Māori Women's Institutes

1929 – c.1952

Māori Women's Institutes

1929 – c.1952

Theme: Māori

This essay written by Marie Tautari was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

The Women's Institutes (WI), which began at Rissington, Hawke's Bay, in 1921, focused on home-making, co-operation and citizenship as key elements in family life. This evoked a ready response from Māori women, because such values were already familiar to them. In the WI, Māori women found an organisation whose leaders considered it a duty to ensure that the identity and integrity of Māori culture would be maintained. Members were reminded to pronounce Māori placenames correctly, [1] to be mindful of Māori values, and to share their skills. The national CWI banner, with its vibrant Māori border pattern, reflected the ability to encompass both cultures.

WI members throughout New Zealand subscribed to a Māori Fund, which was used to assist in the organisation of Māori Institutes. Many branches also contributed to a Māori College fund, used to refurbish Te Wai Pounamu College in Christchurch. Small wonder, then, that Māori women felt readily accepted within the CWI.

In the formation of new institutes, the voluntary organisers sought the assistance of women already influential within Māori settlements, co-operating with 'teachers in the native schools and with the district nurses'. [2] Māori women were encouraged either to join with Pākehā women, or to form their own Māori institutes. The first, Te Awapuni, was formed in 1929 at Kohupātiki in Hawke's Bay.

The Māori institutes adapted to the trends of their local community. The August 1934 edition of Home and Country (the WI magazine) noted that Maimaru Native Institute, drawing support from its surrounding institutes, had organised a very successful sale of work as well as a baby show. When Te Haukē Māori Institute arranged its second birthday party in 1934, it invited many other Hawke's Bay institutes, and other women's organisations as well. There was 'a comprehensive craft stall to examine and admire', and 'haunting songs and rhythmic poi dances'. The 'incredibly sumptuous home-made tea' included 'a towering cake . . . decorated with a Māori chief's head on one side and a large tiki on the other'. [3] Māori and Pākehā learnt 'each from each in true Institute fashion'. The writer concluded that 'The Māori Institutes are definitely justifying their existence, and will presently be a source of great interest and enrichment to the whole movement.' [4] By 1935 the WI secretary could report that 'Māori organising has resulted in good work done in the north. . . . Young Māori mothers were shown how to cut and make children's garments. They were encouraged to learn housewifery, mothercraft and personal hygiene, and to work at their native crafts.' [5]

Group of Māori women and children displaying handweaving on a lawn, in the shelter of a large tree

Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/1-016455.

These unidentified Whanganui women are displaying handweaving in the 1930s, possibly at a gathering of the local Māori Women's Institute.

The WI continued to have a high profile for 'things Māori'. Home and Country featured articles such as 'Medicinal Properties of Trees and Shrubs as Stated by Old Māoris' (1935), and 'Arts and Crafts in our Māori Institutes' (1934). These were serious articles; the writer of the latter showed perception and understanding, and not only held but had the courage to print what must have been an uncommon view at that time: she mentioned 'Pākehā women' being members of Māori institutes, and said that 'if they cared to observe they would learn much'. [6]

Whether they concerned a Māori recital at Waimauku, a talk on the pronunciation of Māori words at Arowhenua, early Māori history in the Picton district, or a talk on Māori homes at Masterton, the subjects dealt with by the institutes were inclusive of Māori concerns and gave Māori women a sense of acceptance and support. Some Māori women were regularly sought after to share their skills; in 1935, for example, Mrs Marumaru, Mrs Metekingi and other members of the Whanganui Federation of Women's Institutes travelled to Mangaweka, Maxwell and Fordell, demonstrating flax work and basket weaving.

