Obituary: Sir Hepi te Heuheu

Sir Hepi te Heuheu was the last paramount chief of a Maori tribe and his mana and standing ranked with that of the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu. He could have been in the line of succession to be the Maori King, but his great-great-grandfather, who was a prime candidate to be the first holder of that position, declined to challenge, instead rallying his Tuwharetoa people behind the Waikato chief Potautau Te Wherowhero, establishing regal succession with the Tainui tribe.

One of the most influential figures in Maoridom, which has long been handicapped by jealousies and rivalries between the tribes, te Heheu transcended tribal boundaries and was respected by Maoris and pakeha (Europeans) from all walks of life. Known as "The Mountain", he was one of the few leaders whose words and dignity held sway throughout Maoridom, commanding respect from fellow tribal aristocrats and militant radicals alike.

He was largely responsible for creating the Maori Congress, a pan-tribal body set up to provide a single voice on Maori issues. In 1984, he acted as a mediator between leaders of an angry march by protesters about Maori land claims and the Governor-General. Te Heuheu won the Governor-General's agreement to meet a deputation of the marchers, but police, concerned about the Governor-General's security, refused to allow the meeting to take place.

Knighted in 1979, te Heuheu was trusted and honoured by successive governments, even though, unlike some fellow Maori leaders, he declined allegiance to any political party. Maoris saw his independent stance as being in the tradition of his ancestor, te Heuheu Tukino II, who refused to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, in which Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria in 1840.

All New Zealanders witnessed the power of his mana in 1994 when he quietly declined the Prime Minister's invitation to Maori leaders to attend a meeting to launch the so-called "fiscal envelope" policy under which the government proposed to put aside a maximum of NZ$1bn to settle all Maori claims for the return of, or compensation for, confiscated land. His refusal was seen as a direct rejection of the controversial policy by all Maoris. The following year, he called a meeting to discuss the policy which attracted more than 1,000 Maori representatives from all tribes.

He spent his early life as a bushman before farming family land near Taumarunui in the central North Island. He was only 24 when he assumed the mantle of paramount chief of the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe from his father, his first chiefly task being to lead tribal members to Wellington to welcome home soldiers returning from Second World War service.

He served as chairman of numerous Maori trusts and was a member of the Tongariro National Park Board, the country's first national park established on land gifted to the nation by his great-grandfather in 1887.

An ardent advocate of racial harmony, he deplored the failure of Europeans and Maoris to settle their differences and reportedly said "We must keep talking" on his deathbed.

David Barber

Hepi Hoani te Heuheu: born 1919; Paramount chief, Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe 1953-97; KBE 1979; married Pauline Hinepoto (six children); died Taupo, New Zealand 31 July 1997.