Piripi Te Maari-o-te-rangi was prominent as a defender of the rights of the Wairarapa people to their lands and lakes, from the 1860s to his death in 1895. The evidence which he and his brother, Hohepa Aporo, gave to the Native Land Court stated that his father was Aporo Waewae. But he was sometimes reputed to have been the son of Te Maari-o-te-rangi, whose brother Te Kai-a-te-kokopu had, until the 1840s, supreme rights over hapu using the food resources of Onoke, the southern Wairarapa lake.
There is no doubt about other relatives. Piripi Te Maari’s mother was Hariata Ngarueiterangi of Ngati Hinewaka; his elder brother, Piripi Iharaira Aporo, of the Whareama district; his younger brother, Hohepa Aporo, who married Maikara Paranihia. His sisters were Ihipera Aporo, who married Hemi Te Miha (with whom Piripi was closely associated); and Ani Aporo, who married Ratima Ropiha of Porangahau. His hapu were Ngati Tukoko, Rakaiwhakairi, Ngati Rakairangi, Ngati Manuhiri, Ngati Hinewaka (a branch of Ngai Tu-mapuhi-a-rangi), and Ngati Hineraumoa.
Some time after 1832 Wairarapa was again invaded by tribes from the north and west, and Wi Tako Ngatata, a leader of Te Ati Awa, killed Te Maari-o-te-rangi. The Wairarapa tribes then began their withdrawal to the north for safety. Many went to Nukutaurua on the Mahia peninsula. Some stayed at Waimarama in Central Hawke’s Bay, among them the family of Piripi Te Maari. There Piripi was born, perhaps in 1837; and he was taken back there for burial after his death.
In the early 1840s members of Piripi Te Maari’s family began to return to Wairarapa. He joined them in the early 1850s, by which time he was married to Meri Te Haeata. While he was away, he had been educated at the school of CMS missionary William Williams at Waerenga-a-hika, near Gisborne. This education equipped him for his future activities as the ‘man of affairs’ for his people.
His reputation was enhanced by his success as a farmer. He leased land from his relatives and ran sheep and cattle. He operated on such a large scale that he needed to employ Pakeha workers. The skill he showed in adopting the agricultural and business practices of the settlers helped him to achieve recognition as a man competent to deal with land and fishing rights. He was consistently concerned that Maori landowners should lose none of their rights. This concern led him into the great battle of his life, the struggle to prevent settler encroachment on the rights and lands of the owners of the two Wairarapa lakes. The lands bordering on the lakes had been purchased for the government by chief land purchase commissioner, Donald McLean, in 1853. The deeds of sale were not clear about the precise boundaries of the blocks purchased by McLean, but he had given a verbal agreement that the lakes themselves should stay in Maori hands, together with the low-lying swampy areas, below the high-water flood line. He had agreed, too, that any settler who opened the shingle bar dividing the lower lake from the sea would be fined £50.
The two lakes were very important as a source of food. In southerly storms the shingle bar at the seaward end of the lower lake would build up to form a dam; brackish water would spread inland, and the eels in the lake would be brought towards the sea and could be caught in huge numbers against the bar. In good years 20 tons of eels could be taken and dried. Dried eels were exchanged with other tribes for preserved birds and seafood; this exchange system extended as far as Wairoa and Gisborne. Dried eels were also important as gifts.
By the 1860s Pakeha pastoralists were enviously eyeing the flood plain of fine silt building up on the borders of the lake, and in some cases using it without permission. But the floods which brought the harvest of eels hampered the Pakeha farmers. By the end of the 1860s they were seeking the power to open the shingle bar without the agreement of the owners of the lakes. In 1868 Piripi Te Maari, with Raniera Te Iho-o-te-rangi and others, asked the government to honour the arrangements made with McLean. For a time things went amicably. Sums of £40 were paid for permission to open the bar, but Piripi and others did not give permission during the height of the eel season, between January and March.
But this did not satisfy the settlers, who put pressure on the government to purchase the lakes, and so bring to an end the annual flooding of their properties. In 1872 a meeting of Rakaiwhakairi was called at Te Waitapu, near Tuhitarata, in response to approaches made by a local settler, Richard Barton. The meeting decided against selling the lakes, a position maintained by Piripi for the rest of his life. However, in 1876 a deal was concluded, known as ‘Hiko’s Sale’: Te Hiko, Hemi Te Miha and 15 others were induced by Te Manihera Te Rangi-taka-i-waho and Edward Maunsell (the government agent) to sign away their fishing rights to the lower lake. When Maunsell came to pay the purchase money, he was met by Piripi Te Maari who objected to the sale because only a fraction of the owners of the lakes had been consulted.
