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No. 21 (December 1957)
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On 30 October, Tipi Tainui Ropiha, I.S.O., retired as Secretary for Maori Affairs. We tried to interview him so that we could record the story of his life for the benefit of our readers. Unfortunately, he was too evasive. On a few occasions he met our questions with some momentary deafness, then he put us off to another day, and finally we were told he saw no point in the idea; the fuss of writing about people when they were leaving was grossly overdone. He doubted whether before the eye of history his work would really amount to much.

It was difficult to answer. When people say such things all they usually want is a violent denial and protestation that to the reporter, at any rate, their work appears immortal. Mr Ropiha was clearly the exception. He was sincere. And he sincerely hated to go over the striking episodes of his life and have them distorted by the glare of publicity.

He is not an easy man to understand. There are few in whom both thought and feeling are developed to such a degree, for usually those who sense most deeply the inner life of other beings prefer to contemplate rather than act, while those who act most easily are usually least sensitive to the hurt of others, and do instinctively and quickly what must in any case be done.

If a man of deep feeling has to take such decisions he does it slowly and painfully; it is always a wrench to cut off temporarily the relationships with those who have to be denied.

I noticed soon that he was quite different from the other public servants in the office. He walked through corridors without apparent purpose; he had a different sense of what was important and what was trivial.

One of the accountants told me with a tone of foreboding that he was something of a philosopher. Behind this sensitiveness, this hesitation, there was one of the most unusual and difficult careers in New Zealand. It has been said that his business ability was very remarkable, but what is perhaps more interesting is Mr Ropiha's important influence on the Maori people in a period of rapid culture change. This influence began, in a smaller way, right at the outset of his career.

Surveying Was His Ambition

Mr Ropiha was born at Waipawa, in 1895, a member of Ngati Kahungunu. He was educated at Waipawa district high school and Te Aute College, where he developed a strong interest in mathematics. He joined the Public Works Department in 1912 as a cadet, but it became his ambition to become a surveyor. His spare time was spent almost entirely in study. Before he could qualify, the war started and he went overseas as a bombardier with the artillery. As soon as he came back he resumed his studies and in 1920 qualified as a surveyor at Canterbury College. Shortly after, he married Rhoda Walker, from Omaio (Whanau-a-panui) who bore him a daughter Rina, and a son Peter.

As a surveyor he worked both in private practice and with the Lands and Survey Department. He enjoyed the adventure of surveying. A lot of the land he worked on was Maori land, particularly Tuwharetoa and the Urewera.

In his profession he established his first link with Maori land, its owners and its problems. He worked in places where surveyors are traditionally unpopular with the Maori people and had to set people's minds at ease and offer help in their difficulties. It made a big difference to the chiefs to discuss things in their own language with a young man they trusted. His-special mentor in those days was Hemi Pitiroi who is still living at Nukuhou. These frendships were still remembered many years later when Mr Ropiha became head of the Department of Maori Affairs.

In the nineteen thirties, he worked for a while in the Native Department. He did surveys for land development in Waikato and the far North and some of the young men he trained and influenced were Maoris who later made notable careers as teachers or public servants in other fields. In this time of unemployment, getting land development started often meant the difference between starvation and a solid livelihood. The survey team was

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enthusiastically for getting work started, worked at all hours. In a series of weekends. Mr Ropiha and his associates mapped out a plan for the Turanyawawae Estate, Taruewahia in an effort to persuade the government to pay unemployment subsidy to the workers. This was not an official duty, but it led to the government paying unemployment subsidies which enabled the Estate to be established on a firmer financial basis.

His first senior appointment, to the post of Chief Surveyor, Blenheim, did not come until 1940. It came, not from ambition to climb the public service ladder, but from a certain unhappiness with the Native Department as it was then. The Permament Head tried to dissuade him from leaving, offered him prospects, and told him ‘that his real job was with his own people’. In those days very few Maoris were given responsible posts in the public service and the Native Department unfortunately was no exception. Mr Ropiha flared up and told the Permanent Head that the only job he would apply for in the Native Department would be his own. Later, among friends, he expressed great regret for this sudden and unusual burst of temper. ‘I don't know what came over me,’ he said.

