Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu

Queen of New Zealand's Maoris
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The Independent Online

Te Atairangikaahu: born Waahi Marae, New Zealand 23 July 1931; elected Head of the Maori Kingship, with the title Arikinui 1966; DBE 1970; ONZ 1987; married 1952 Whatumoana Paki (two sons, five daughters); died Ngaruawahia, New Zealand 15 August 2006.

Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu was the queen of New Zealand's indigenous Maori population for 40 years, filling a role that was purely ceremonial but widely respected in New Zealand and beyond. She is credited with raising the profile of her people abroad and playing a leading role in the renaissance of Maori culture and language in recent years. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, said she had provided "both continuity and outstanding leadership".

She was the seventh Maori sovereign, a direct descendant of a royal line that began in 1858 when New Zealand's indigenous inhabitants responded to British colonisation by choosing a monarch of their own. It was hoped that the move would protect Maori customs, and stem the loss of land to British settlers.

Te Ata was the longest-serving monarch and the only queen. Contrary to tradition, she had not named a successor before she died. However, in an interview in 2003, she said: "My feeling at the moment is that the people are ready for a male heir to take over."

The mother of two sons and five daughters, Te Atairangikaahu became Maori queen - Arikinui - in 1966, on the day that her father, King Koroki Te Rata Mahuta Tawhiao, was buried. She was a cultural ambassador for Maori people overseas, and a hostess for visiting dignitaries, including the Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, the former South African president Nelson Mandela, and Bill Clinton, the former US president.

At home, her influence was immense, particularly among the country's 540,000 Maori people, who make up about 15 per cent of the population. She was head of the Kingitanga ("king") movement, and attended annual Maori assemblies as well as other key indigenous gatherings.

In 1970 she was made a dame and in 1987 she was appointed to the Order of New Zealand, the nation's highest civilian honour. As part of her formal duties, she opened the New Zealand Chancery in Washington in 1979 and attended the coronation of the King of Tonga in 1967. Helen Clark said that she had helped to unite white and Maori New Zealanders, "with quiet dignity, humility, humour and warmth".

Te Ata looked frail and tired at the end of week-long celebrations in May to mark her 40th anniversary as queen, attended by eminent figures from all around New Zealand and the Pacific. Funeral plans have not yet been announced, but Maori sovereigns are traditionally buried on Taupiri Mountain, on the North Island, near the Maori settlement of Ngaruawahia, where Te Ata lived. Her successor is expected to be chosen from among her family.

Kathy Marks