Tipi Tainui Ropiha was of Ngai Toroiwaho of Ngati Kahungunu and Rangitane. He was born in Waipawa on 8 August 1895, the second child of Reginald Pinckney, an English-born clerk, and Mihi Mere Panapa, the daughter of Panapa Tuari and his wife, Arapera Te Ngira. Tipi was brought up by foster parents. The name Tainui was given to him by Hori Ropiha, a leading chief of the southern Hawke’s Bay area, because of his friendship with the Maori King Tawhiao, of Tainui. Ropiha’s wife Erina Te Nepi Apatu nurtured Tipi and he was to acknowledge this by using the surname Ropiha and by naming his daughter after her.
After attending Waipawa District High School, he went to Te Aute College in 1910 on a Te Makarini Scholarship. At the college he excelled at rugby and cricket. He passed the junior civil service examination in November 1911 and on 1 March 1912 was appointed to the Public Works Department at Napier. It was a routine job and Ropiha decided he wanted to be a surveyor. While waiting for a cadetship he completed the senior civil service examination in January 1915. On gaining a position with the surveyor J. R. Morgan in Napier, he began his cadetship.
In August 1916 Ropiha joined the New Zealand Field Artillery. He served in France until he was wounded in the abdomen in October 1918 and invalided out. After returning he attended lectures at Canterbury College and passed the surveyors’ examination in 1920. While studying he was accepted for a position in the Department of Lands and Survey and in October 1919 was given a temporary appointment as a draughtsman and computer in Auckland; he became a member of the permanent staff in September 1920. In Auckland on 4 April 1922 he married Rhoda Winifred Turuki Walker, a nurse, of Te Whanau-a-Apanui. They were to have two children, a boy and a girl.
Because he was courteous and unassertive, Ropiha was overlooked for promotion, although he was well graded and recognised as hard-working and intelligent. Outside his work he pursued a keen interest in language, reading the two-volume Shorter Oxford English dictionary and Williams’s Maori-language dictionary to improve his vocabulary. He was an Anglican lay reader and in later years told his family that church attendance had kept him sane.
In 1935 a new opportunity arose when the under-secretary of the Native Department asked for a surveyor to work on the Auckland land consolidation schemes. Ropiha was nominated because of his knowledge of the Maori world. He was initially seconded for three months to work under the auspices of Judge Frank Acheson, but his position was made permanent in June 1936. Four years later, in April 1940, he returned to work for Lands and Survey as chief surveyor for the Marlborough district, based in Blenheim.
Ropiha had acquired a small derelict farm on the Hauraki Plains in the 1930s. The farm was managed by an experienced farmer while Ropiha reserved control over capital and maintenance expenditure. His hope was to develop the farm into one that would bear comparison with the best in the district. He found his knowledge of farm management and economics assisted him in his work on the Wairau land development scheme in Marlborough.
In February 1942 Ropiha entered camp with the National Military Reserve, but in March returned to Lands and Survey to work on military mapping. In July 1945 he became assistant superintendent of land development at Te Kuiti and in February the following year was promoted to acting superintendent. On 14 March 1947 he was appointed assistant under-secretary and deputy native trustee – the deputy head of what was about to become the Department of Maori Affairs.
The under-secretary was due to retire in 1948 and the Public Service Commission was worried about Ropiha’s suitability as successor. The secretary of the commission, George Bolt, had interviewed him at Hamilton on 20 February 1947 and his one concern was whether Ropiha had enough drive to be a thoroughly efficient permanent head of the department. He concluded that if government policy dictated that a Maori should hold the position he did not know of any better applicant. On 1 October 1948 Ropiha became under-secretary for Maori Affairs. He was the first Maori to head the department and was to hold the position for nine years.
He inherited a difficult office. His predecessor, Judge G. P. Shepherd, on the eve of his retirement apologised for the many legal problems he was bequeathing Ropiha. Although gentle in manner, Ropiha was vigorous in action. He concluded that work had been tackled over the years without adequate preparation of staff – in defining policy or in procedure – and the result was a great accumulation of organisational, administrative and legal problems. In land development there was an accumulation of arrears of almost 20 years and he was concerned that no work had been done to complete projects and hand the land back to Maori owners. Titles, through fragmentation, had reached a point where it was administratively almost impossible to distribute rents or use land. The legislation the department worked under was out of date and in need of revision.
From December 1949 a National government was in office, and with the full support of the new minister, E. B. Corbett, Ropiha reorganised the administration of the department. In 1952 the Maori land boards were abolished and their functions assigned to the Maori trustee, an office also held by Ropiha. A comprehensive Maori Affairs Act in 1953 created a modern department; district offices were established and a well-defined hierarchy put in place under a secretary for Maori Affairs. In 1952 Ropiha was made an ISO.
He wanted to see Maori lands back in Maori hands and to end rigid budgetary control over Maori farmers. This placed the responsibility on Maori land owners, and his policy was to seek assurances before returning land, making sure that the owners had the money and qualifications to manage large-scale farming operations. This policy was signalled most dramatically by the winding up of the East Coast Maori Trust and the handing back of 121,788 acres in 1954. Altogether a further 46 stations comprising 164,026 acres were handed back. In 1947 there had been 1,889 farmers under budgetary control; by 1958 the number had fallen to 1,358.
Ropiha was no admirer of the welfare state; he wanted Maori to be economically independent and saw education as the key to their future. He endured financial hardship to ensure that his own children got the best possible education and received extras such as piano and elocution lessons. His daughter, Rina, was to become (reputedly) the first Maori woman doctor. In July 1955 he attended a meeting of Maori leaders and suggested that a large sum of unclaimed moneys he had available for Maori purposes be earmarked for education. The meeting resolved to launch ‘a campaign to influence and help Maori parents to keep their children at school for longer periods’, and Ropiha became chairman of the executive that was to conduct the campaign.
The following month, at a conference of Maori students from Auckland and Victoria university colleges, he invited students to put their financial problems to him for special consideration. He was also on the committee discussing the future of Maori education in Wellington in November 1955. This conference adopted the principle ‘that the basic educational needs of Maori and Pakeha are identical’. The policies and programmes that Ropiha commissioned also contributed to the preparation of the 1960 Hunn Report on the Department of Maori Affairs.
As well as writing articles for Te Ao Hou , Ropiha helped to guide the magazine’s policies in its early years. He encouraged the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association and the Maori Women’s Welfare League – he played a pivotal role in developing the league and was frequently involved in its activities.
When Corbett announced he was retiring before the 1957 election, Ropiha arranged to retire in October. He and his wife later lived in Waiatarua, near Henderson. After her death in 1973 he lived in Ormondville, Hawke’s Bay. Tipi Ropiha was made a CBE in 1972. He died in Dannevirke on 26 November 1978, survived by his son; his daughter, Rina Moore, had died in 1975.
Ropiha had nine years as head of the Department of Maori Affairs at a time when the government was willing to fund Maori programmes. As a result, during his tenure expenditure on housing, land administration and land development all increased and he was able to fund ancillary ventures such as Te Ao Hou. He established an efficiently functioning department and returned to Maori owners developed farm land that would become a new economic base. Through the department’s programmes he presented the image of a resurgent Maori people.