Success Came Suddenly

In 1947, with the post of Under-Secretary of the Native Department about to fall vacant, the Maori people thought the time had arrived-when a Maori should get this appointment. The Minister at the time was the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, who was sympathetic to the request. Some Maori leaders, notably from Hawkes Bay and the Waikato, recommended Tipi Tainui Ropiha as a suitable representative of the race.

The man they chose had never been interested in politics, he was not known as an orator on the

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maraes of New Zealand. His role had been that of a surveyor, a helper in land development. So they intimately knew his attitude to land, to Maori land, and this attitude was unique.

Coming from Hawkes Bay, where most Maoris lost their land heritage early through land sales, he could understand the passionate attachment of people to their land, yet stood outside it to a certain extent. He had spent most of his life as a surveyor and land development officer and had imbided a mathematical and economic attitude to land, without ever losing the sentiment about it surrounding him during his childhood. From his speaking about land the elders saw the depth of his feeling as well as a forcefulness driving to a new, more productive and more satisfying use of the land. They encouraged Mr Ropiha to apply for the job of Assistant Under-Secretary.

Mr Fraser asked for a public service report and when this was favourable called for an interview. Mr Ropiha described this crucial moment in his life during his farewell at Ngati Poneke Hall in Wellington. He arrived from Te Kuiti with lumbago. Mr Fraser peered at the public service report, holding it close to his face, and read a few odd phrases out aloud: ‘Successfully organised land development’. Then he looked hard at his prospective under-secretary and said: ‘I detest successful men. They usually succeed by walking over others. Mr Ropiha, if I ever find you riding roughshod over the Maori people, I'll send you back to Te Kuiti on your ear.’

Mr Ropiha looked very distressed. He thought of the long ten years stretching before him until his retirement, and the sort of talk he might have to listen to at the Minister's office. At once, his lumbago got ten times worse. The Prime Minister saw the mute shock on Mr Ropiha's face, changed his tone and said: ‘Young man, I think you and I will get on well together. Come and have lunch with me today.’

He Transformed the Department

His influence on the Maori situation has been considerable. He keenly felt a dual obligation: to the government as a public servant, and a special obligation to the Maori people.

At his office, there was a constant flow of Maori people wishing to pour out their hearts to one of their own race in authority and Mr Ropiha considered it his duty to listen to all of them.

The first job he did as under-secretary was to go to Taranaki to discuss the then contentious matter of the West Coast Settlement leases. On the imminent expiry of these leases, better terms had to be negotiated for the Maori owners. Mr Ropiha spent the whole day in gruelling and effective discussions with the lessees to press the Maori proposals. At the end of the session, the lessees’ solicitor took a senior official of the department aside and asked him: ‘Is this Mr Ropiha's first day in office?’ On being told it was, he exclaimed: ‘Let us hope that all his days are not like this one’.

Mr Ropiha could be a formidable negotiator. Looking quite innocent as if he emerged only yesterday from the deepest backblocks he would ask questions which seemed full of naive curiosity. One tended to answer such questions with a certain kindness and indulgence, only to find oneself enmeshed in an inextricable self-made web. And then, a straight victory against Mr Ropiha was virtually impossible. He was a master in wearing out the enemy.

While he was very quick at doing what he thought desirable, those who tried to make him do the opposite found so many difficulties in their path that they somehow never reached their ends. ‘Nobody has ever worn me out,’ was one of the few boasts he ever made.

As champion of Maori interests, the Secretary enhanced the Maori owners' rewards from the Greymouth and Taranaki leases and lands vested in the Maori Trustee.

On the marae he would always be immaculate, smooth as a diplomat, and speak in clear, modern Maori, which was correct and lively but never became ornate. It was the first time since Ngata that the elders had heard the voice of authority speak in the Maori tongue, and not only did they understand the argument better, but in Maori they were better able to assess the hidden thoughts and motives behind the speech. They could be sure of its honesty where they were suspicious in English.

Until Mr Ropiha took over, Maori owners in many cases had no part in the administration of land the department was farming on their behalf. It was lucky that after 1948, it became government policy first, to give the owners an advisory voice, and then, wherever possible, to hand over full control to Maori incorporations or individuals. It was Mr Ropiha's job to carry out this policy which he did with vigour and determination. There was a good deal of opposition from certain quarters. Mr Ropiha worked with the greatest patience and diplomacy, but when that did not avail he used his full authority. (‘I have come here to hear how it can be done, not why it cannot be done.’)

