‘She was a fighter’: Māori leaders react to death of Titewhai Harawira


Titewhai Harawira was relentless in pursuing justice for Māori and her absence at Waitangi will be felt this year, Māori leaders say.

Harawira’s death was announced by her son and politician Hone Harawira on Wednesday morning. She was 90 years old.

Actor, activist and Ngā Tamatoa member, Rawiri Paratene (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa), said he was proud to have known Harawira.

“Moe mai e te rangatira whaea. She was a fighter. So much of a fighter. Now she’s going to rest.”

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Paratene said he was thinking of Harawira’s whānau today, including her son Hone and his wife Hilda.

“I’m proud of her, and I’m proud of my own association because we were both from Ngā Tamatoa. Moe mai. Moe mai.”

An iconic image of Titewhai Harawira, taken at Waitangi as she led then prime minister John Key on to Te Tii Marae on February 5, 2013.

Lawrence Smith/Stuff

An iconic image of Titewhai Harawira, taken at Waitangi as she led then prime minister John Key on to Te Tii Marae on February 5, 2013.

Tāme Iti (Ngāi Tūhoe) heard of Harawira’s passing overnight, when Hone Harawira posted a pānui to her friends and whānau.

Iti, an activist and artist, spent “a lot of time” with Harawira in the 70s as Māori activism took off across the nation.

A phone tree of those activists had been calling each other all morning to acknowledge the woman Iti called “the whaea of the motu”.

He remembers her as a woman who was always on the go, and would lay down a wero (challenge) when one was called for.

Iti recalled with a chuckle when Harawira challenged former prime minister Helen Clark after speaking on “her marae”.

Titewhai Harawira with then prime minister Jacinda Ardern at the Auckland Waitangi Dawn service in 2021.

RICKY WILSON/Stuff

Titewhai Harawira with then prime minister Jacinda Ardern at the Auckland Waitangi Dawn service in 2021.

“You need people to not just challenge the system, but challenge our people,” Iti said.

“She was a real character. Very Shakespeare, very theatrical in the way she dressed and her āhua (character).

“She could be a bully, but a good bully. Some people need a bit of shaking, especially from a Ngāpuhi woman.”

Harawira and Iti share the same birthday and had been trying to arrange to celebrate together over the past few years.

It was sad that they wouldn’t get that chance, or the chance to meet again at Waitangi, Iti said.

“She could be a bully, but a good bully,” Tāme Iti said of Titewhai Harawira, whose birthday he shares.

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

“She could be a bully, but a good bully,” Tāme Iti said of Titewhai Harawira, whose birthday he shares.

“She was the face of [Waitangi], not just for Te Tai Tokerau, for the north, but for the motu.

“It’s sad, but you don’t live forever. I just really acknowledge all the mahi she’s done over the years.

“Aroha to her, she will be missed.”

Iti said he would be making his hīkoi up to Hoani Waititi Marae in preparation for her tangi.

Waitangi National Trust Board chairperson Pita Tipene (Ngāti Hine) said he was surprised to hear of Harawira’s passing.

About two weeks ago, Harawira led a Ngāpuhi hui for more than 300 people, Tipene said.

“She was sitting up the front, effectively she was the champion of the meeting and so when she spoke she was strong – she was in a wheelchair but she was strong – so the news certainly came as a surprise.”

Pita Tipene, Waitangi National Trust Board chairperson and Ngati Hine leader said Harawira was someone you could not ignore.

Denise Piper/Stuff

Pita Tipene, Waitangi National Trust Board chairperson and Ngati Hine leader said Harawira was someone you could not ignore.

Her legacy as the matriarch of Te Tai Tokerau, if not the nation, was contentious, but her unwavering commitment to upholding the promise of Te Tiriti and caring for her people could never be called into question, Tipene said.

“She demanded accountability, demanded attention. You couldn’t ignore her because of her strength and her sharp tongue – her sharp mind for that matter.”

Tipene said he was confused when he first started working with her because she appeared to be a walking contradiction, criticising the Government, yet guiding prime ministers on to her marae.

“She was very critical of politicians in general, and yet she would hold the hand of the prime minister and guide her on to the marae, ensuring our prime minister’s safety. It made me think, ‘How can she be so critical of politicians and be a person to pamper them?’

“[But] it quickly became evident that she could separate the politics from the person.”

Minister for Māori Crown Relations and MP for Te Tai Tokerau Kelvin Davis said Harawira was a loving mother and grandmother who would be missed, regardless of whether people agreed with her.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Minister for Māori Crown Relations and MP for Te Tai Tokerau Kelvin Davis said Harawira was a loving mother and grandmother who would be missed, regardless of whether people agreed with her.

Kelvin Davis, the MP for Te Tai Tokerau and Minister for Māori Crown Relations, said Harawira was a loving mother and grandmother who would be missed, regardless of whether people agreed with her.

“Āe, i te tuatahi, he māmā, he nanny, he kuia, engari ko te mea nui, i whawhai tonu ia mō ngā moemoeā mō Ngāpuhi. Nā reira e pāpōuri ana mātou katoa o Ngāpuhi i te hingatanga o tēnei o ngā kuia.”

She was a force, a formidable opponent and a staunch supporter in equal measure, said Davis.

The pair had spoken as recently as last Sunday about upcoming Waitangi Day events and the recent Waitangi Tribunal report.

“She fought for what she believed in, she fought for what she thought was right. She fought for what she thought would progress Ngāpuhi in the first instance but also Māori…”

Harawira was highly proper, Davis said, the kind of person to drink out of bone china teacups rather than a mug.