By this time Piripi Te Maari was a prominent leader. He was chairman of a committee opposed to any further sale of Wairarapa lands, a committee probably of the runanga of Wairarapa, founded in 1859. By the 1880s he was regarded as the leader in all matters to do with the lakes. He was a member of the committee of 12 appointed at Papawai in 1883 to investigate all grievances between Maori and Pakeha in Wairarapa. He made numerous appearances in the Native Land Court on his own behalf and on behalf of others, often as a trustee for minors. He also became an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, being baptised in that church at Te Waitapu on 2 June 1887, and helping to translate the Book of Mormon into Maori. His religion brought him into conflict with Ngati Porou, who sought the assistance of Te Kotahitanga to exclude the Mormons from the country.
Through the 1880s the battle over the lakes continued. Piripi Te Maari applied to the Native Land Court in 1881 to hear the claims of the non-sellers of Lake Wairarapa. At the first hearing, in 1882, he sought to get the government’s case dismissed, on the grounds that it was based on the purchase of only 17 persons’ interests. This tactic was successful. A second hearing, in 1883, registered Piripi Te Maari, Raniera Te Iho and 137 others as owners of the two lakes. This was a significant victory.
Maunsell returned to the attack in 1885. At Tauanui in lower Wairarapa he met Piripi Te Maari who agreed to put the matter before his committee, but warned that no one with a real interest in the lakes was willing to sell. Maunsell replied that the government was determined to acquire the lakes and would buy individual shares. During these discussions Piripi set out the grievances of the owners. First, an earthquake in 1855 had raised up land which had been below the original high-water mark; this land belonged to the Maori owners, but the government had sold some of it. Second, the lakes were gradually filling up, and this was destroying the fishing. If the government decided to open a permanent drain to the sea the fishing would be totally gone. Third, commercial hunters were shooting the duck population. All this was happening on lakes which still belonged solely to Maori owners.
By 1886 Piripi Te Maari was ready to come to a compromise. At a meeting at Papawai attended by the native minister, John Bryce, the owners of the lakes agreed to let the bar be opened at the end of April. Later that year Piripi offered to give up two months of the fishing season – April and May. This was a major concession. With Wi Hutana, he met the new native minister, John Ballance, on 12 November 1886, representing the committee of owners.
But the prospects of an agreed solution were shattered by the Ruamahanga River Board. The board declared Lake Wairarapa to be a public drain, and asked the government to support it in its effort to open the lakes. (The property of its chairman, Peter Hume, was most affected by flooding.) In 1888 the board, to test the right it claimed, sent 33 men, accompanied by 2 constables, to work with spades to open the bar. Piripi Te Maari arrived with his followers, and after a tense discussion, put his protest into a statement which was signed as ‘received’ by the board’s representative.
Piripi Te Maari then petitioned the government to inquire into the situation. The 1891 commission of inquiry into the Wairarapa claims was chaired by Alexander Mackay. It returned an ambiguous report. It stated that the flood line was the boundary of Crown purchases at least in the Turanganui block, that Maori ownership of the lakes included the shingle spit, and that endangering the fishing rights of the owners was contrary to the Treaty of Waitangi. But it added that the lake owners were not justified in allowing land sold by them to be flooded.
In 1892 the Ruamahanga River Board tried to force a channel. Its men were resisted by 100 Maori and their solicitors. A police inspector watched and advised each group in turn. But the owners were threatened with prosecution for obstruction, and let the board’s workers do their job.
Piripi Te Maari did not give up. He took a case to the Court of Appeal, only to have it dismissed. He organised a further petition, and gave notice that he intended to seek a ruling from the Privy Council. Another petition, in 1895, to the Native Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, secured a favourable decision, that the owners of the lakes had been wronged and should be compensated.
This was the only victory Piripi Te Maari lived to witness. On 26 August 1895 he died at Greytown and was buried at Waimarama; he was survived by five of his eight children from two wives, Meri Te Haeata and Heni Te Taka. Next year Tamahau Mahupuku arranged a settlement by which the lake owners received compensation in the form of £2,000 and the promise of ‘ample reserves’. But it was not until 1915 that 230 Wairarapa people were given 30,486 acres in the Pouakani block at Mangakino, in Waikato. The land was of poor quality and part was sold later, but some Wairarapa families settled these distant lands and several are there still.