Maharaia Winiata, commonly known as Maha, was born on 29 September 1912 at Ngāhina pā, near Rūātoki, in the eastern Bay of Plenty. His parents were Winiata Piahana and his wife, Te Ruakawhena Kohu, both of Ngāi Tamarāwaho, a hapū of Ngāti Ranginui. The springs at Ngāhina pā were a tapu ancestral site, and Maharaia’s parents had planned that his birth be there so that he could be dedicated by special rites to serve his people. His father, a farmer and Ringatū tohunga, was known for his oratory and his knowledge of lore, waiata and whakapapa. His mother, who had attended the Tauranga mission house school but in later years spoke little English, was convinced of the value of Pākehā education. Her mother, Hikuwai Kohu, was the daughter of Ngāti Ranginui chief Parāone Koikoi, who had been brought forcibly to Tauranga to witness the confiscation of his people’s land. It was Maharaia’s mother’s hope that education would be the means by which her son could help his people recover from the crippling effects of confiscation.
Maharaia grew up near Tauranga. At the age of seven, still unable to speak English, he began primary school at Ōtūmoetai, followed by further primary schooling at Maungatapu and secondary education at Tauranga District High School. There he became head prefect in 1931, was in the senior football team, and was senior athletic champion of the school and the Bay of Plenty. After passing the Public Service Entrance Examination in 1930, he matriculated the following year, the fees for which were covered by money he had earned as school reporter to a local newspaper. Although he was awarded a scholarship to attend university, he had to find paid work during the depression, and did not enrol at Auckland University College until 1935. Despite the difficulties of adjusting to full-time study and a European environment, in 1937 he was accepted as a candidate for the ministry at the Methodist Theological College, where he studied for three years, concurrently with his university work. He was the first Māori to study the full academic course for the ministry. At the college he became vice senior student, the librarian, and won speech contests. He became involved in youth work in the city at the time when Māori urban migration was fast increasing.
In 1940 Maharaia was posted to the Kāwhia Methodist church, where he cared for both Māori and Pākehā parishioners, especially the young. That year, on 15 May at Onehunga, he married Frances Eileen Clegg of the Methodist Māori mission department. The couple were to have five children. Although Maharaia applied to join the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion chaplaincy, he was rejected on health grounds, and worked instead with the Home Guard. Perceiving the importance of education to young people, in 1942 and 1943 he attended Auckland Training College; there he became president of the students’ association and editor of their magazine, Mānuka. In 1943 he completed his BA. After teacher training he taught at Māori schools at Rotokawa and Whangamarino in the Rotorua district. He worked with local tribal committees generating food and comforts for the men of the Māori Battalion. During this time he lived in a small country cottage with his family, studying at night by candlelight to gain his MA extramurally; he completed it in 1945. In 1946 he was appointed master, and later first assistant, at Wesley College, Auckland, and at the end of that year gained a diploma of education from Auckland University College.
Maharaia had been strongly influenced by the Young Māori Conference of 1939 promoted by Professor Horace Belshaw and Apirana Ngata. He was particularly concerned about Māori education levels, the general lack of employment opportunities other than in labouring jobs, and the racism Māori frequently encountered. He and his family personally experienced discrimination in Pukekohe. Among his concerns were the appalling living conditions of Māori workers in the local market gardens. To counter these problems, Maharaia addressed groups such as the local Rotary Club, borough council, church and business groups. His eloquence and humour made him a popular speaker. He pressured the education board into building a new Māori school when this was no longer government policy. Sunday schools and visits from a health nurse were set up. He also wrote and spoke at hui throughout the country about violations of the Treaty of Waitangi and the problems that resulted from confiscation, the need for better housing, and, above all, the importance of education. In 1945 he stood for Parliament in the Western Māori seat as an independent, but came third to Matiu Rātana, who held the seat for Labour, and Pei Te Hurinui Jones.
In 1945 a Māori advisory subcommittee of the adult education department of Auckland University College was set up. One of its aims was to diminish Māori delinquency by restoring racial pride through the study of traditional culture. In 1949 Maharaia, who had voluntarily assisted the early classes held at the manpower camp at Avondale, was appointed tutor–organiser for Māori adult education. He was responsible for setting up classes and learning centres from North Auckland to Christchurch. Matiu Te Hau became tutor–organiser in North Auckland and Wiremu (Bill) Parker eventually became responsible for Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay and Wellington. After their appointment, Maharaia’s particular responsibility remained the Waikato–Maniapoto district and the Bay of Plenty.
