Story: Wright, Rumatiki Ruth
Wright, Rumatiki Ruth
Ngati Kura; Maori welfare officer, community leader
This biography was written by Angela Ballara and Douglas Wright and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Ruth Gray was born on 27 April 1908 at Pipiriki on the Whanganui River. She was one of many children of Robert Gray, a farmer of English and Maori descent, and his wife, Ngaraiti Tuatini of Ngati Kura. Through her mother and grandmother, Ruth had connections to a number of other iwi, including Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi and Rangitane. Among her ancestors was Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui.
Ruth was brought up by her maternal grandfather, Tuatini Te Waiho, and his wife, Maria Whakaeapa. Tuatini, who had numerous grandchildren already in his care, was reluctant to support another, and named her after his ailment, rheumatism (rumatiki). He taught her traditional knowledge and customs and she also attended Pipiriki Native School. After her grandfather died when she was 16, Rumatiki was cared for by her aunt, Huia Tuatini, at Mangaporau, between Pipiriki and Hiruharama (Jerusalem). Huia trained her to appreciate domestic order and hygiene, healthy nutrition and such social niceties as fine crockery.
Rumatiki worked in a local flour mill until her marriage on 27 May 1926 to Angus Hikatoa Wright, of Ngati Tuwharetoa, at Raetihi. Angus worked as a drover on Morikau station. Life was hard: Angus was often away and was sometimes not paid, food was often short, and Rumatiki was isolated from her immediate family. They had three sons and a daughter. After the birth of her youngest son, Rumatiki worked in the laundry at the Raetihi hospital, cradling her baby in a spare laundry basket.
During these years Rumatiki was an active member of a number of women’s organisations. From 1928 she was a member of the Waimarino branch of the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union, a delegate to and voluntary organiser of the Ruapehu Federation of Women’s Institutes, and vice president of the Raetihi Women’s Institute. She was also a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand. Because of her leading role in the affairs of Raetihi, by the 1940s she was nicknamed by its European community ‘Mrs Rangatira Wright’. During the Second World War she worked with the Maori War Effort Organisation.
Rumatiki’s ability to work well with both Maori and Europeans attracted official attention, and she was appointed a Maori welfare officer in 1947. Based at Hawera, she was responsible for a large area of Taranaki. Among her many duties she was to encourage the formation of groups aimed at improving Maori living standards. Among the most important of these were branches of the Women’s Health League, begun in the Bay of Plenty in 1937. Rumatiki would gather the women of the community and explain the benefits of setting up a new branch of the league, their aims and duties. They should visit the sick, and report urgent cases to the district nurse; report on housing needs; encourage education and good housekeeping; foster Maori arts and crafts, sports and local talent of any kind; and hold functions to raise money for welfare or cultural projects. As one new branch secretary wryly reported: ‘It was like a bad dream to us when we heard the numerous duties we had to perform and though we don’t wish Mrs. Wright any harm we wished she had never shown her face in Taranaki’.
By August 1949 Rumatiki had organised 24 branches of the Women’s Health League in Taranaki. Some of these were affiliated to the Rotorua Central Committee, but tensions were developing between the central committee, usually staffed by employees of the Department of Health, and the predominantly Maori branches. In April that year, Rumatiki was offered a job as Maori organiser of the temperance movement, but wrote to Rangi Royal of the Department of Maori Affairs that she would not accept unless the central committee ceased hindering her work. She considered that, dominated by Pakeha, Maori women would lose heart, and asked for an organisation to be officially set aside for them. She suggested that the Department of Maori Affairs should control the health league because the work was best organised by the Maori women welfare officers. Royal was getting similar advice from other quarters, and during late 1948 and 1949 was coming to a similar view.
By October 1949 Rumatiki Wright had been appointed Maori welfare officer in Hamilton. She continued to set up branches of the Maori Women’s Health League, and when the Department of Maori Affairs supported the formation of the Maori Women’s Welfare League, she turned her attention to establishing branches of this organisation.
By late 1951 Rumatiki was recognised as the ‘Senior Lady Maori Welfare Officer’. She chaired the first dominion conference of the Maori Women’s Welfare League in Wellington in September 1951 and was dominion secretary for several months. But she preferred work in the field to office work, and before her term was finished she was replaced at her own request by Ralph Love. From 1952 to 1962 she was the Department of Maori Affairs representative on the dominion executive. Her tasks included attending branch meetings, introducing new welfare officers around their districts and to the league’s branches, and (frequently) being guest speaker at district conferences. In Hamilton, with other Maori welfare officers and league officials, she worked to develop an urban marae.
In 1958 Rumatiki was part of a New Zealand women’s delegation of good will to the Soviet Union. The following year she was appointed an MBE, and also gained a pass in School Certificate English by attending night school. Also in 1958 it was decided that Rumatiki, then stationed at Taumarunui as a welfare officer, should be seconded to the Maori Women’s Welfare League full time to undertake a recruitment drive to bolster flagging membership. Based in the Wellington head office of the Department of Maori Affairs, she travelled the country recruiting and reorganising league branches. The constant strain began affecting her health, and the league finally rearranged her itineraries so that she could have weekends free.
One of Rumatiki’s major roles in the mid 1960s, working from Hamilton, was to foster Maori pre-school education by setting up playcentres and reviving other community organisations in rural centres. The playcentres in the Waikato–Maniapoto district were among the first to encourage use of the Maori language, foreshadowing the kohanga reo scheme. Subsequently, Rumatiki visited Australian aboriginal communities to campaign for pre-school education with an indigenous component.
Rumatiki Wright retired in the early 1970s, but she did not stop working. All her life she returned to Raetihi for weekends, preserving the family unit and caring for their land interests. Her children and many of her grandchildren were high achievers: the latter have the motto, ‘You only have to be half as good as grandma and you will be okay’. In her retirement she went to Australia for periods as a fruit picker and as a prawn packer. She was planning another working holiday in Australia when she died suddenly at Pohara marae, at Arapuni, near Putaruru, on 15 December 1982, aged 74. She lay in state at Pohara marae, and was then taken to Hamilton marae; afterwards she was brought home to Ohakune and Raetihi. Close to 3,000 people attended her tangihanga. Three days later she was buried at the Raetihi lawn cemetery beside her husband, Angus, who had died in 1974.