One would be hard pressed not to know Dame Aroha Hohipera Reriti-Crofts CBE – especially around Waitaha. Decades of service to ngā iwi katoa through her mahi with the Māori Women’s Welfare League, as a teacher, as a guide, in kapa haka – her signature purple easily recognisable in so many realms within te ao Māori. Kaituhi Arielle Kauaeroa sat down with Dame Aroha recently to discuss her Queen’s Birthday Honour for services to Māori and community.
But who is this kuia? dame aroha (ngāi tūāhuriri, ngāi tahu) is a kaumātua of Tuahiwi Marae and her community and has represented her hapū at an iwi level. She has been active with the Māori Women’s Welfare League (MWWL) for 52 years and was president from 1990-1993. In her role at Māori Women’s Development Inc, Dame Aroha supports wāhine Māori in business start-up and development. As chairperson of Matapopore she ensures Ngāi Tahutanga and Ngāi Tūāhuriri values are embedded in the redevelopment of post-quake Ōtautahi. Among her other accolades, Dame Aroha was once named ‘Young Māori Woman of the Year’, was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, and in 1993 was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
And yet, all these achievements do not adequately capture this kuia and her lifetime of service.
Entering the world in 1938, Aroha Hōhipera was born to Metapere Ngawini Crofts (née Barrett) and Edward Teoreohua Crofts. She and her whānau lived a simple, full life at the pā in Tuahiwi.
“Loved it, absolutely loved it,” Dame Aroha says of her upbringing, surrounded by their old people, entrenched in their hapū, living on their land. It was here, at the knees of those older people, that she learned the art of listening that in turn developed an insatiable thirst for learning – a passion that was to be cut short during her schooling at Te Waipounamu College due to the tuberculosis rampant in Aotearoa at the time.
“Under arrest from the chest clinic, so to speak. They plucked me out of the college and stuck me up in Cashmere, in the sanatorium.
“So by the time my kids were at high school, I was thinking: ‘I haven’t done School Cert myself – yet.’ I wasn’t sure about that, my kids going to school while I was stuck at home doing nothing.”
At the time Dame Aroha and her tamariki were Housing New Zealand clients living in Aranui, just across the park from the high school.
Her kids’ thoughts on the matter? “No way Mum, don’t come to our school, get over to Hagley High!”
“I said ‘I’m not going to Hagley when I can just walk over the park to your school, don’t be silly!’ I didn’t have a car in those days. And that was that. I went over and spoke to the headmaster the next day.” It was 1977.
Not satisfied with School Certificate, she went on to gain University Entrance, adding accounting to her English, te reo Māori and home economics classes.
“After my two years at Aranui High School, I felt good. I was qualified and ready to do something out in the world, [like] go to work! Yeah, nah – no one was interested in giving me a job. It seemed that because I had been a mother for years, people thought ‘what the hell would she know?’
“But then I was talking to another cobber of mine, Bill Hohepa, asking for a favour for the League. At that time he was at Teachers College himself and he said ‘why don’t you come over here and train? Yeah, you’d be a good teacher’ he reckoned.”
Dame Aroha’s laughter is frequent and generous – “got to have a good laugh, darling.”
In the end she applied with just months to spare before she reached the student age cap of 45.
The pounamu, the mauri of that (Te Māori) exhibition, was going back to Southland Museum … “When we got into the whare everyone stood in one movement, it was incredible. The waiata was going ‘karanga te ruru’, the karanga was going right up my spine and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I was crying deeply inside. I was looking around and hearing everything, thinking ‘this is my world’.
Dame Aroha taught until 1989, a time of much change for her when she experienced health challenges and her husband, Peter Reriti, passed away. She took up new mahi and put down some old mahi. That year of personal evolution prepared her to step more deeply into her life’s work.
After a few years working as a teacher, Dame Aroha had developed rheumatoid arthritis, a painful condition that attacked her entire body at times. She suspects she also had gout in her hands. Some days it was difficult to get out of bed, let alone manage a class of children and play recorder for them. Teaching primary school kids was becoming physically untenable.
“I’d wake up in the morning and my fingers would look like sausages, they were so swollen. It was getting harder and harder.
“But I know what really did it, leaving teaching. It was Te Māori.”
Te Māori the exhibition toured the United States to widespread acclaim, waking New Zealand up to Māori art and taonga also being significant on a global scale.
“No one wanted to know about it before it went,” Dame Aroha says.
The exhibition marked a culmination of significant renaissance for Māori and was the first of its kind to be curated with and by Māori. After opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York, it was shown across the US from 1984-1986.
The New York Times summarised the exhibition as the works of “a race of master builders who gave to what we now call New Zealand a dignity that has certainly not been surpassed by anything the white man brought to the area.”
The following year it came home – Te Māori: Hokinga Mai.
Dame Aroha reflects on a similar return within herself. Although she was raised as te rito, a new shoot in the pā harakeke that is Tuahiwi, her career as a teacher had kept her in te ao Pākehā for more hours than she cared to count.
As part of the 1987 showings in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, the organising committee ensured Māori were the face of everything related to the exhibition – including kaiārahi (guides), a role that Dame Aroha applied for and secured immediately. It was through this stint that her life took yet another turn in a serendipitous chain of events.
