. But even after Tiri's selection, the wheat harvest kept him at Rātana pa; there was no time to canvass his electorate or even to vote. In 1928 he missed election by the vote of the returning officer.
In 1930 Rātana appointed Tirikātene to the executive committee of the Rātana federation. In August 1931 he again appointed Tirikātene as candidate for Southern Māori; his policy was to be recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi and justice in settling Māori land grievances. A photograph taken at the time shows his dashing good looks and wavy hair. In September and October 1931 Tirikātene and the other koata – Haami Tokouru Rātana, Paraire Paikea and Pita Moko – negotiated with the New Zealand Labour Party on whether to become full members of the party or to retain the status of independent associates. The latter position was adopted.
The election, held on 1 December, saw Tirikātene narrowly defeated by Tuiti Makitānara. Negotiations continued with the Labour Party, and early in 1932 a special committee, including Tirikātene, was put in place to set down Māori claims under the Treaty of Waitangi; it was hoped that Harry Holland, the party's leader, would present them to Parliament. Holland visited Rātana pā in April 1932 and pledged to put Rātana's petitions and covenant before the Labour Party. But before further progress could be made Tuiti Makitānara died suddenly in June 1932, and Tirikātene won the subsequent by-election.
Waves of excitement rippled through the Rātana movement; at last the Māngai had a voice in Parliament. Rātana, his family and others – altogether a party of 57, later swelled by Rātana supporters from all over the country – escorted the koata triumphantly to Wellington. Toko Rātana and Paraire Paikea remained in Wellington to assist him. On 29 September Tirikātene made his maiden speech in the House, declaring his party to be the Rātana party, and immediately introducing the subject of the Treaty of Waitangi as he had sworn to do.
In Parliament Tirikātene frequently defended Rātana's aims and the administration of Rātana pā. In 1932 he presented the Rātana petition asking for the Treaty of Waitangi to receive statutory recognition. He took every opportunity to introduce the treaty into debates, several times reading out its three clauses. He spoke on the Ngāi Tahu claim nearly every year and sometimes, in the absence or silence of the current member for Western Māori, he related the history of the confiscation grievances of WĀikato and Taranaki.
Tirikātene's major concern was the poverty of his people. From 1932 to 1935 he spoke many times about Māori unemployment and the inadequate and discriminatory rates paid to Māori for relief work, pensions and family allowances, and drew attention to the need for a comprehensive Māori housing scheme. He demanded that Māori be allowed to qualify in their trades and rise in the ranks of the Native Department and favoured the secret ballot for Māori. He complained of the inefficiency of the Native Trust Office, the Native Department and the native land boards.
Although from the outset Tirikātene blamed the government rather than the native minister, Apirana Ngata, for discriminating against Māori and under-resourcing the department, Ngata was quick to take offence. He opposed Tirikātene's appointment to the Waitangi National Trust Board, promoting instead the candidacy of the Māori King. Ngata's poor relations with Rātana, and Harry Holland's support for Tirikātene's objectives, inclined Tiri to pursue a formal alliance with the Labour Party, and after he had been joined in Parliament in the 1935 election by Toko Rātana for Western Māori, the Māngai agreed. Tirikātene made the formal approach on 4 December 1935 by applying to join the party; Toko Rātana followed, and despite opposition from some of the non-Rātana Māori Labour supporters, from February 1936 they attended the Labour caucus.
As a supporter of the newly elected Labour government Tirikātene could influence the party's Māori policy. On 16 April 1936 he was appointed chairman of its Māori Organising Committee, which was intended to promote membership of the party in all electorates but also act as a Māori policy committee. Tirikātene circulated a letter to all Labour MPs demanding that it be Labour Party policy that relief work rates be the same for Māori and Pākehā. The abolition of discrimination against Māori and the establishment of genuine racial equality was one of Tirikātene's primary aims. His parliamentary speeches from 1936 reflect his unabashed joy, relief and gratitude at the racial equality inherent in the government's social welfare legislation. He attacked racism in all its forms throughout his parliamentary career.
Tirikātene also took every opportunity to push his right to address the House in Māori. He was initially permitted to do so and was later very bitter against the National government when their Speaker changed that ruling. He continued speaking in Māori.
In 1937 Tirikātene visited England, representing Māori at the coronation of George VI and attending the Empire Parliamentary Association conference. At the next coronation, of Elizabeth II, he provoked controversy with his claim that although 10 Māori happened to be in the armed services section of the New Zealand contingent, there was no official delegate of the Māori people.
In 1938 he was re-elected for Southern Māori with an increased majority. The following year the Māngai died. Prior to his death Tiri, always renowned for his physical strength, had carried him bodily up Mt Taranaki for one last visit to Te Rere o Kapuni, the stream that held great spiritual significance for Rātana. Toko Rātana, the Māngai's spiritual successor and kaiārahi (leader), was also Tirikātene's parliamentary colleague. He was a humble, gentle man and accepted Tirikātene's political leadership.
