Te Kiato Riwai, or Kia, as she was more commonly known, was born in the Chatham Islands, on 21 November 1912, to Mere Ngautanga Dix of Ngati Mutunga and Te Oti Riwai, a farm labourer of Ngai Tahu; her father’s hapu was Ngati Hinematua. Kia was one of 10 children and grew up in a large extended family. Te Oti died during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and to support her family Mere Riwai moved her surviving children to Christchurch, where she worked as a cook for shearing gangs.
Kia became a pupil of Te Waipounamu Maori Girls’ College. (Later she was to be instrumental in establishing the Te Wai Pounamu Old Girls’ Association, becoming its president for 25 years and serving for many years on the board of governors of the college.) The depression denied her the opportunity to advance her education, and as economic conditions worsened she unsuccessfully sought employment to assist her mother and younger siblings.
After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Kia Riwai returned to the Chatham Islands to convalesce. Although some family members were not hopeful of a recovery, with characteristic determination and fortitude she overcame her illness, and in the early 1930s secured a job on a Chatham Islands’ sheep station as a musterers’ cook. Strict orders forbade her from investigating a certain cupboard in the homestead. Alone, unable to contain her curiosity, she opened the cupboard. To her horror a pile of skulls, believed to be of Moriori, tumbled to the floor, sending a terrified Kia screaming from the house, never to return.
She went back to Christchurch and for a short time was employed at Lane, Walker, Rudkin, a woollen manufacturing business, but factory work did not provide her with the scope her abilities demanded. She began to channel her energy into the Otautahi Maori Club, which provided her with the opportunity to develop her administrative and welfare skills in support of many Maori who had recently moved to Christchurch.
Kia Riwai was an exceptionally talented sportswoman, excelling in cricket for the Mai Moa club, and softball, netball and hockey for the Otautahi Maori Club. She was selected to play hockey for New Zealand but was struck down with measles. Riwai was also attracted to the New Zealand Red Cross Society, which provided her with training at the North Canterbury Centre. At the onset of the Second World War she was the only Maori woman from the North Canterbury Centre appointed to the Voluntary Aid Detachment to train for nursing services overseas. At the same time, through the Otautahi Maori Club and in response to the Maori War Effort Organisation, Riwai established a venue for Maori soldiers on leave and set up the Otautahi Maori concert party to raise money for the patriotic fund.
Her first overseas experience was in Caserta, Italy, nursing the wounded. She then nursed ex-prisoners of war and soldiers on leave in hospitals in Kent. During this time she became engaged to a Scottish officer, but he was later killed in action. After the war Kia Riwai returned to New Zealand on the hospital ship Maunganui. She flatly refused to have army issue grey blankets in her home at Christchurch because they reminded her of soldiers’ corpses that had been wrapped in them. In recognition of her efforts during the war Kia was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1946 and invited back to England to take part in the Victory Parade.
Kia Riwai soon purchased a small cake and confectionery shop in Redcliffs, Christchurch, and shared a modest city flat with her mother and great-niece. She would toil most of the night baking goods for sale the next day, having her baskets and boxes packed ready for the 8 a.m. tram to the shop at Redcliffs.
In 1952 Kia Riwai was made a Maori welfare officer in Christchurch for the Department of Maori Affairs. The position was set up in response to the burgeoning social problems Maori were encountering. Kia was expected to work with local tribal committees. Her prime consideration was the health and welfare of mothers and their families and she spent as much time as possible with those in need. Her territory covered all of the South Island, and she set about the task of setting up branches of the Maori Women’s Welfare League. Among the first were Otautahi, Rapaki and Taumutu. Eventually, there were branches of the league throughout the South Island. In recognition of her work, the Kia Riwai Trophy was established in 1967 at the annual regional conference for the South Island and Chatham Islands. It is keenly contested and is awarded to the branch that wins the cultural competition.
In 1963 Kia Riwai became the senior Maori welfare officer for the South Island. This enabled her to establish and strengthen many relationships. She called on friends, family and colleagues, and people expressed disappointment if they heard that Kia had been in the area and not called. She became beloved for her kindness, patience and ability to listen and to solve problems.
In the Nelson and Marlborough regions, Maori youth would descend on the towns in search of seasonal work in the tobacco and hop fields. With this influx and the lack of appropriate leisure and entertainment facilities as a diversion from the hotels, there were inevitable tussles with the authorities. To combat and alleviate this problem, Kia Riwai again began to establish cultural groups. When the Wairau River burst its banks, flooding the plain and leaving many Maori families destitute, she immediately launched a concert party as a fund-raiser to support the victims. Kia Riwai ensured that the resulting cultural groups in the area flourished by visiting them constantly and encouraging them to compete locally and throughout the South Island. In 1965 the popular Waitaha cultural competitions were launched, and teams throughout the South Island were to compete for the memorial trophy bearing her name.
Kia Riwai played a major role in establishing the successful trade-training scheme. She and her colleagues had the responsibility of recruiting the trainees, organising accommodation and generally overseeing their well-being. The marae Rehua was erected as a place for the youth to feel at home; in honour of Kia’s efforts, the recreational building bears her name.
In 1965 Kia Riwai was made an MBE for her services to the community. She was a warm-hearted, tireless worker in the interests of her people. Charismatic, dynamic, and persistent, she was a visionary who did not brook argument. Kia never married. She had a nurturing nature, and with the help of her very able mother she raised and influenced a number of nieces and nephews, several of whom took her name; one such nephew was the MP Ben Riwai Couch. Kia’s frantic pace of work coupled with her habit of smoking took its toll. In 1966 she was diagnosed with cancer and she died in Christchurch on 31 August 1967 aged 54. At her funeral Canon D. D. Thorpe eloquently summed up her contribution to Maori in saying that her life was ‘a prayer of love for her people’.