Te Ao o te Māori

A window into the rich lifestyles of contemporary Māori
Photographs and words Nā Phil Tumataroa

Ranui Ngarimu’s earliest weaving lesson was with her “husband’s people.”

“I was sitting with Judge’s grandmother Mīere, her sister Ngaropi, and her daughter, Te Iwi Pani. They were making kete and I was watching them. They gave me some harakeke and showed me what to do. I was all fingers and thumbs and they had a great time laughing as I tried to figure it out.

“Ngaropi, the kuia with the moko kauae, would put her walking stick out and touch one of the strands so I knew it was in the wrong place. I’d look at her and I’d shift it and she’d go, ‘kāo, no!’ They would laugh and chatter away, but I didn’t mind at all, because that’s when
I really got the feel of harakeke and knew, hey, this is something I want to do.”

Fifty years on – the thumb on Ranui’s right hand has started to protest, but she still dedicates time to her loom. “I can only do a little bit at a time now. It’s from all those years of preparing harakeke (stripped flax). I’ve got a hāpine thumb,” she laughs.

In the recent New Year Honours, Ranui received an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to Māori art and culture. She describes the acknowledgement as totally unexpected, but counts it as an honour and a privilege.

Reknowned for her contribution to weaving, notably as former chair and long time member of Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa (TRRWOA), Ranui has been equally dedicated to advancing te reo Māori and kapa haka, and was actively involved in both before learning to weave.

She volunteered for many years as a teacher of Te Ataarangi, a method well known for the use of coloured cuisenaire rods as a learning tool, which took her all over Te Waipounamu teaching and establishing groups. She also performed in various kapa haka groups and went on to judge at three Polynesian/ATMPAS Festivals, now known as Te Matatini.

Born in Christchurch to Annie Hazel Harding (Waihōpai, Ōraka Aparima) and Richard Phillips (Ngāti Mutunga), she married Harold Carr “Judge” Ngarimu (Ngāti Porou) and they raised five children before he passed away in 1997. Judge worked as a locomotive engineer and they spent “30 wonderful years” living on the West Coast, 26 of them in the remote settlement of Ōtira where Ranui felt right at home with a back yard full of weaving resources.

Ranui was the tutor for the women’s haka at the pōwhiri for the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch and a co-tutor for the pōwhiri to open the 1975 New Zealand Games.

She worked as caretaker and teacher’s aide at Ōtira School, then went on to establish an Adult Learning Centre in Greymouth focused on Te Ataarangi and weaving. She was a member of the establishment committee for Te Tai Poutini Polytechnic and a member of the Post Compulsory Education and Training working party, and in 1986 was voted West Coast Woman of the Year. She then moved into the role of Access Manager with the Department of Labour and then as West Coast manager of ETSA.

Ranui and Judge moved back to Christchurch where she became Regional Manager of Skill NZ Canterbury, and then moved to the Tertiary Education Commission as its Regional Manager.

In 1996 they bought a home close to the beach in North New Brighton and over time many of her children and mokopuna have gravitated there and live nearby. Every first Friday of the month they gather for their ‘Nau Mai Whānau’ hui, where they share kai, pānui and support each other surrounded by the joyous commotion of up to 15 grand-mokopuna at play.

According to daughter Merekaraka Tawa, Ranui has always been a teacher. “She’s always teaching even when she’s not teaching,” she says. “You can sit down with her and you think you’re having a cup of tea together and then you come away and you realise – I’ve just learnt something.”

Ranui admits passing on knowledge is one of her greatest joys.

“I’ve learned from some wonderful people. I’ve had some beautiful learning experiences and I’ve been privileged to learn from some amazing weavers. It is up to me to share that knowledge with others.”

Merekaraka says the phone will often ring with people looking for Ranui. “We have people ringing for her and they refer to her as Taua or hākui, so as much as we would like to say as a whānau she’s all ours – she’s not. She belongs to all of those that she’s imparted knowledge to.”

Surrounded by her whānau is where Ranui is most at ease, but she is equally at home rubbing shoulders with royalty, heads of state and leaders of Māoridom.

Accompanied by her whānau she will travel to Wellington in May to receive her award at Government House from Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy. It won’t be their first meeting as in her role of Pou Whakahaere o Te Waipounamu, Ranui has supported Dame Patsy many times during her formal visits to the South Island.

Among her friends, teachers and mentors are Ngoi Pewhairangi, Kātaraina Mataira, Te Aue Davis, Diggeress Te Kanawa and her mother, along with Aunty Kera, Elizabeth Murchie, Miriam Henderson and her sisters, Ruahine Crofts and Pipiwharauroa Pene – wāhine she shared her passions with and who have greatly influenced her life and knowledge.

Ranui’s skills, knowledge of tikanga and her thirst to learn and teach have taken her all over the world, from the Pacific Islands, United States, Asia, England and even Antarctica.

As chair of TRRWOA Ranui led the weaving component of Māori Art Meets America which toured San Francisco in 2005. That component went on to become known as “The Eternal Thread” and continued on to Portland, Oregon and Washington State, before returning home to be exhibited at the Canterbury Art Gallery. Ranui and her sister Miriama Evans co-authored the book of the same name published in 2006.

In 2013, Ranui accompanied Tā Mark Solomon and then Prime Minister John Key to Antarctica to hand over a carved pouwhenua and tukutuku panels, on behalf of all Māori, to Antarctica New Zealand.

Ranui is heartened by the number of women and men learning to weave and excited there are innovative things happening within weaving. But she worries the tikanga and the hōhonutanga of weaving is not being supported or maintained.

“That’s one of my biggest concerns of what is happening in the weaving world today. There’s some wonderful innovative weaving, but not all weavers are going through the traditional routine of learning about the whakapapa of harakeke through making a simple kono or kete, they go straight to making cloaks and don’t learn the tikanga behind the art of weaving or the preservation or sustainability of the plants. I worry about the excessive number of weavers who have no understanding or respect for our taonga species, i.e. native fibres and adornments.”

Ranui is part of a team researching ‘Te Rā’, an immaculately preserved woven sail held in the British Museum for over 200 years. They are slowly unlocking its secrets and learning new lessons from our tīpuna who voyaged the Pacific many generations ago.

Ranui has viewed the kaitaka belonging to that in the National Museum in Ireland and the Taiaroa tikumu garment at Kew Gardens. There is a Kākāpō kākahu in Scotland she will view later this year.

“The garments of our tīpuna are folded and stored in drawers far away from us. I would like our tribe to urgently consider a project for the repatriation of these taonga. It is time for them to come home!

“There’s lots of things I want to do and there’s much more to be done, if I can contribute positively, then I’m here to help. Mauri ora ki a tātou”.