Te Ata, 75, Queen of the Maori
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Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who died Tuesday at 75, was the sixth Maori sovereign, a direct descendant of a royal line that began in 1858; the role is purely ceremonial, but enjoys the support and respect of most Maori.
The Kingitanga (King) line came into being with the coronation in 1858 of Potatau Te Wherowhero, and was a reaction to Britain’s colonisation of New Zealand in which the Maoris lost their land to the incoming settlers.
Te Ata was the longest-serving head of the Kingitanga (King) movement, which largely was a response to continual Maori land losses as European settlers flocked to the British colony and took land from the indigenous people.
Te Ata became Maori queen in May 1966, the day her father, King Koroki Te Rata Mahuta Tawhiao, was buried, and immediately became the public face of the Maori people.
She raised the profile of Maori overseas, acting as cultural ambassador for Maori and indigenous people and hostess to most royal and diplomatic visitors to New Zealand.
She dined with dignitaries including Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, South African President Nelson Mandela and President Clinton.
No successor was immediately announced. The next monarch is to be chosen from among Te Ata’s kin in the Kingitanga movement.
Her official duties included opening the New Zealand Chancery at Washington D.C. in 1979; and attending the coronation of the King of Tonga in 1967.
She also attended 28 annual pouki, the official national assembly of the Maori, who number a bit over half a million, 15% of New Zealand’s population.
In 1987, Dame Te Ata was granted the Order of New Zealand, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In 1999 she was identified as New Zealand’s wealthiest Maori, her worth estimated at over $4 million.
Te Ata was born July 23, 1931, and lived on central North Island. She married Whatumoana Paki in 1952. The couple had two sons and five daughters.
In May 2001, celebrating her coronation 35 years earlier, Dame Te Ata said Kingitanga had been “part of every moment, thought, dream and action. It is as much a part of me as the very air that I breathe.”
“I have no doubt that in another 35 years, although many of us will be gone, the cloak of Kingitanga will still offer what it has,” she said.
Dame Te Ata looked frail and tired at the end of week-long celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of her coronation in May 2006, when leaders and dignitaries from throughout New Zealand and the Pacific paid tribute to her. Within weeks she was hospitalized, suffering fatigue and frail from diabetes.
In Maori tradition Maori sovereigns are buried on Taupiri Mountain, near the settlement at Ngaruawahia. A successor normally is named before the death of a monarch. But apart from indicating she would prefer a male to succeed her, Te Ata had not named her successor when she died.