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Iriaka Rātana

The first Māori woman to be elected to Parliament, Iriaka Matiu Rātana was a passionate advocate for the welfare of her people.

She was born Iriaka Te Rio at Hiruhārama on the Whanganui River in 1905, and had connections to Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi through both parents. A talented singer, at 16 she went to live at Rātana Pā, joining and later training the young people’s cultural groups that accompanied prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Ratana on his tours around the country. In 1925 she became Rātana’s second wife and after his death, in 1939, she married Matiu, his son by his first marriage. By then, she was one of the most influential women in the Rātana movement.

Matiu Rātana won the Western Maori seat in 1945 but died in 1949, and Iriaka decided to step into his place. Despite vehement opposition from some, she became the Labour Party candidate and was comfortably elected. After giving birth to her seventh child in December 1949, she entered Parliament.

Iriaka Rātana accepted the desirability of Māori integration into Pākehā society, and was optimistic about the future of race relations. These attitudes assured her of a respectful hearing in Parliament. Distressed by the poverty and powerlessness of many Māori, she looked to the Department of Maori Affairs and organisations such as the Maori Women’s Welfare League (to which she belonged) for answers. She worked ceaselessly to represent the interests of her constituents, and in the 1950s successfully fought for the upgrading of services at Rātana Pā. In 1969 Iriaka Rātana retired from politics. She died in 1981, survived by nine children and many grandchildren.

Adapted by Nancy Swarbrick from the DNZB biography by Angela Ballara

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Iriaka Rātana, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated