Taranaki Maori celebrate remarkable leader
Kia ora koutou. By the time this article is published, the 78th annual Pomare Day will have passed, with celebrations at Owae Marae commemorating the life of a remarkable Taranaki leader.
For those of you not familiar with Pomare day, it is a significant event in the Taranaki Maori calendar, recognising the life and work of Sir Maui Pomare (Ngati Mutunga-Ngati Toa) who became the first Maori doctor, and was well known for his efforts to improve Maori health at a pivotal time in Maori history.
He became an influential Member of Parliament, and someone who worked hard to combat the injustice of the Taranaki land confiscations.
Pomare was born at Pahau Pa, close to the site of the present-day Onaero motor camp. The young Pomare was present at Parihaka when armed constabulary invaded the coastal settlement in 1881. He was five years old at the time and lost a toe when his foot was trodden on by one of the constabulary’s horses. That would no doubt have served as a lifetime reminder of the injustice perpetrated against his people and perhaps spurred him on to achieve significant heights. He attended Te Aute college around the same time as other future influential leaders such as Apirana Ngata and his relation Te Rangihiroa (Peter Buck) It was at Te Aute that he became interested in health.
From 1893 Pomare travelled to the United States, where he studied medicine, eventually graduating with an MD in 1899. He returned to Aotearoa in 1900 and was soon after appointed a Maori Health Officer working on nationwide programme to improve Maori health outcomes.
In 1911 Pomare was selected by Taranaki Maori leadership to advance their case for the return of their lands vested in the Public Trustee and perpetually leased since 1892. Over 100 years ago Pomare took up the cause of his tupuna by pressing then Premier Sir Joseph Ward to return of Taranaki Maori land, recognising the value of working your own land.
In a letter to Ward in 1911, Pomare urged the government to overturn perpetual leases and allow Maori the right to use their own land. ‘‘And now we pray that no further leasing of our lands be continued by the Public Trustee, and that our lands now falling due, be returned to us, and that you, Sir Joseph, and the ministers of your Cabinet, will seek some road by which our lands leased by the Public Trustee for all time be returned to us, as we realise that in order to avert extinction we must become active farmers, and not mere rent receivers.’’
This work elevated Pomare into a political sphere and he was elected to Parliament in 1911 as an independent member for Western Maori, before joining the Reform Party in 1912. He was appointed a member of Cabinet before becoming Minister for the Cook Islands in 1916 and eventually Minister of Health in 1923.
Although he had been unsuccessful at bringing the perpetual leases to an end in 1911, he continued to push for justice in regard to the Taranaki Maori land confiscations. His efforts, along with those of Sir Apirana Ngata, resulted in the establishment of the Royal Commission on Maori Land Confiscations in 1926.
This historic inquiry – known as the Sim Commission, and its subsequent report, found that the government’s prosecution of the war against Taranaki Maori in 1860 had been wrong and the confiscations unjustified. The commission, chaired by Supreme Court Judge William Sim, recommended an annual payment of £5000 to a board set up to represent Taranaki Maori – an entity which became the Taranaki Maori Trust Board.
Pomare was knighted in 1922 and his contribution to Taranaki Maori was significant. While he was ultimately unsuccessful at overturning the perpetual leases, his work and vision contributed to the eventual foundation of organisations such as Parininihi ki Waitotara Incorporation.
His work establishing the Sim Commission brought public accountability for the Crown’s wrongful confiscation of Taranaki Maori land, and provided evidence for later generations which resulted in the modern-day settlements. These achievements alone are noteworthy, but without doubt his most important and enduring legacy was the contribution to modern Maori health which he, along with people like Ngata and Te Rangihiroa brought about through changes that improved Maori infant mortality rates and arresting the decline of the Maori population.
For me, Pomare stands as one example of the true greatness that lies within Taranaki Maori and the annual celebration of his life continues to provide Taranaki Maori with inspiration and opportunity to affirm connections with one another.