Maharaia sought the support of Te Puea Hērangi and King Korokī at Ngāruawāhia to begin this new work in the Waikato–Maniapoto district. Some Waikato people had refused primary education as a protest against confiscation, and Maharaia worked to change these attitudes. One of his classes was a group of elders learning to read for the first time from the ‘Janet and John’ books for primers. A carving class was set up, which produced nine model canoes to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the arrival of the traditional canoes, including Tainui. During the celebrations, Maharaia gave 10 weekly broadcasts, in Māori, from Auckland and Wellington radio stations on subjects such as ‘The origins of the Polynesians’ and ‘Where did the canoes land?’ These broadcasts were so popular that he was requested to repeat them in English.
Another early project initiated by Maharaia was the establishment of a carving school at Judea, Tauranga, and the building of a new meeting house there, eventually opened in 1956 by Korokī. This house inspired other districts to emulate it, and Maharaia assisted many such groups to set up similar projects. He addressed the meetings of the Māori Women’s Welfare League and helped the league to set up adult education classes. As part of his encouragement of traditional culture, Maharaia edited booklets about the history of the canoes, collected genealogies, organised a sports day for the anniversary of Korokī’s coronation, and assisted Te Puea to write and edit a book celebrating 100 years of the Māori King movement. In 1949 he put together historical evidence on the King Country pact, which prohibited the sale of liquor, and accompanied Korokī and many Tainui elders to Wellington to present submissions protesting to Prime Minister Peter Fraser against a change in the law.
Encouraged by Ralph Piddington of the anthropology department of Auckland University College, Maharaia applied for and in 1952 was awarded a Nuffield fellowship in humanities, with a further grant in 1953. The scholarship covered the expense of travelling to Edinburgh to undertake postgraduate studies in social anthropology. He also received a grant from the Tainui Māori Trust Board. In Edinburgh he worked under Kenneth Little, and later studied at the University of London under Raymond Firth. Little found him highly studious, amenable to advice, and an excellent observer of affairs around him; his PhD thesis studied shifting patterns of authority in the twentieth century, from great tribal chiefs to younger, Pākehā-educated, Christian and professional Māori leadership. Maharaia Winiata completed his thesis within two years to become the first Māori to gain a doctorate overseas. However, a greater sense of personal satisfaction came from the Waikato–Ngāti Maniapoto decision to support dedication of his thesis to Korokī and Te Puea in concert with its submission to Edinburgh University on 8 October 1954, the anniversary of Korokī’s coronation day celebrations.
Winiata managed to fit in many other activities. He was technical adviser to J. Arthur Rank for his film The seekers , in which he had a part, together with Īnia Te Wīata, the singer and carver. In 1953 he joined a BBC panel called ‘Town Forum’, which included Edmund Hillary. He was invited to the coronation of Elizabeth II, and attended her first opening of Parliament at Westminster. Firth invited Maharaia to become a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; he addressed the members twice. He also attended an anthropological and race relations seminar in Liège, Belgium. He took part in Nuffield Foundation seminars, addressed a meeting of the Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society in Edinburgh, and preached in Methodist churches in England and Scotland.
Returning to New Zealand, Maharaia Winiata remained busy. He became secretary of the Māori King’s council and chairman of the Waitemata Tribal Executive, was a member of the Māori section of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand and was involved in other church institutions. He wrote articles for Te Ao Hou , the Journal of the Polynesian Society , the Phylon Quarterly (an Atlanta University publication), and the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Star. Although he was a rugby enthusiast, he opposed visits of the All Blacks to South Africa because of the apartheid regime. He travelled to America, the Philippines and China to visit universities, communes and child care centres, and to the Tibetan borders to find societies comparable to that of the Māori.
Maharaia Winiata died suddenly at Tauranga, aged only 47, on 6 April 1960 at the close of the hui poukai, an annual gathering between Waikato and Ngāti Ranginui supporters of the Kīngitanga. Survived by his wife, Frances, three sons and two daughters, he was buried on 10 April 1960 beside the meeting house he was instrumental in establishing. His PhD thesis was published by Blackwood and Janet Paul in 1967 as The changing role of the leader in Māori society. At this time it was one of the few published academic works by a Māori about twentieth century Māori.