In this way, Maori leaders were clothed with a new dignity as they were entrusted with full say over their patrimony and so an atmosphere of mutual trust developed which changed Maori attitudes to officialdom over the last ten years.

In the end it was always on the marae that the fundamental decisions were taken. At Te Kao, a village where land development had started with wonderful enthusiasm, apathy and indifference had gradually developed through a number of unfortunate events over the years. Mr Ropiha went there to discuss the matter. He saw the problems of the community, and got their support for a plan of reform. This getting of personal support was

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an essential preliminary to far-reaching changes.

Back at the office, he had of course to make sure of the details. A young and highly intelligent field supervisor was sent to the area; money was made available for regrassing and restocking; uneconomic holdings were amalgamated and three years later butterfat production from the area had more than doubled.

He influenced his department officers in two ways. First, he insisted on full facts before reaching a decision and he had a rare intuition of the kind of facts that would prove to be relevant. Then, where predominantly pakeha officers have to deal with Maori clients, it is sometimes peculiarly difficult to find out just what the clients' real situation is. Genuine cases of hardship can be very shy and uncommunicative or say the wrong sort of things, while less genuine cases can seem dreadfully convincing. During the last ten years, the welfare division has done a great deal of this difficult job of getting at the facts, but a good deal of the impetus came from him, from the top.

The fact that the Permanent Head was a Maori naturally did much to bring about a change in the department to the Maori people generally.

It was this fact, too, that has had a deep influence throughout the Maori world and even among other Polynesian peoples. He became a symbol of the emergence and progress of the Maori, of the equal status of the two races in New Zealand.

On the question of the future of the Maori, Mr Ropiha steered a wise course which to the casual onlooker might sometimes seem a vaccilating one. He could be very scathing about the sort of attitude which places the pakeha on a pedestal and then tells the Maori to become like him. On the other hand, he also had little patience with people who thought the Maori should somehow try to keep separate from the general life of the country. As he believed that the Maori should grasp every chance at social and economic improvement, so he thought he should be open to the spiritual, cultural, and scientific values of the pakeha. Mr Ropiha himself had the deepest curiosity towards all things of the spirit, went regularly to the National Orchestra, was interested in painting, liked to discuss the emergence of Asia. In practice, he was a champion of all kinds of Maori causes, whether their flavour was ancient or modern, judging each initiative not by any theory of the future of the Maori, but by the zest and vitality behind it.

He could never forget that he personally had not reached his position in the traditional Maori way. In his youth, his ambiton had been to be a surveyor; he then had with all his force rejected the pa in favour of mathematics and evening study. Only at a later age had he returned to his people, had learned something of Maori oratory in his fifties and at the age of sixty he once said

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to me he felt he might almost be becoming a kaumatua.

The conflict between the roles he had to play would have broken many men. To be a champion of the Maori people and at the same time fit harmoniously into the government machine with its army of accountants, auditors and inspectors is far more difficult than it sounds. Only a generation ago, in Sir Apirana Ngata's day, it proved to be quite impossible. The Secretary (in 1957 he assumed this title) found himself bound to both sides with the same absolute loyalty. There were his Maori moods and his official moods. During the Maori moods he tried to forget the official difficulties as much as possible, seemed entirely free of care. These moods were essential to him. I remember how on my first tour with Mr Ropiha to the Te Aute Centennial he suddenly disappeared from the marae, was nowhere to be found. It was a time of great pressure and many people were looking for him. He was in the cookhouse, helping to peel potatoes.

When the official pressure was on, the atmosphere and the claims of the marae sometimes seemed far away. However, when he finally decided something important, both sides of his experience had somehow achieved a balance.

His greatest support as he was being pulled between the two worlds lay in religion. Right through his career as Secretary, he gave much or his time to the Anglican Church, as a people's warden and lay representative in Synod. The Church provided him with a view of himself and his work which was without conflict: in the end all that mattered was selfless dedication to the wellbeing of others, the virtue of charity.