She also had a softer side that many didn’t see.

“I remember one time [Harawira] and her family were in a café and there was a Pākehā mother with a young baby who was crying…”

“Titewhai said to her daughter: ‘Hinewhare, go and take that baby off that mother and give her a break.’”

Marama Davidson serving Titewhai Harawira breakfast at Waitangi in 2019.

Green Party/Supplied

Marama Davidson serving Titewhai Harawira breakfast at Waitangi in 2019.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said she was looking forward to serving Harawira breakfast again at Waitangi next week, as she had done in 2019.

Davidson paid tribute to Harawira’s decades of “feisty, staunch activism”, adding that the Northland kuia’s passionate commitment to progressing te ao Māori aspirations should be honoured.

“Massive mihi to her lifelong dedication to advancing te ao Māori interests,” Davidson wrote in her tribute.

“Auē ka tangi! – Ohhh, we mourn! Kua mate a Titewhai Harawira. Me mihi ka tika ki a koutou o Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Hine – te whānau whānui koutou ko te whānau pani hoki. Titewhai Harawira has passed away. We must acknowledge all of Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Wai, and Ngāti Hine – the wider whānau, and the mourning whānau too.”

Davidson said she attended Harawira’s 90th birthday celebrations at the end of October last year.

“The gathering was testament to her lifelong staunch commitment to activism and action to advance political aspirations for te ao Māori,” she said.

“There are not enough words in the world to express the gratitude for her mahi and focus and legacy – the fruits of which can be seen all around us today in te reo rights, land rights, fishing rights and succession in activism movements to name a few.”

“Moe mai rā, e te whaea, e te māreikura, e te tōtara i te wao nui a Tāne! Be at rest now, my esteemed friend, oh great tōtara in the forest of Tāne!” Davidson said.

Twitter has seen an outpouring of messages acknowledging Harawira and the role she played upholding te ao Māori.

Disabilities advocate and lawyer Dr Huhana Hickey (Ngāti Tāhinga, Whakatōhea) said her commitment to te ao Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi was admirable.

“That generation, they never compromised what they believed in.

“They are the ones that set the foundations that many younger Māori have grown from.”

From the Māori Language Commission, the Waitangi Tribunal and the increased presence of te ao Māori in everyday life, Harawira, and activists like her, have been there consistently challenging the status quo for decades to ensure the promises of Te Tiriti would be honoured, Hickey said.

“She never retired. Once you stand up you can’t sit back down.

“Of course she put down the wero on those people, and followed through with them. I admire her greatly.

“We’re losing a generation of leaders … now the next generation are going to be our kuia and kaumātua.”

Dame Naida Glavish (Ngāti Whātua, Ngāti Hine) said Harawira had been true to her work to protect the intentions of rangatira who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“The North has lost a mighty tōtara before her, and there will be still mighty tōtara standing to ensure the work, the legacy left by our ancestors is carried out.

“In terms of Titewhai, she never lost sight of the spirituality of the cause. She never lost sight of the psychological impact of the purpose.”

Dame Naida Glavish and Titewhai Harawira, alongside Clarke Gayford and then prime minister Jacinda Ardern, at Waitangi.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

Dame Naida Glavish and Titewhai Harawira, alongside Clarke Gayford and then prime minister Jacinda Ardern, at Waitangi.

Glavish said Harawira was an amazing mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who always held herself with dignity.

“She never lost sight of the fact that she was and is, to the day she closed her eyes … a woman.”

The significance of Harawira’s passing so close to Waitangi Day will be keenly felt at Waitangi.

Such a huge loss and at such an important time, says Waitangi curatorial manager Caitlin Timmer-Arends.

“She was an absolute powerhouse. She had a confidence and strength of will and character that could be felt at just the mention of her name. In 2016, Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi opened, and with it opened the exhibition Disenchanted Prophets: Matakite Matekiri.

Titewhai Harawira on the right, protesting with Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard on the Waitangi Grounds during Waitangi Day celebrations in 1985.

John Miller/Archive

Titewhai Harawira on the right, protesting with Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard on the Waitangi Grounds during Waitangi Day celebrations in 1985.

“I remember seeing such a strong photograph in the exhibition of Titewhai standing with Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard. John Miller captured these three wāhine toa standing together in 1985, these three pillars who had and continue to inspire generations of people to stand up for Te Tiriti and for Māori.

“My favourite memories of Titewhai at Waitangi all revolve around the same thing – when she arrived, word would make its way through the staff, and we all seemed to stop for a moment to acknowledge her presence. It was never a conscious thing but all of us would momentarily stop what we were doing, look over to her, and only once we had sighted her would we return to our jobs.”

Timmer-Arends said the loss of Harawira will be felt at Waitangi, especially in the next fortnight.

“Luckily, she has inspired so many people to stand up that her legacy will be felt forever.”

Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere said Harawira polarised people but helped advance Māori affairs.

Jason Dorday/Stuff

Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere said Harawira polarised people but helped advance Māori affairs.

Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere said Harawira was relentless in advancing Māori-related matters.

“She polarised people and in any national discourse, people that polarise often ensure that we land in the middle somewhere where we get a great accommodation,” he said.

“But if you don’t have people that polarise, you never get there.”

He called Harawira a remarkable person who showed courage and said she was the “foundation māmā” of Auckland’s Hoani Waititi Marae.

“Her kids grew up in our hood, I went to school with a couple of them. They had a very difficult upbringing because they lost their father early,” he said.

“So they did it pretty tough, and she did very well as an early widowed mother of eight. A lot of people don’t appreciate that she went through struggle street even there.”

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