Story: Stirling, Mihi Kotukutuku

Page 1 - Biography

Stirling, Mihi Kotukutuku

1870–1956

Te Whanau-a-Apanui and Ngati Porou woman of mana

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

Mihi Kotukutuku was born, according to family information, on 30 October 1870 at Pohaturoa, a point near Raukokore in the Bay of Plenty. She was the third daughter of Maaka Te Ehutu of Te Whanau-a-Maruhaeremuri, a hapu of Te Whanau-a-Apanui, and his wife, Ruiha Rahuta, of the neighbouring hapu Ngati Hinekehu. Both her parents were the senior people in their respective lines of descent; their marriage had been arranged to confirm peace and existing boundaries between the two hapu. Mihi was also descended from a leading ancestor of Ngati Porou, Mahuta-i-te-rangi, for whom a precious family tiki she often wore was named, and was kin to the Ngati Porou hapu Te Whanau-a-Ruataupare.

Before Mihi was born her eldest sister, Te Wharau, drowned in the Raukokore River. She was found on a rock with a kotukutuku (native fuchsia) in full flower suspended above her. The next daughter was named Keita Horowai to commemorate the manner of Te Wharau's death, and Mihi's own name came from the last mihi or salute given to the dead girl by the kotukutuku. Keita Horowai died as a young woman; it was believed that the two elder sisters were the victims of makutu and that Mihi herself was in danger. Although she was destined by seniority to be chief at Raukokore, many of her people would have preferred a male to inherit this position. Mihi was sent away as a teenager to live with Ngati Porou kin at Reporua for her own safety. Even so, when she became ill makutu was feared. A woman tohunga, Miriama Te Manu, released Mihi from the curse, but advised her to stay away from Raukokore until she was married, and not to marry a local man.

Mihi Kotukutuku followed this advice and was married to Duncan Stirling. The ceremony is said to have been conducted by Bishop Leonard Williams in the Raukokore Anglican Church in 1896. Duncan was of Pakeha, Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe descent. A qualified builder, he had worked for many years on the East Coast and was building a church at Te Horo when he came to the attention of Mihi's elders as a suitable husband for her. He spoke little Maori and was regarded as a Pakeha by some in the Raukokore community. Mihi's people had been Ringatu, but to ensure the success of the marriage most joined the Anglican church.

Duncan Stirling built a beautiful, many-roomed home for Mihi at Raukokore, known locally as Stirling Castle, and there she soon produced a son, the first of 10 children. He was named Taikorekore for a senior Te Whanau-a-Apanui ancestor. Duncan continued his building business and later branched into farming, particularly maize growing.

As the local chief, Mihi took a central role in seasonal rituals and activities. She was entitled to a first share of the fish called moki caught each season at Cape Runaway, and distributed them to her people. She was an expert at growing enormous kumara by traditional methods. Her people came to assist at planting and harvesting, but she allowed no one else to touch the growing shoots and stacked the tubers in the storage pit herself. She grew enough kumara to provide for all major local hui.

As a descendant of Muriwai, the woman who, according to one account, saved the Mataatua canoe from being swept onto rocks at Whakatane, Mihi Kotukutuku was among the few women of her generation who had the right to speak on the marae, at least within her own district. Mihi's elder sister Keita had been prepared for this role by training in whakapapa and tribal tradition, and after her death Mihi took her place. Often she did not speak herself, but organised the women to sing waiata in support of other women speakers. She knew innumerable waiata and sometimes composed her own. But there were occasions at important hui when, as the senior representative of her tribe, Mihi felt obliged to rise and speak.

Other tribal leaders challenged the right of women to take what was usually the role of male elders, and Mihi's position posed problems for them. Te Pairi Tuterangi of Tuhoe challenged her right to speak at Waimana, and Mita Taupopoki of Te Arawa did the same at a tangihanga at Ohinemutu in 1917. In an exchange that became famous among Maori, he told her to sit down and forbade her from trampling on the protocol of his marae. Mihi responded by giving her whakapapa, which established her own senior descent from Tama-te-kapua of Te Arawa canoe, and declared that Mita was junior to her. She then turned and exposed herself in the derisive act known as whakapohane, saying that he should not derogate women, since a woman had given him birth.

Mihi often defended traditional practices. As one strictly trained in the rules of tapu and noa, Mihi strongly opposed any contravention of them. Shocked to discover dishes and food inside the meeting house at Rangitukia, Waiapu, she overturned the lot and chided her hosts, saying, 'It is not the custom of Te Whanau-a-Apanui to eat the tapu of our ancestors!'

Late in 1919 Mihi Kotukutuku became ill with breast cancer, and with her husband made the long journey to Ratana pa near Wanganui, where Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana was at the height of his reputation as a faith healer. Mihi was blessed by Ratana and from that day she believed herself cured; the lump disappeared. Many years later the condition re-established itself and was a cause of her death.

Mihi Kotukutuku was a prominent landowner in the Raukokore district. In the nineteenth century her father, Maaka Te Ehutu, had successfully claimed the whole of the district, and in January 1919, when Raukokore land titles were reinvestigated by the Native Land Court, Mihi's second son, Eruera Kawhia Whakatane Stirling, represented her interests. The judge awarded most of the land to Mihi, but she was generous and included several other local families in the titles. She was the major owner in the Tawaroa block, and when the Tawaroa Incorporation was founded in 1917 was one of the main shareholders. Tawaroa, leased to J. S. W. Nielson, earned well, and in 1924 the shareholders, encouraged by Apirana Ngata, used it as security for a loan from the Waiariki District Maori Land Board. This loan was used to set up the Te Kaha Dairy Factory. Many of Mihi's people began dairy farming, and for a long time the cream cheque was the foundation of their security.

Mihi Kotukutuku supported Ngata warmly in all his land development endeavours, and when he visited the district of Te Whanau-a-Apanui he often stayed with her. During the First World War, when he was raising funds to invest in land for the returning soldiers of the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion, Mihi gave the rentals of some of her properties, instructing Ngata to say that the money came from Te Whanau-a-Apanui. She gave consent for her husband and second son, Eruera, to campaign for Ngata, and when Eruera turned to Labour for a short period she refused to allow him to use her hall for campaign meetings.

Mihi's regard for Ngata endured through good times and bad. In 1939, a short while after the death of her eldest son, Ngata persuaded her to give financial support for the carving of Tukaki, the meeting house of Te Kaha, even though she would have preferred her own meeting house, Hine Mahuru on Wairuru marae, to be carved first. She was heartbroken, but not surprised, when Ngata lost his seat in 1943, having foreseen the change in his fortunes. During Ngata's last illness Mihi visited him and he requested that she should sing all the proper laments at his tangihanga. When the time came, late in July 1950, she led Te Whanau-a-Apanui on to the marae at Waiomatatini, fulfilling his request.

All her life Mihi Kotukutuku was involved in voluntary work for the people of her district. On the occasion of the coronation of George V in 1911 she received a medal and a certificate from Buckingham Palace in recognition of her own contribution and that of her father before her. In 1953 she was presented to Queen Elizabeth at Rotorua, a reward for her health and welfare work, and for her support of land development and improvements in Maori housing.

Mihi Kotukutuku Stirling died at Raukokore on 14 November 1956. She was survived by her husband and six of her children. At her tangihanga, Te Arawa came in force led by Kepa Ehau; he acknowledged her status paradoxically by heaping insults on her grave in repayment for her famous exchange with Mita Taupopoki nearly 40 years before. She was buried on 17 November in Moutara cemetery at Raukokore.