Eruera Riini Mānuera was a far-sighted leader who for nearly 60 years was the main spokesman for Ngāti Awa in land dealings, court sessions, and social and sporting activities. This work, and the strong links he established with Pākehā, were his major achievements.
He was born on 6 January 1895, in a makeshift thatched hut at Te Waea, a settlement downstream from Te Teko in the eastern Bay of Plenty. His mother, Maata Te Taiawatea Rangitūkehu, was of high rank, the daughter of Rangitūkehu Hatua, a famous Ngāti Awa chief. Her maternal grandfather was Rangiheuea, chief of Ngāti Tāoi, a hapū of Tūhourangi, whose mana extended to regions adjacent to Lake Tarawera and Lake Rotomahana. The Tūhourangi elders frowned on her marriage to Te Hāroto Whakataka Riini Mānuera. He was a son of Mānuera Te Pohokotia, the last-known chief of Warahoe hapū of Ngāti Awa, but the elders considered him to be beneath Maata in social status, and they cursed the union to prevent the birth of live children.
After the loss of many babies, Maata and Te Hāroto sought help from Pētera Te Kōhatu of Ngāti Hineuru, an associate of the prophet Te Kooti Arikirangi. He advised them to avoid the curse by giving their children away at birth, and so the surviving offspring from their union were adopted out. Eruera was given into the care of his aunt and uncle, Titihoia Rāwiri Mānuera and Ākutina Te Urukehu Hīpirini, both of Warahoe, Ngati Hāmua and Ngāti Whare. His adoptive parents were poor but hardworking, and devout in their observance of the Ringatū religion. They were above all kind, loving and humble, and instilled these values in him.
Eruera attended Te Teko Native School and then went to St Stephen’s Native Boys’ School on a two-year scholarship. After leaving school he went to work for the Wakelins, a farming family at Kamo, returning home to Te Teko in 1914. With his improved command of English Eruera began helping those of his people who were less fluent.
On 13 October 1916, at Te Teko, he married Te Pareake Te Uamairangi Kapua, of Ngāi Tamaoki and Ngāti Tarāwhai ancestry. They had fifteen children, of whom eleven – six daughters and five sons – reached adulthood.
While trying to establish his own farm on two properties inherited from his foster and birth parents, Eruera worked on government drainage, roading and river diversion schemes for the Rangitāiki swamplands. He also worked for the East Coast Rabbit Board. Later, the farm supported his growing family.
At the age of 28 he was appointed to the Te Teko school committee. He was a member for 40 years, and chairman for 15. He constantly advocated the necessity of good education, encouraging his people to send their children to school. A strong supporter of all educational institutions, he trod a path to and from St Stephen’s Native Boys’ School in support of its causes, and offered his marae for educational seminars and gatherings. In 1929, after his birth mother died, Eruera as the only surviving son reluctantly took over leadership of Te Pahīpoto hapū.
He believed in dispensing with customs that hindered the progress of his people. Few elders of the old school broke as many traditions as he did, hence he was to become known as ‘he tangata wāwāhi tahā’ (destroyer of calabashes). Many of his innovations were to modernise the traditional layout of the Kōkōhīnau marae and its associated buildings, and included construction of playing fields and tennis courts within the marae grounds and development of more convenient ablution and dining facilities. His more radical ideas included cutting a door to the rear of the meeting house, and converting the overgrown and neglected urupā (burial ground) to a lawn cemetery. Although his actions raised the ire of some traditionalists, Eruera maintained that what he had done was motivated by his concern for his people. Many marae in the country have since followed his lead.
Nurturing close relationships between people from different hapū, iwi, races, churches, organisations and generations was an ideal he pursued. He was to promote this in his association with such diverse groups as the Ringatū church, Kotahitanga movement, Waiariki District Council of Tribal Executives, Waitangi National Trust Board, Women’s Health League, and the Kīngitanga movement (through his introduction of the Tainui custom of poukai to his marae). He also demonstrated this approach as spokesman for the Māori people during visits by dignitaries to Whakatāne, and at Māori gatherings throughout the country. In addition he assisted individuals and families, travelling widely with them to countless functions throughout the Bay of Plenty region and the country. He became well known for his wisdom in handling Māori land transactions, and in analysing Māori social and youth problems.
In genealogical seniority Mānuera was without equal in Ngāti Awa, but he was not one to sit back and give orders. He rolled up his sleeves and pitched in with whatever needed doing. He always said that ‘one’s hands should be as active as one’s mouth’. It was this humility, and the fact that he never talked down to them, that endeared him to the young people. His stature matched the breadth of his vision. He was called ‘The Big Man’ for many years until people started calling him ‘Koro’ in the last years of his life.
Mānuera became a skilful orator. He was not a forceful speaker; he did not gesture with a walking stick, nor did he pace about on the marae when delivering his address. He captivated his audience by the content of his speeches. His use of proverbs, figures of speech, whakapapa and quotes from the Bible to illustrate his points showed the depth of his knowledge. He had the confidence to use the appropriate waiata with speeches for different meetings.
He believed in straight talking, be it to the back-sliding youth at the marae, or the governor general: he shocked people at Whakatāne during the official welcome in 1963 to Sir Bernard Fergusson, by describing the New Zealand Government as ‘pōkokohua’ (a serious insult in Māori) and asking the governor general, as representative of the Queen, to restore to Māori their ‘stolen lands’. Nevertheless, Sir Bernard was to become a close friend to Eruera, visiting him at Kōkōhīnau marae and corresponding with him after his return to England.
During the mid 1960s Tasman Pulp and Paper Company proposed a scheme whereby ownership of Ngāti Awa land in the Tarawera valley was to be transferred to a new company called Tarawera Forests Limited in return for a share in the profits gained from the trees planted on the land. This proposal was agreed to by the shareholders at a meeting Mānuera hosted at Kōkōhīnau marae, and in 1967 it was ratified by the Tarawera Forests Act. The transferred land included Maunga Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe), and he soon deeply regretted the loss of this symbolic landmark. He was to spend the next 25 years negotiating for its return, to no avail, despite appeals to the ministers of Māori affairs who served in those years. He said, ‘As my ancestors stir restlessly in the bosom of our mountain, nor will I sleep the night through, until ownership of that mountain is rightfully back in our possession’. He died on 15 June 1990, aged 95, at Te Teko; his wife had predeceased him in 1980.
His community service was recognised by various awards and honours: in 1955 he became a justice of the peace; in 1974 he was made an MBE, followed by an OBE in 1977; and in 1979 he was awarded an honorary LittD by Victoria University of Wellington. He claimed that these awards from Pākehā honoured him while he was still alive, and remarked that Māori people had to wait until they died before they were honoured by their own. This recognition came at his tangihanga, when thousands of people converged on the marae at Kōkōhīnau.