11 Feb 2016

First Māori female MPs memorialised

8:56 pm on 11 February 2016

The first women to represent Māori in Parliament have been memorialised in the House, with portraits unveiled.

The portraits of Māori MPs Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan and Iriaka Rātana are unveiled at Parliament on 11 February 2016.

The portraits of history-making Māori MPs Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan and Iriaka Rātana are unveiled at Parliament on 11 February. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Marama McLachlan

The photographs of Western Māori MP Iriaka Rātana and Southern Māori MP Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan were unveiled in the former Māori Affairs Room, Matangireia, today.

About 60 descendants of the late pioneers attended the ceremony.

Te Haina Rātana Raumaewa removed the black satin cover revealing her mother Iriaka's picture.

"It felt really wonderful. It was like a completion," she said.

"I've been thinking about her for a wee while... and our life together, and I can't believe that she did what she did."

Mrs Rātana was the first woman to represent Māori in Parliament, succeeding her late husband Matiu Rātana in the Western Māori Seat in 1949.

She held the post for the Labour Party until she retired, 20 years later. In 1971, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to Māori.

Before entering Parliament, Ms Rātana spent most of her time dairy farming.

Iriaka Rātana's great-granddaughter, Lee-Arna Nepia, and daughter, Te Haina Rātana Raumaewa.

Mrs Rātana's great-granddaughter, Lee-Arna Nepia, and daughter, Te Haina Rātana Raumaewa. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Marama McLachlan

Te Haina Rātana Raumaewa looks up at the photo of her mother Iriaka Rātana, on the right.

Ms Rātana Raumaewa looks up at the photo of her mother, on the right. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Marama McLachlan

Ms Rātana Raumaewa, her oldest surviving daughter, said she was not home a lot growing up but the children did not resent her for it.

"We knew she loved us... And the time she did have with us, even if it was giving us a message in terms of not getting things right, they were done in a loving manner. She would physically show you she loved you.

"Up here, no one could believe she would come home, she would be cooking, she would be cleaning, she would be doing what any mother would do. She was very humble."

The black and white portraits join those of six other prominent Māori male politicians including Maui Pōmare and Sir Apirana Ngata.

The photo of Ms Tirikātene-Sullivan, who was the first female Māori Cabinet Minister, was put up next to the photo of her father Sir Eruera Tirikātene.

Dennis Sullivan, the husband of the late Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan, addresses the crowd.

Ms Tirikātene-Sullivan's widower, Dennis Sullivan, addresses a crowd including family members and current MPs. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Marama McLachlan

Dennis Sullivan, her widower, attended the unveiling with his daughters and mokopuna.

"Looking at Whetū's portrait up there alongside her dad brings back vivid memories and I am holding back tears in a way."

He joked about meeting Whetū at the Australian National University.

"I never met her dad and the first picture I saw of him was actually that one in [former residential college] University House. I was there as a Phd student from Sydney studying nuclear physics and I must admit I influenced Whetū's approach to anti-nuclear New Zealand."

Both women were followers of the Rātana faith and were remembered today as trailblazers of their time.

Their influence is undeniable; Mrs Ratāna's grandson Adrian Rurawhe is the MP for Te Tai Hauāuru, and Ms Tirikātene-Sullivan's nephew Rino Tirikātene is the MP for Te Tai Tonga.