At the time of her death, Witarina Harris was described by politician Tariana Turia as a ‘cherished kuia of Ngāti Whakaue o Te Arawa waka; darling of the silver screen; and one of Aotearoa’s original movie stars’. 1 Heroine of the silent film The devil’s pit in 1929, Witarina went on to become an influential figure in various groups aimed at preserving and enhancing te ao Māori: Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club, the Maori Women’s Welfare League, the kōhanga reo movement, and others. As a pioneering figure in film, in later life she also shaped the way Māori films were viewed and preserved. Yet she always held to the whakataukī: ‘E kore te kūmara, e kī ana mō tōna ake reka’ (It is not for the kūmara to say how sweet it is).
Witarina Te Miriarangi Parewahaika Mitchell was born on 15 May 1906 in Ōhinemutu, Rotorua. She was the daughter of Nataria Haupapa, of the Ngāti Tunohopu hapū of Ngāti Whakaue, and her surveyor husband James Niramona Zealand Mitchell, of Ngāti Te Takinga, Ngāti Pikiao and Scottish heritage. Her maternal grandfather, Rotohiko Tangonui Haupapa, was an influential figure in Rotorua, serving on the Town Board and the Pukeroa Hill Trustees Board.
Witarina grew up between Tarewa village (Ngāti Tuarā) with her mother’s step-father and Rangiriri Manaki Te Kaiamo at Ōhinemutu. She spoke te reo Māori at home, but when she went to a Rotorua Catholic school she was caned for speaking her language. After training in shorthand and typing, Witarina got a job at the Maori Arts and Crafts School; family friend and politician Āpirana Ngata, who was a key figure at the school, had recommended her for the job.
In the late 1920s Ngata suggested to Witarina that she try out for a part in a silent-era Hollywood movie scheduled to be filmed in Bay of Plenty, part of a craze for exotic South Sea Island adventure films made for North American and European markets. She was cast by simply sitting on a rock by a lake. In the Universal Pictures production, Witarina starred as Princess Miro. It was a love story set in the pre-European contact era, directed by Lew Collins after the notorious Alexander Markey was removed from the film. Witarina enjoyed the experience, shooting at locations such as White Island, where the hero and villain fought over Princess Miro before the villain was thrown into the steaming pit. The film had a number of names, including its official title Under the Southern Cross, Taranga, and The dragon’s pit, but it was most often known as The devil’s pit. Released in 1929, it was commercially unsuccessful. Witarina saw the film at its premiere at the Deluxe Theatre in Wellington, then heard nothing more about it for 53 years.
After her screen debut, Witarina joined the ‘silent migration’ of Māori to the cities in search of employment. ‘Coming from Rotorua’, she recalled, ‘we were used to mixing with the Pākehā people. So when I came to Wellington and felt so lonely it was a surprise to me. This thing sort of built up within me – I thought, “I want to see a Māori face!”’2 In 1929 she became secretary to Ngata, who was now Native Minister, a role utilising her proficiency in written and spoken te reo Māori which she held for three years.
Witarina married Englishman Howard Reginald (Reg) Harris in Wellington on 18 June 1932, and stopped working for Ngata. The couple had five children: Rangiriri, Rua, Bernard, Stuart and Miria.
In 1937 Witarina helped establish Wellington’s Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club, a haven for Māori like herself who had moved to the city. She described how the young people banded together to form the club, and ‘the older people were there to awhi the younger ones, and it was through their manaakitanga that the young people got stronger’.3 Ngati Poneke performed for troops leaving for the Second World War and on many other significant occasions. It was a place for recreation and learning, and continues to flourish.
Reg fought in the war, and Witarina said in later life that Ngati Poneke kept her strong during a difficult time and ‘made me more sensitive about my Māori values…. My survival – that is what Ngati Poneke meant to me’.4 She was a valued performer in the group, having grown up with the well-known recording artist Ana Hato, though she never felt like a confident soloist. Others said she had a beautiful voice.
In addition to Ngati Poneke, Witarina made time for a variety of other organisations focused on the betterment of Māori. She was part of the Wellington Welfare Committee headed by Lady Pōmare, became a founding member of the Maori Women’s Welfare League in the 1950s, a founding supporter of kōhanga reo and worked with Matua Whangai helping Māori women in prison. The Maori Women’s Welfare League named her as ‘Te Whaea o te Motu’ in 1979.
Reg died in 1979, and Witarina decided to move back to Rotorua. There she continued her te reo Māori and tikanga work at home, living next to her sister Francie (Francis) in Cosy Cottage, beside Lake Rotorua. She became involved with many Māori organisations, working as a volunteer tipi-haere kuia in pre-schools, for Āwhina Whānau Services, supporting te reo Māori initiatives and guiding tikanga for various occasions alongside her whanaunga. Her iwi Ngāti Whakaue and the other iwi of Te Arawa celebrated her contributions in various ways. For example, when Howard Morrison was asked to have his portrait painted in Rotorua, he instead suggested that Witarina be the subject. This portrait was displayed in the Rotorua City Council building.
In 1982 Jonathan Dennis, founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive (later Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision), sought Witarina out after he discovered that a copy of The devil’s pit might be available for repatriation to New Zealand. They became close friends and she began to influence his practice immediately, helping a European-style archive become more oriented towards Māori practices and protocols. Witarina became the Archive’s first kaumatua. In 1986 she was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for Community Services.
From 1986 to 1990, Witarina accompanied Māori films to screenings in San Francisco (her first overseas trip came at the age of 80), London, Paris, Honolulu, Munich and Los Angeles. In 1993 she visited Italy to feature in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a festival of silent films, to provide context for films of tangata whenua which might otherwise have been interpreted as merely ethnographic images of an exotic people of long ago.
When asked about the significance of The devil’s pit in 1993, she explained that it connected the people of today to their ancestors, and that this was of enormous importance: ‘I’m the living image of those strips of silent film that were taken so many, many years ago. They belong to my ancestors, those old people. I am the living image. I am a Māori’.5
In 1987, Witarina featured in the documentary ‘Ngā Pikitia Māori’ for television series Koha, presented by Lawrence Wharerau. In 2004, a film directed by Peter Wells about the friendship of Witarina and Jonathan Dennis was released at the New Zealand International Film Festival. In 2007 a further documentary about Witarina was played on Māori Television as part of a series on kuia entitled Ngā Ripo. The Film Archive presented Witarina with its Taiki Ngapara lifetime achievement award at its 25th anniversary gathering in December 2006.
Having benefited from the support of Ngata, Miria Pōmare and the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club as a young person, Witarina Harris modelled awhi and manaakitanga herself as she grew older, helping young people strengthen their Māoritanga. She worked hard with kōhanga reo as a native speaker, and as part of the Maori Women’s Welfare League and other community projects. She was also a bridge between the Māori and Pākehā worlds. Her long life was rich with experience, which she was always ready to share with others.
She was extremely close to her granddaughter and namesake Parewahaika, the son of Stuart and Beryl, and lived with Parewahaika’s whānau towards the end of her life. On her hundredth birthday, Witarina commented:
Kia mau te aroha i a koutou. – I have survived to this age, because I have always known the most important thing is love within your wider whānau.6
Witarina Harris died in Rotorua Hospital on 10 June 2007, at the age of 101. She was buried at the Kauae Cemetery in Ngongotahā.