Hundreds gather to farewell Māori leader Sir Patu Hohepa

Whānau members carry Sir Patu Hohepa's woven casket to a hearse for his final journey to Okahu cemetery on 25 September, 2023.

Whānau members carry Sir Patu Hohepa’s woven casket to a hearse for his final journey to Okahu cemetery.
Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

One of Ngāpuhi’s greatest scholars has been laid to rest at Waimā in the Far North.

Tā (Sir) Patu Hohepa, who died at his South Hokianga home on Friday, aged 87, was a leading authority on te reo Māori, genealogy and linguistics.

But the many hundreds of people who attended his tangi, which ended on Monday, also remembered him for his kindness, humility and gentle nature – and his love for his mokopuna.

Tā Patu, who was knighted in last year’s Queen Birthday Honours for services to Māori and education, was one of New Zealand’s first Māori language commissioners.

He lectured at universities in New Zealand, the Pacific and the US, and was a kaumātua for prominent arts organisations.

Among those paying their respects at Otātara Marae, in Waimā, was Cabinet minister Peeni Henare, also of Ngāpuhi descent.

“Tā Patu Hohepa was a giant among Ngāpuhi. His legacy is broad and deep, through education, through the unification of Ngāpuhi across many kaupapa, in particular the Treaty claims that Ngāpuhi continued to progress with the tribunal, and of course he was a pāpā and a koroua [elder] to many of us here,” Henare said.

“He taught our traditional wānanga to no less than three generations, and that’s unheard of… Now we farewell a giant tōtara from home here.”

Henare said Tā Patu’s legacy extended far beyond Aotearoa.

“He was first and foremost a tohunga, or learned expert, in the language of Māori, but more importantly he took that back into the Pacific, into our roots, and was able to trace the footsteps of Kupe, the well-known Polynesian navigator, right across the Pacific. In doing so he continued to revive te reo Māori and to connect our genealogy across the entire Pacific, not just here in Ngāpuhi. And that’s no mean feat.”

Henare likened Tā Patu’s achievements to those of the late Tā Hekenukumai Busby.

While Sir Hek reconnected Māori to their kin across the Pacific by building waka and reviving ancient navigation techniques, Tā Patu used language and genealogy.

“If you think about those who have done something similar, you think about the likes of Sir Hector Busby, who carved waka hourua [double-hulled canoes] to go on the same journey, while uncle Patu Hohepa did the same with matauranga [knowledge] and whakapapa [genealogy]. I think that will have a long-lasting legacy, right across Polynesia.”

Tā Patu’s knowledge of te reo and its origins made him a natural choice as one of the first Māori language commissioners, a role also filled by Henare’s late father, Erima Henare.

Henare said Tā Patu, despite his standing, remained a kind and deeply humble man.

“He had a sharp wit, a great sense of humour, and was a man who carried a personal humility that hasn’t been seen on many marae across Ngāpuhi for years. I have to think back to the time of my grandfather Sir James Henare and Simon Snowden to remember a man with such humility, despite the knowledge he held.”

Patu Hohepa.

Tā Patu had a sharp wit and a great sense of humour, said Cabinet minister Peeni Henare.

Henare recalled a comment by his father during a Waitangi Tribunal hearing which summed up Tā Patu’s gentle manner yet fierce intellect.

“I remember, after he spoke to the Tribunal in stage one of the Ngāpuhi claims, my father stood up and said, ‘If ever there was a mouse that roared like a lion, we’ve just seen it’,” he said.

Niece Dallas King said friends and whānau travelled from around the country, and from as far away as Canada and the Navajo Nation in the US, to share memories of Tā Patu.

“The one thing that came through was how kind he was. He was a beautiful, kind man, who loved his mokopuna,” she said.

King also recalled her uncle’s dedication to supporting people new to leadership roles and ensuring a better future for Māori.

“He knew and understood, because of his worldly experience, how to effect change in a way that preserved the dignity of te iwi Māori, and in a way that allowed them to imagine new futures, futures they could see themselves in.”

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said earlier he was grateful to Tā Patu for his exceptional contribution to the revitalisation of te reo and lifelong dedication to te ao Māori [the Māori world].

“His formidable knowledge, coupled with his friendly, loving manner, meant he was often called on to be the kaumātua for organisations around the motu. However, he has always belonged to Northland as their Māori leader steeped in Hokianga history, bringing light as a Ngāpuhi orator, genealogist, waiata singer, spokesperson, educator and writer.”

Jackson said Tā Patu’s career in Māori and Pacific linguistics started with a bilingual upbringing in Northland.

He was the first Māori dux of Northland College, in Kaikohe, and gained a master’s degree in social anthropology at the University of Auckland.

He completed his doctorate in the US and later taught at the University of Auckland, the University of Hawaii, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.

Jackson said Tā Patu’s service included 10 years as Māori language commissioner and serving as a member of Te Waka Toi, the Māori board of Creative New Zealand, from 2004 to 2008.

Members of Tā Patu Hohepa's whānau leave Otātara marae as his tangi ends on 25 September, 2023.

Members of Tā Patu Hohepa’s whānau leave Otātara marae as his tangi ends.
Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

As part of his role with Auckland Art Gallery, he led a delegation accompanying an exhibition of 50 portraits of 19th-century Māori by the pre-eminent Bohemian painter Gottfried Lindauer to Europe in 2014.

The following year, he dismissed then prime minister Sir John Key’s plans to introduce a new flag, calling instead for a return to country’s original flag of the United Tribes from 1835.

He was also the first to advocate for a marae at the University of Auckland. The marae, Waipapa, opened in 1988.

Tā Patu (Te Mahurehure, Ngāti Korokoro, Te Kapotai o Taiāmai, Ngāpuhi, Te Ātiawa) was buried at Okahu Urupā, at the foot of the Waimā Ranges in South Hokianga.

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