“Following the mauri,” she calls it.
“There were some beautiful times there at Te Māori. Now why was I telling you about that?” The context of the lesson escapes Dame Aroha for the smallest of moments. “Oh yes! So the exhibition was all over. I was still teaching. Then the pounamu, the mauri of
that exhibition, was going back to Southland Museum. My cousin in Invercargill said ‘Oh, are you coming?’ and I say ‘Yeah, I’m gonna come’.”
She talks in excited bursts, bringing one along with the story, retelling the heights of each moment as if it were almost happening to you.
“So my niece took me out to the airport, she was living with me because my husband had died. Anyway, we got out to the airport and there was no luggage in the boot! She’d forgotten to put the luggage in the boot. I blame her of course.”
She rang the southern cousins to explain and let them know her new flight times. It turned out she would be on the same flight as the kohatu mauri.
“Tohu number one,” absolute knowing in her voice. “So we got down there, I’m one of the kaikaranga and there are four guys carrying this pounamu on to the marae down at Waihopai.
“When we got into the whare everyone stood in one movement, it was incredible. The waiata was going ‘karanga te ruru’, the karanga was going right up my spine and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I was crying deeply inside. I was looking around and hearing everything, thinking ‘this is my world – now what am I doing in that classroom?’
I told the headmaster I was leaving the following Monday.
“The headmaster said ‘What? What the hell brought that on?’ And I replied: ‘I’m going back to my world. This isn’t my world’.”
The following year she was made president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League.
“I wasn’t recognising the signs, but it was all being laid out in front of me. They were saying ‘this is what you’re going to be doing’.
“If you don’t sit and listen, you won’t hear what’s being said. And leading up to all that, I wasn’t listening. It’s been like that all these years, I’ll be going, going, going, never stopping. All of a sudden I’ll have a chest infection and I’m in bed for two weeks. I am guided by my tūpuna all the time. And Ihoa.”
As a member of the MWWL Ōtautahi branch since 1968, those 22 years of previous service had laid the groundwork for Dame Aroha to step up as president. She says her work as a delegate with the League really has been her life’s work.
“I loved being a delegate. I learned how to do it by listening to other delegates.”
Her learning in the old way, verbally, allowed her to absorb the kōrero of many others before her, weaving them into her own.
“That was a great honour for my branch to choose me to be their delegate and represent them. Even if I got shot down – which you always did, because it’s easy to get shot down at the council meetings – I still felt good about that.”
Listening to Dame Whina Cooper, learning from her, working alongside her – “the ultimate mentor, what a gift”. For Dame Aroha there has been no greater honour. Perhaps not even her own Companionship to the New Zealand Order of Merit, the kaupapa for our interview, which we had neglected to get onto for almost two hours.
“Oh yes, the email came during lockdown, out of the blue. And the thing I noticed most was I had to keep it confidential until it was announced. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, not even my kids! So anyway, I talked a lot with Ihoa at that time.
“After I read it through a couple times I left the room and kept myself busy. I was almost afraid to go back in case the email was still sitting on the computer, I was thinking ‘is this really for me?’ ”
There was already the CBE after all, what did she need with more fuss? But the day before a response was due, Dame Aroha had a thought: “Someone has nominated me. I cannot turn it down and refuse what they have offered me. So, come hell or high water, we’ll run with it.”
The night before the announcement was horrific, she says. The main thing on her mind? “I couldn’t let my kids find out from someone else. I felt so disloyal not telling them.”
So she drafted up an email to her two sons and daughter, ready to go as soon as she knew it had been announced in the media. About 5.45am on Queen’s Birthday 2020 she received a congratulatory text from Prue Kapua, the current MWWL president – it had been on the radio, and thus Dame Aroha had permission to let her tamariki know.
“Little did I know, my daughter Amiria had already seen it on her phone, so she was ringing her bro in my house going ‘wake up bro, go see Mum!’ He jumps up wondering what’s happened to his mother, screams down the passage to my room and Amiria’s got me on the FaceTime already. We were all laughing and carrying on.”
Her pōtiki replied just one thing to the email: “holy s**t!” A mokopuna from down south phoned with an accusatory tone. “Taua, I’ve been ringing you every day since lockdown and you didn’t mention a peep to me!”
“All those thoughts about ‘what if, what will it mean’, kind of went away.”
And what does it mean to Dame Aroha a few months in?
“Well, it certainly does mean a lot to me. Because it is not that I did this – it’s we. If all these other people hadn’t been there along the way, I wouldn’t be here.
“I’m the lucky recipient of this honour. All of us were involved in the work that went towards it though. All of the League. All my hāhi, my whānau, my hapū, my iwi – all of them. Not just me. What’s the point otherwise?”
Dame Aroha says being a dame won’t really change much for her, “I was already born with mana. That came from my tīpuna.”
We finished up on her words of wisdom for young wāhine Ngāi Tahu:
“I remember someone once asked me ‘what or who would you come back as, if you could?’ And I said ‘a woman’. Because women can do anything. We can love, we can hurt, we can fight. We are mothers. We are beautiful creations. So just be who you are.
“Don’t ever give up an opportunity. Never turn down an offer – if it is pono. There’s so much living to do, and I’m going to live it to the fullest until the day I die.”