Traditional mourning period begins for Maori queen

Tribal chiefs wearing wreaths of green leaves opened a traditional mourning period today for the revered queen of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who died after a long illness aged 75.

Hundreds of people who gathered for prayers at her home village of Naruawahia were the first of thousands expected to pay their respects during a six-day tangihanga (farewell) period, said family spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta.

Funeral services are to be held on Monday at the North Island village’s Turangawaewae Marae, a special meeting place where the queen is lying in state.

Prime Minister Helen Clark in the capital Wellington was among those who paid tribute to the queen, known as Te Ata, who died yesterday after leading New Zealand’s 530,000 Maori for 40 years. She had been in hospital for months suffering from diabetes and fatigue.

“Royalty beat a path to Dame Te Ata’s door at Turangawaewae, so did many other heads of state and government,” Clark told National Radio.

Te Ata was the longest-serving head of the 148-year-old Kingitanga (King) movement, formed largely in response to continual Maori land losses as European settlers flocked to the British colony and took land from the indigenous people.

Te Ata became Maori queen in May 1966, the day her father, King Koroki Te Rata Mahta Tawhiao, was buried. She was immediately catapulted into a role that included mixing with some of the world's most influential people.

She raised the profile of Maori overseas, acting as cultural ambassador for Maori and indigenous people and as hostess to most royal and diplomatic visitors to New Zealand, dining with dignitaries including former US President Bill Clinton and South African President Nelson Mandela.

Mahuta said the marae opened about noon local time today and hundreds of mourners gathered within hours.

“I’m here to pay my respects to our Maori queen,” Rangitatau Wood said as she stood in line to file past the open coffin. “She was a precious jewel.”

Many elders wore wreaths of green leaves – a sign of mourning for a high-ranking Maori rangatira, or chief.

Mahuta, a niece of the queen, said Te Ata had spent her reign promoting peace and tolerance among Maori and Pacific islanders.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said she had inspired the respect of world leaders and had been “utterly loved at home”.

Senior chiefs and advisers are expected to meet to choose Te Ata’s successor during the mourning period.

Te Ata’s successor is likely to be her eldest son, Tuheitia Paki, or one of her six other children.

While the title is not hereditary, it has been retained in the family bloodline over the period of the six Maori monarchs. Her successor will be crowned on the day of her funeral.

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