Matekoraha Te Peehi Rangihika, commonly known as Bessie, was born on 27 February 1902 at Whiritoa, a small Ringatū settlement between Waihī and Whangamatā. Her father was Rangihika Kereopa of Ngāti Maru, whose parents had moved to Hauraki from Parihaka during the land confiscations of the nineteenth century. Later in life, two of Rangihika’s female elders from Taranaki, Pakanga and Niwa, presented him with a large whāriki (mat) as an inducement to return to Parihaka to re-establish his identity and links with the community. But the opportunity never arose. Bessie’s mother, Mihimere Mōkai, was the great-granddaughter of Mōkai, the Ngāti Pūkeko chief who signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Pōhaturoa rock in Whakatāne.
Bessie and her eight siblings grew up fluent in Māori, and with strong moral convictions. In 1909 she was among the earliest students at the newly established native school serving the community at Mataora Bay. Here she gained her excellent command of written and spoken English. She was also good at maths and geography and at a young age realised the value of education in an increasingly Pākehā-dominated society.
After leaving school Bessie moved back to her mother’s family land in Whakatāne, where she learned the art of weaving from her mother (who had an extensive knowledge of plants). She learned which plants to use for dyeing flax and kiekie and how to use others for their medicinal properties. As she grew older she was always willing to teach these skills to others, but always stressed the importance of following the correct customary procedures.
On 11 December 1919, at Whakatāne, Bessie married Narsay Jaram, an Indian of Gujarati descent from Bombay. Narsay, or Ned, as he was known, started his business as a tailor–draper in Te Kūiti and later opened stores in Te Puke and Whakatāne. For the first few years of their marriage he continued to oversee all three businesses, but eventually continued only with the Whakatāne store. He was well respected among the business people in the district and was renowned for his skill as a tailor. Bessie became a proficient tailoress and helped run the business. They were often called upon the day before an important function to fix or complete an outfit; Ned was capable of completing a three-piece dress suit in one day with only a treadle machine.
A strong and elegant woman, Bessie Jaram became involved with many community projects and activities. She helped organise a canteen kitchen to raise funds for patriotic purposes during the Second World War and was a stalwart supporter of the local Red Cross. She also worked for the Whakatāne Beautifying Society, the scouts and guides, the New Zealand Crippled Children Society, the Whakatāne and District Historical Society and the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand. She became a staunch follower of the Anglican church and an enduring friend of the Reverend Wharetini Rangi.
Bessie was dedicated to improving conditions for Māori: she involved herself on the local marae committees and was instrumental in starting a local branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in the 1960s. She promoted Māori arts and crafts by encouraging Māori women to display their hand-made products at the regional agricultural shows. In the early 1950s she found a source of high-quality black mud on the banks of the Whakatāne River which was ideal for dyeing fibre; weavers from as far away as Gisborne would come to collect it. The site was later specially marked by the Whakatāne Borough Council in recognition of its significance.
Narsay held a similar position of respect in the Indian community. Although distinction by caste was still prevalent among early Indian migrants, Jaram’s popularity earned him the position of delegate to the New Zealand Indian Central Association. Many of those he represented were agricultural labourers, farmers and business associates.
Their home was always a haven for people travelling and in need of a bed, or a place to stop for a cup of tea while shopping. There were often Māori, Europeans and Indians all staying at the same time. Bessie regularly hosted ‘bring and buys’ and organised craft sessions. She also provided remedies for minor illness, such as an ointment made from sulphur and oils for open sores, and medicines from native plants for dysentery, constipation and toothache. However, she fully believed in using qualified doctors for any major illnesses.
The couple had six sons and three daughters and helped raise many others. Bessie had a strong belief in the value of education and ensured that all her children received adequate schooling. Three of her sons joined the armed services during the Second World War; they were part of the Japanese occupation force and one later served in Korea. Two sons went on to became welfare officers with the Department of Māori Affairs and three others became supervisors for the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company. A nephew whom she raised became a senior officer in the police force.
Bessie Jaram was typical of many Māori women of her time who married into another ethnic group, being equally respected among Māori, Europeans and Indians and able to incorporate aspects of each culture into her life. She firmly believed in the family, and felt that each individual should contribute to the community for the betterment of all. She received no honours as such, but her love for her people is reflected in the respect held by those who knew her. She died at Whakatāne on 20 September 1978, survived by her children. Narsay Jaram had died 15 years earlier.