That same year, a Māori nurse, Ēmere Kaa (later Mountain) (Ngāti Porou), won a Carnegie scholarship to train at the School of Home Science in Dunedin as an instructor in health and homecraft. In 1936 the Department of Health employed her for five months to run 'Health Weeks' based on selected Māori schools, and she ran special afternoon sessions for members of the local Māori institutes. [7] All this activity was noted by Māori men. Edward Nēpia of Te Hāroto wrote to Home and Country in 1936, 'The WI movement . . . has undoubtedly awakened in the Māori mother a keener sense of responsibility, a greater interest in her home, and a broader outlook on life.' [8] By 1937 40 Māori institutes existed. In 1939 government recognised their work by granting a small sum to provide for demonstration materials, and in later years the Department of Health made several small grants to help organise institutes and provide lectures and demonstrations.

In World War II, Māori members undertook an incredible amount of war work. They span wool, dyed it with plant dyes, and knitted pullovers, balaclavas, seaboot stockings and scarves. They attended home nursing and first aid classes, packed emergency first aid kits, and made camouflage nets of string and flax. They grew vegetables for sale and used the proceeds for soldiers' parcels. But other obligations were not forgotten; in 1942, Tuahiwi Māori Institute sent a donation to a Leper Fund, as well as sending parcels to local men serving in the Māori Battalion.

Māori and Pākehā institutes shared their skills and talents, to the mutual benefit of both. In 1940 the Māori members of Taranaki used their dramatic talent to assist other areas with fundraising, and their play 'The Tiki' was a great attraction. In 1942 the Taranaki Districts Federation of WI lent their organisational skills and support to a campaign to investigate the incidence of tuberculosis among Māori.

Some Māori institutes went into recess during the war, partly because the male bus drivers who had transported them to meetings had joined up. The post-war years brought the shift to the cities. Rural life was no training ground for handling the transition to city life, with its pressures of finding housing and employment, and having limited kin contact. The WI sought to provide leadership training among Māori women; Mrs E.J. Sawer of Auckland, elected president in 1948, immediately set up a residential school at Titirangi, in order to train Māori women from rural areas, so they could teach others how to cope with city life before leaving the country. However, it ran for only two years.

Though the Māori institutes continued to be highly regarded throughout the 1940s, and 42 still existed in 1950, twenty of them in the North, many Māori women had by then started to leave the WI for the forerunner committees of the Māori Women's Welfare League (MWWL). In 1950 Mrs Sawer and Mrs Horn of the WI held discussions with the Minister of Māori Affairs, Mr Corbett, and Māori Affairs officials Tipi Rōpiha and John Grace, to express their concern at the large numbers of Māori women breaking away from the institutes to join the league. Mrs Sawer suggested that in the areas where the Māori institutes were strongest (such as the Hokianga, where eight out of eleven institutes were wholly Māori), the two organisations could establish an understanding so that the WI could retain its Māori membership. The welfare officers were loath to see conflict arise, and thought a 'gentlemen's agreement', as existed in the Rotorua area between the MWWL and the Women's Health League, would allow the Māori institutes to carry on with their work. It was noted, however, that some of the anxiety was due to a 'questioning of credibility and assumptions long held by the WI', and no such agreement eventuated. [9] After 1952, when the WI became the Country Women's Institutes (CWI), few Māori institutes remained. [10]

Marie Tautari


[1] Home and Country, January 1933, p. 9.

[2] Harper, I960, p. 24.

[3] Today such a cake decoration would be regarded as culturally inappropriate.

[4] Home and Country, July 1934, p. 8.

[5] Home and Country, September 1935, inside cover.

[6] C. E. Turner Williams, 'Arts and Handcrafts in our Māori Institutes', Home and Country, August 1934, p. 13.

[7] Helen and Sylvia Thompson, Ann Gilchrist Strong: Scientist in the Home, Pegasus, Christchurch, 1963, p. 158.

[8] Home and Country, April 1936, p. 11 .

[9] Report of meeting, 31 August 1950, Māori Affairs files 36/26, National Archives, Wellington.

[10] The system of registration used by the CWI precludes establishing how many Māori institutes remained into the 1950s.

Published sources

Home and Country, 1927–1952

Harper, Brenda, The History of the Country Women's Institutes in New Zealand 1921–1958, Whitcombe & Tombs, Christchurch, 1960

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