Story: Ratana, Haami Tokouru

Page 1 - Biography

Ratana, Haami Tokouru

1894–1944

Ngati Apa; politician, Ratana leader

This biography was written by Angela Ballara and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Haami Tokouru Ratana, usually known as Toko, was born at Parewanui, on the west bank of the Rangitikei River, on 21 July 1894. He was the eldest of seven children of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana and his first wife, Te Urumanaao Ngapaki (also known as Ngauta Urumanao Baker). His principal descent group on his father's side was Ngati Apa, but he was also connected to the Whanganui peoples, Ngati Ruanui, Ngati Raukawa, Taranaki and Te Ati Awa; his connections to Nga Rauru and Ngati Hine were through his mother. He was sent to school at Whangaehu and was fully bilingual.

Toko Ratana enlisted in 1915 and served for four years in the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion at Gallipoli and in France. He was badly gassed and suffered ill health for the rest of his life.

He had probably not returned from the war when in November 1918 his father commenced the religious revival that developed into the Ratana church and political movement. On his return Toko seems to have joined in the movement without reservation. Pressure on Tahupotiki to use his influence in the political arena grew from 1920; in 1922 he was asked to stand himself or nominate candidates in the Maori seats, but he declined. Toko stood for Western Maori, and newspapers began to dub him a Ratana candidate, but his official stance was independent. He gained a solid 3,037 votes, 798 behind Maui Pomare.

These results showed the growing support for his comparatively radical position: the Ratana movement was committed to a Maori national identity, self-determination and the redress of grievances through the Treaty of Waitangi. The Maori establishment, on the other hand, was committed to working in co-operation with Pakeha governments and within the strait-jacket, as Toko and the Ratana movement saw it, of traditional tribal leadership.

On 7 April 1924, at Ratana pa, Toko married Ripeka Uruteangina of Ngati Apa; she was connected to peoples of the Whanganui River. They accompanied the Mangai (as his father was now called) on his pilgrimage to Britain, France, Japan and other countries in 1924–25. In the month of their departure Tahupotiki’s officers were re-establishing the Ratana federation. Toko was appointed to its executive council and was secretary of its financial board, though temporary substitutes were appointed while he was travelling. A second trip was made in 1925 to America. With these travels and the work involved in firmly establishing the Ratana movement, there was little time spare to contest the 1925 elections. But in June 1928 Toko's father turned to politics, announcing that, as the embodiment of the Ratana movement, he was dividing his body into four koata (quarters), one each for Eastern, Northern, Southern and Western Maori. Toko Ratana was the appointee for Western Maori.

In 1928, again competing against Pomare, Toko, although unsuccessful, achieved 3,075 votes. Following Pomare's death in 1930, Toko contested the by-election but came second to Te Taite Te Tomo of the Reform Party, who stood as Pomare's preferred successor.

In 1931 Tahupotiki Ratana abandoned his politically 'neutral' stance, openly demanding that Ratana followers vote for his koata. Toko was again to be the candidate for Western Maori. Prior to the election Ratana and his koata visited Wellington to attempt to negotiate a political deal with Harry Holland, leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. Toko, as spokesman, laid a document outlining Ratana policy before Holland. After the discussions he announced that the Ratana candidates would be Labour associates, but would stand as independents. In the event Toko again lost to Te Tomo. The voting had been made more complex by the participation of four independents, two of whom, Rima Wakarua and Pepene Eketone, were followers of Ratana.

As long as there were no Ratana MPs Toko Ratana was clearly accorded respect as the leader of the koata, but when Eruera Tirikatene was elected for Southern Maori in a 1932 by-election he became known as the principal koata. Toko spent time with Tirikatene in Wellington, acting as one of his aides. After Toko's own election in 1935 with a bare 38-vote majority, there was little change; Toko, a gentle and genuinely humble man, suffering from bouts of illness and with no pretensions to oratory, did not attempt to compete with Tirikatene and was happy to accept his leadership.

Toko Ratana gave his maiden speech in the House of Representatives on 21 October 1937, immediately honouring his pledge to his father by bringing up the subjects of major land grievances and the Treaty of Waitangi. He spoke only four more times in the House; twice in 1937 and twice in 1939. After he had been confirmed as his father's successor as leader of the Ratana church he seems to have regarded it as inappropriate.

After the death of his younger brother, Arepa, Toko Ratana was given the name Te Arepa in addition to his own. Within the spiritual side of the Ratana movement, he was by now the clear successor to his father, taking over the chairmanship of most of the important committees as the Mangai weakened. Tahupotiki Ratana died on 18 September 1939, and Toko was confirmed as his successor, taking the title Kai-Arahi (leader). He was harried by those who wanted changes to the movement's political and religious policies; without his mother's support he might not have succeeded in keeping Ratana's supporters faithfully following the wishes of the Mangai. Te Urumanaao died on 26 April 1940, after which the burden on Toko increased.

During the war, although often ill (he spent months in Patea hospital in 1941), Toko Ratana did what he could to support the war effort. He was opposed to conscription, but keen for a home guard to be manned by Maori; he regarded it as natural, and also said it accorded with the Mangai's wishes for Maori to defend their own land. He made strong representations to Prime Minister Peter Fraser when Apirana Ngata attempted to curtail the contact of Whanganui and Taranaki representatives on the Maori War Effort Organisation with Fraser, the minister in charge.

Ripeka Ratana died in 1934, and on 1 December 1935 Toko married Rangimarie Nepia; they had a son, who died aged seven, and a daughter. After Rangimarie's death in 1938 he married Mei (Maisie) Heemi at Ratana pa on 10 December 1939, with whom he had several children.

In 1943 Toko was returned for Western Maori with a majority of 3,309 votes. This was the first year in which all four Maori seats were held by Ratana members. From 18 to 20 October 1944, as head of the Ratana church, he took part in a Maori summit in Wellington to which other church leaders had been invited; together they made a public declaration of their support for the war effort. The purpose of the conference was to plan the future direction of the Maori War Effort Organisation and the continuance of Maori control over Maori affairs.

This was Toko Ratana's last significant act. He had been ill for months, and each issue of Te Whetu Marama carried a bulletin on his health. He died at Ratana pa, aged only 50, on 30 October 1944, survived by his third wife and several children. He was succeeded as president of the Ratana church and also as MP for Western Maori by his younger brother, Matiu.