Meri Te Tai Mangakahia was, at her birth, a descendent of three Te Rarawa wahine of great mana: Waimirirangi, Te Ruapounamu, and Nga-Kahu-whero, also known as Herepaenga.
Te Kuri’s daughter was Te Ruapounamu, who had mana over land around Waihou on the north shores of Hokianga Harbour. She married Tarutaru, who had mana over land at Waireia. The mana of both parents was inherited by their son, Kahi.
Kahi married Kaimana, who had mana over land at Pupuwai. Their daughter, Nga-kahu-whero, inherited all this mana, making her the major authority and rangatira leader there.
Such mana gave Nga-kahu-whero the right to establish land boundaries as well as gift land to people, which she often did. Her position also entitled her to a share of the proceeds from sales of other land in the area, and also the ownership of the trees on this land.
Trees in her area of Waihou, where Meri was born, could not be felled without her permission. She received royalties from the sale of felled trees, often sharing most of these with the workers who actually cut down the trees.
Meri was her great-granddaughter.
Perhaps born on 22nd May, 1868 (records are unclear as to the actual date) near Panguru on the Hokianga Harbour, Meri was the eldest daughter of Hana Te Ra and an influential and prosperous Te Rarawa chief, Re Te Tai.
Her father’s position and wealth gave Meri the best education possible for rangitira wahine of the time. As the family had become Catholics, Meri went to primary school in Panguru at St. Joseph’s school, later studying at Auckland’s St Mary’s Convent School in New St, Ponsonby.
As was the custom, Meri’s father looked for a suitable husband for his rangatira daughter, a man who could ‘build a house’ for her as well as provide valuable connections for the wider whanau. He found one in Hamiora Mangakahia, an assessor in the Native Land Court. Hamiora was of Ngati Huarere and other hapu in the Coromandel.
Hamiora clearly had an interest in the political process, which Meri shared. He joined the Te Kotahitanga movement, becoming its premier in June, 1892.
Although she did not join any groups, or sign any petitions, Meri at once saw that the actions of Pākeha wahine in seeking the power of the vote was also desirable for Māori wahine. In 1893, both Hamiora and Meri attended the second session of a now formalised Te Kotahitanga Māori parliament.
This was held at Waipatu in Hawke’s Bay, and was where Meri gave her now-famous speech. She is the only recorded Māori wahine to have made such a speech.