Story: Puriri, Nau Paraone Kawiti

Page 1 - Biography

Puriri, Nau Paraone Kawiti

1924–1979

Ngati Kahu, Nga Puhi and Ngati Hine; land title officer, Maori welfare worker

This biography was written by Angela Ballara and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Nau Paraone Kawiti Puriri, usually known as Brownie Puriri, was born on 7 March 1924 at Ngararatunua, north of Whangarei, the son of Titore Takiri Puriri of Ngati Kahu, a surveyor’s assistant of Kaikohe, and his wife, Wikitoria Katerina Keretene (Cherrington), of Ngati Hine and Nga Puhi. Wikitoria was the younger daughter of Canon W. H. Keretene (Cherrington) and his wife, Te Paea, and was descended from Te Ruki Kawiti.

Brownie Puriri was educated at Ngararatunua School, followed by secondary education at Mount Albert Grammar School. He was the school’s boxing champion for three years, played in the First XV, and was selected for the Auckland secondary schools representative team in 1941. In 1943 he joined the Native Department in Auckland, working as a cadet adjusting land titles and with the Native Land Court. He enlisted in the army in 1944 but was injured when he fell off a truck and was on leave for the rest of the war. On 1 June 1948, at Orakei, he married Rangiaho Aratai Lena Hira, grand-daughter of Te Hira Pateoro, the principal elder of Ngati Whatua at Orakei in the early twentieth century. Brownie and Rangiaho raised three children: a son, a daughter and a foster daughter.

Based at Orakei, Puriri was the leader of a youth club and cultural group, and was also chairman of the Waitemata Tribal Executive. In 1955 he transferred to Whangarei, where he worked as a consolidation and conversion officer. Among other responsibilities he worked at reducing the number of uneconomic farms in the Panguru–Hokianga area, and presided over the work of nine district tribal committees set up under the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945.

Brownie Puriri returned to Auckland about 1957 as district welfare officer for the Department of Maori Affairs, and settled at Glen Innes. He became known for his work assisting Maori with employment and for speaking out on the need for genuine racial equality. He made a survey of Auckland job opportunities with a view to finding work for Maori people, and in 1959 published an article, ‘Opportunities and dangers in Auckland’, in the Department of Maori Affairs’ magazine Te Ao Hou. The article pointed out that urban migration was inevitable and emphasised the need for parents to assist their children to gain education. He was always quick to defend Maori from the charge that they were allowing their culture to decay, saying that cultural adaptation was an inevitable result of industrialisation.

Late in 1959 Brownie Puriri was appointed assistant controller in the Maori Welfare Division of the Department of Maori Affairs in Wellington, and settled with his family in Porirua. He succeeded W. T. Ngata as associate editor of Te Ao Hou in 1961. He sought to strengthen the Maori-language input of the magazine, and introduced the use of macrons, which he preferred to double vowels as markers of long vowels. As editor he occasionally reviewed books and articles by various writers.

In December 1961 Puriri was invited to be one of 10 New Zealand delegates to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Second Commonwealth Study Conference, which was held in Canada in May 1962 and which studied the effects on society of industrial development. On his way to the conference he visited Fiji, and in New York spoke on the Voice of America radio programme. After the conference Puriri visited London, where he was impressed by the behaviour in pubs compared to that in New Zealand, which had six o’clock closing; and Hong Kong, where he noted the sacrifices often made by Chinese families to educate their children. He returned to New Zealand with the impression that people’s problems were much the same everywhere and that, although Maori warmth, spontaneity and communal values were things to cherish, Maori did not make full use of the opportunities open to them. He considered that Maori had been fortunate to retain their identity, which he attributed to enlightened government action.

Puriri continued to see New Zealand as a land of opportunity for Maori, and he was often in demand as a public speaker. In 1967 he was quoted as saying that Maori were over-sensitive about race relations, and in 1970 he claimed that New Zealand was ‘streets ahead of the rest of the world in the field of race relations’. By this time he was assistant controller of the Maori Welfare Division in Auckland.

Brownie Puriri had a long association with Waitangi. In 1953 he laid down a cloak for Queen Elizabeth to walk on (a controversial action earlier declined on the excuse of age by his senior kinsman and elder, Kirihi Te Riri Maihi Kawiti). In 1962 he was instrumental in preparing for the 1963 royal visit to Waitangi. By then he was a member of the Waitangi National Trust Board, and had been appointed controller of the Waitangi Nga Puhi organisation for the visit. He was responsible for the selection of haka and powhiri (welcome) parties and for the construction and operation of the camp at Waitangi, developed to cater for more than 3,000 Maori from 2 to 8 February. Puriri arranged for John Taiapa to carve the wero (challenge) sticks for the occasion, and invited the Waihirere group under Wiremu Kerekere to be the principal entertainers, a slightly controversial move in that they were from the East Coast rather than Northland.

On 5 February a Kotahitanga or Maori nationalist flag was raised at Waitangi. Marae elders appealed to Puriri as the senior representative of the Maori Affairs Department, and he tore the flag down. He spoke on behalf of Maori at the 1969 Waitangi Day celebrations and in the mid 1970s organised a combined meeting of Maori trust boards at Waitangi.

Brownie Puriri, who had long suffered from diabetes, died at his home in Glen Innes aged only 55 on 1 September 1979, survived by his wife and children. He was buried at Ngararatunua three days later. His brother, Hohaia, said of him: ‘Brownie was a simple and a humble man. He considered it an honour to do menial jobs as this could be an example to the young ones. He [led] by example, the way a chief should’. A big, strong, 22-stone man in his prime, he was impatient of the new generation of more radical Maori leaders who by the end of his life were calling for change to the contemporary official programme of integration.