Story: Kokoro-Barrett, Hiria

Page 1 - Biography

Kokoro-Barrett, Hiria

1870–1943

Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe woman of mana, craftswoman, mutton-birder

This biography was written by Hiria Moffat and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Hiria Kokoro Tiratahi was born, according to family information, on 3 June 1870, possibly at Tuahiwi in Canterbury. Her father was Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe chief Henare Kokoro Tiratahi of Waipopo, near Temuka, and her mother was Mere Pukuwaitai Kahaki. Hiria had one younger brother, Namana, who died as a young child. Her hapu included Ngati Huirapa, Ngai Tuahuriri and, through her mother, Ngati Puneke. In later life she was often known as Taua Hiria.

Hiria was a strong-willed and beautiful girl. Little is known of her education, but she was literate in Maori. As the only survivor of her line of descent she was her father's heir. Consequently, a customary marriage was arranged, but in 1890 she eloped with William Gray, a labourer; they married on 19 June at Fortrose, near the mouth of the Mataura River. Her parents quickly forgave her, so she returned with her husband to Arowhenua pa where she brought up their three daughters: Irihapeti, Mere Ti and Makareta.

William died of pneumonia in 1895 when Hiria was only 24. She spent the next eight years with her parents, absorbing the attributes necessary for leadership, and the duties and obligations of a chief: to seek the welfare of her people and to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi. She was trained in whakapapa, karakia and waiata for every occasion as well as the rituals associated with different harvests and seasons. She also learned the arts and skills of her mother, cutting flax and ribbonwood for baskets, piupiu, cloaks, headbands and sandals, rubbing flax on her thigh to prepare it for weaving and dyeing.

In 1902 or 1903, at Temuka, Hiria married Francis George Te Hau Barrett (Pareti), a grandson of the whaler Dicky Barrett. They lived at Hiria's homestead, Te Raupu, at Waipopo, and were to have five daughters (Kiti, Hiria, Hine, Ihipera and Ema) and two sons (Henare Tiratahi Kokoro and Malta Tehau). Two other sons, Basil and Teoti, died in infancy. All these children, and those of Hiria's first marriage, were brought up at Waipopo. She spoke Maori to them at home but sent them to Arowhenua Native School, where she knew Maori was forbidden, to be educated.

Hiria's home was immaculate, with polished floors and wooden venetian blinds, white lace curtains, family portraits, treasured feather cloaks and flax garments displayed on the walls, and a piano used for sing-alongs when fishermen from the Waipopo huts were welcomed in for hospitality on Sundays. Outside, freesias bordered the veranda in front of the scrubbed brick courtyard, fruit trees flourished, and she grew vegetables and berry fruits, and kept horses, cows and hens. There was a well-equipped stable where the gigs and tack were cleaned, and a whata (storehouse) for food. Cooking was done in an outside cookhouse.

Throughout her life, Hiria carried on many aspects of the earlier lifestyle of her people. She made flax mats to sit on while working, and constructed eel traps and whitebait nets of flax and supplejack; she dried whitebait, lampreys and eels, and smoked flat-nosed mud-eels on an open fire. Hiria followed the traditional seasons, eeling during Te Hinapouri (the dark of the moon), and knew the time of the annual eel migration to the sea. She gathered watercress from the Opihi River and local creeks or puha from the garden during the winter months. She regularly visited Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), Wairewa (Lake Forsyth) and Wainono Lagoon, catching herring, trout and kokopu, and gathered mussels and pipi at Timaru.

Much of the food Hiria gathered was traded to supplement the family income. Her catches were sought eagerly as far afield as Dunedin and Southland. She also sold tea cosies, which she made herself. This trade helped provide the stores and equipment needed for the annual titi (mutton-bird) season on Taukihepa, or Big South Cape Island, near the south-west cape of Stewart Island. She also had a bach at Niagara, in the Catlins, where she would retreat.

These trips required months of preparation. Hiria gathered kelp to make bags for preserving, and wove outer baskets of flax for transporting the mutton-birds off the island. She and her family would board a light fishing vessel at Bluff around midnight. The rip tides were treacherous when they disembarked at the Poutama passage about 8 a.m., but the men knew by experience which rocks to look for and how to land the women and children safely by dinghy.

Hiria's bungalow on Taukihepa was half a mile uphill at Kaikaiawara. The group worked as a team, needing the support of all to survive three months on the island. Hiria's tasks included cleaning the house, making a warm and comfortable shelter, serving manuka tea and food to the men, and cutting tracks from the house through the foliage for the daytime catching of mutton-bird chicks.

Hiria set out mutton-birding each day, almost crawling from burrow to burrow. She would gather perhaps 80 chicks, and tie them in bundles of 10. There were always plenty because she observed the custom of leaving enough to ensure the return of the birds the next season. She also replanted a number of young trees before she left the island, to counteract any damage done to the bush.

After lunch each day Hiria plucked the birds; they were then hung overnight to harden. Hiria would leave the stomach, a favourite food of the old people, in some birds, pack them in kelp and let them mature for up to a year. She would also preserve birds in boiling mutton-bird fat. They were then packed in kelp with cold fat and made airtight. Salted birds she packed without fat; the juices produced by the salt made a natural pickle. Hiria also went on the torchlight hunt at night, although the cold and damp weather tended to dissuade her from going far. She fished or hunted for other foods on the island: seal meat, sea-urchins, paua, blue cod, butterfish, trumpeter and weka. This was Hiria's life from March till June each year, when she would return to Waipopo to rest.

As she grew old and her family moved on, Hiria continued to maintain the old ways, but she also aimed at providing a new kind of leadership. Her daughter, Mere Ti, married Paul Temuera (later canon of Rangiatea Church, Otaki), and Hiria asked him to minister at Arowhenua. His duty took him elsewhere; disappointed, she never again entered the church. She cut a fine figure in the new world, especially on trips to the Native Land Court at Temuka when she drove in a smart gig and dressed in the height of fashion. Hiria was one of the biggest landowners in the Arowhenua area and her expressed wish, in accordance with a promise given to her father, was that none of the land was ever to be sold outside the family. Barrett Lane, Waipopo, is named after her.

In later years Hiria continued to visit Niagara. She became something of a recluse, living alone in a makeshift dwelling while fishing, or in her bach. She was known to many as the 'Water Lady'. In the winter of 1943 she developed pneumonia, and died at Niagara on 4 September after asking for a last hot, sweet, black coffee. The kettle on the fire sang her last waiata.