She was a talented singer who at age 16 joined a Māori cultural troupe, traveling, playing piano, and performing throughout in New Zealand and abroad.
In 1949, her second husband died in a car accident. Widowed and pregnant, she decided to run for his seat in Parliament.
Her ambition was fiercely opposed by traditional Māori leaders who thought women didn’t belong in politics.
Rātana travelled the country by train, bus, and car, using her voice to represent her people. She would tell heart-rending stories of the hopelessness of some Māori lives.
Nevertheless, Iriaka Rātana did run, and she won election by a wide margin, becoming the first Māori woman to represent her people in her country’s Parliament.
On this day seventy years ago, Rātana delivered her historic “maiden speech” to the House of Representatives in Wellington, which was broadcast by radio across the country. She knew her words would make history — she was “fully aware of the unseen audience which is all over the country listening with curiosity, praise, criticism, or otherwise, to me, a Māori woman . . . “
The Māori are a Polynesian people who have lived in New Zealand since the 14th century. When Europeans arrived in the 17th century, the Māori were decimated by newly-introduced diseases, their land confiscated, their culture eroded.
But Māoridom has undergone a revival. Today Māori culture is respected and celebrated in New Zealand — thanks to leaders like Rātana who used her voice to fight for her people and keep the culture alive.
Today Māori culture is respected and celebrated in New Zealand — thanks to leaders like Iriaka Rātana who used her voice to fight for her people and keep the traditions alive.
In her maiden speech, Rātana honors her forbears and speaks with pride of the heritage, values and identity of the Māori. She laments the troubled history of Māori representation in government, observing that “Māori administration has been the graveyard of reputations.”
But ever the conciliator, she expresses optimism about the future, saying: “A spirit of progress is dawning, such as the Māori people have never realized before.”
As a Member of Parliament, Rātana focused on welfare issues, working to raise Māori living standards through land settlement, housing, education, and job training.
She travelled the country by car, train, and bus, speaking to her people, hearing their concerns, and carrying them back to the legislature and the Pākehā, the white community.
She would tell heartbreaking stories of the Māori people who were stuck in a cycle of poverty and powerlessness.
Her view was that the Māori needed to leave behind certain aspects of their communal way of life to integrate with the Pākehā, while retaining their language and identity. Unwilling to ruffle feathers, she always spoke positively of the government without soft-pedalling her advocacy.
Rātana held the electorate until 1969, and in her final speech as a politician she looked to a bright future for the Māori. Then she retired to her farm, where she died in 1981, survived by nine children and many grandchildren.
Today 50 of the current 121 members of parliament in New Zealand are women — of them 13 are Māori.
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