Late in 1940 Prime Minister Peter Fraser decided to appoint a Māori to the war cabinet. Fraser made it clear that he favoured Tirikātene, but Paraire Paikea, who had gained the Northern Māori seat in 1938, canvassed support for himself among the Auckland Labour MPs; he was duly appointed. Pleased at least that a Māori was in the cabinet, though disturbed by Paikea's display of personal ambition, Tirikātene supported Paikea in the House and worked with him to set up the Māori War Effort Organisation. When Paikea died in April 1943, Tirikātene became member of the Executive Council representing the Native Race and, later, chairman of a parliamentary committee overseeing the Māori War Effort Organisation.
Tirikātene was keen to continue this new experience for modern Māori – running their own affairs – after the war. But while he worked on proposals for extending the organisation’s work into peacetime and keeping control in Māori hands, the government planned to create an agency controlled by the Native Department. Tirikātene and the Rātana MPs called a conference at the Ngāti Pōneke Māori Association club rooms in October 1944, followed by others at Ōpoutama and Rātana pa; his plans endorsed there, Tiri, assisted by his unofficial secretary, Ralph Love, drafted a bill for Māori social and economic reconstruction, which would have set up a national Māori welfare and reconstruction agency in which tribally elected and district councils utilised government resources to conduct Māori affairs. The bill, eventually passed as the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945, took in many aspects of Tiri's draft, but was a disappointment to him; the independence of the tribal committees and executives was undermined by departmental supervision.
After the 1946 election Māori expected Tirikātene to be native minister, but the prime minister, Peter Fraser, took the position himself; Tirikātene remained as member of the Executive Council representing the Māori Race. He put the views of the Māori MPs on the administration of Māori affairs to the Labour caucus in 1947. Only cosmetic changes took place, the word 'Māori' replacing 'native' in government activity; Tirikātene himself was made minister in charge of the printing and stationery department, a palpable sop to Māori disappointment.
Tirikātene achieved some successes in the period from 1946 to 1949. A settlement was made in the WĀikato–Maniapoto claim, and the Taranaki deal was completed. Almost every year from his election Tirikātene had related the grim details of the Ngāi Tahu claim in the House and demanded redress. He realised the financial limitations, however, and accepted the £300,000 given in the Ngāitahu Claim Settlement Act 1944. He had conducted more than 80 meetings to get Ngāi Tahu consent. Tirikātene was appointed president of the Ngāitahu Trust Board.
From 1949 to 1957 Tirikātene was in opposition, his role largely confined to guiding the other Rātana MPs and acting as chairman of the Māori Advisory Council and Māori Policy Committee of the Labour Party. In Walter Nash's 1957–60 administration he was minister of forests, and minister in charge of printing and stationery. Prominent Māori leaders had requested his appointment as minister of Māori Affairs. However, the prime minister took the portfolio; Tiri was his associate but Nash, in rejecting his policy suggestions, made it clear that this was a window-dressing appointment. Tirikātene and Nash clashed frequently over Māori policy, Nash being opposed to Māori seeking autonomous solutions to their problems. In 1960, however, Tirikātene prompted the government to pass legislation recognising Waitangi Day as a national day of thanksgiving. Tiri was an energetic minister of forests, pushing through the first road to Maungapōhatu in opposition to the advice of his department; and on 22 November 1959, issuing the Rūātoki Declaration, a plan for the conservation management of Urewera forests, which also allowed some commercial return to the Māori owners.
Tirikātene had been made a justice of the peace in 1935; in 1960 he was knighted. His last years, again in opposition, saw no diminishing of his enormous workload. He sat on many important bodies, including the Māori Purposes Fund Board. He continued to express his gratitude to the Labour Party for writing racial equality into law. Throughout his career much of his parliamentary salary went on expenses related to his job; financial support came from the family crop farm at Kaiapoi. He relied on volunteer helpers, particularly his children: Te Rino ran the farm, with help from Rima; Whetu was his electorate secretary; and Dobson, a promising trombonist, left school early to work as his secretary. One son, John, a fighter pilot, was killed in an air accident in Auckland during the Second World War.
On 11 January 1967 Tirikātene rose early, as was his custom, and with Te Rino went to cut down a stand of pine on their Kaiapoi property. When the last tree was felled, Tirikātene sat down on a log, said 'Good, we’ve completed the job, Rin, well done son,’ then closed his eyes and died. His tangihanga, attended by over 2,000, was at Te Hiwi Mārama marae, Kaiapoi, and he was buried at Kai-a-te-Atua cemetery, Kaiapoi. He was survived by his wife, Ruti, six sons and two daughters. His daughter, Whetu Tirikātene-Sullivan, succeeded him as MP for Southern Māori. At his tangihanga, Turi Carroll said that he had been the greatest of all Māori leaders.