Amanda Malu is on a quest with a classic lost and found story. It is about two Māori midwives, Mere Harper and Ria Tikini, and the important role they played in the founding of Plunket, alongside Dr Frederic Truby King, their friend and neighbour in the small Otago town of Karitāne.
Until now Mere and Ria’s expertise in traditional Māori health care for babies has been invisible in Plunket’s storytelling which the national organisation wants to put right.
And, completely by coincidence, Amanda, who is a descendant of Mere Harper and the great niece of the first Plunket baby, has become CEO of the organisation which has rebranded itself as Whānau Āwhina Plunket to better reflect its history.
A Plunket baby and mum herself, Amanda says the story of the two midwives “has always been there but in footnotes, rather than front and centre”. People from the Karitāne area knew about the women’s role but it was not widely known or celebrated in the way Dr King was, she says.
In 1906, when Ria was 95 years old, she helped deliver Thomas Rangiwahia Mutu Ellison (Tommy Mutu) at Puketeraki. His older brother had died in infancy, and Tommy Mutu became ill too. Ria and Mere took him to the home of Mere’s friend and neighbour Dr King, where he stayed for several months.
Tommy became the first Plunket baby, thriving under the care of Ria, Mere, Dr King and his wife Isabella.
Less than a year later, the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children was formed. Dr King drew on the wide networks of Mere and Ria, as well as their years of experience and their traditional knowledge of health care, to develop the society.
Shortly after its formation, the society opened the Karitāne Home for Babies in Dunedin, with Mere and Ria, both of Kāi Tahu and Kāti Huirapa (sub-tribes of Ngāi Tahu) descent, becoming some of the first nurses and midwives there, helping to nurture the babies.
More Karitāne hospitals were opened, running care units for babies and children under two years who were not treated in the general hospital system. The Karitāne hospitals also trained nurses in maternal and infant welfare.
The Governor-General’s wife, Lady Victoria Plunket, was a god-daughter of Queen Victoria and mother of eight. She became involved with the society and travelled the country to promote its work, advancing the idea of a professional nursing service for mothers and babies in New Zealand. Lady Plunket lent her name to the organisation which in 1914 was re-named the Plunket Society.
The society grew rapidly, largely due to the efforts of local women volunteers in small towns and cities throughout the country who set up local committees and clinics, appointed nurses and provided families home and clinic visits, parent education in domestic hygiene, and promoted breastfeeding.
The Plunket Society was on its way to becoming a nationwide service which would touch the lives of generations of New Zealanders.
Plunket is a charity and currently Aotearoa’s largest support service for the health and wellbeing of tamariki under five and their whānau. Services are provided free, largely through Government funding.
Amanda says there has been much support and celebration of the contribution by Mere and Ria, especially after it was explained on the organisation’s website when it changed the name to Whānau Āwhina Plunket and in 2020 rebranded its logo to acknowledge its founding Māori midwives.
She says the story “really resonated” with staff, of whom 97 per cent are women with many of Māori descent.
The story also honours the help provided to the fledgling organisation by Lady Plunket and women supporters.
While Plunket sees about 85 per cent of all babies born in New Zealand, Amanda says people were questioning the organisation’s credentials because only 50 per cent of Māori tamariki were Plunket babies.
The story takes us back to our origins in our DNA.
Before being appointed CEO Amanda worked for the organisation for seven years. Through her role with marketing and fund-raising, she learned her connection to the first Plunket baby, Tommy Mutu Ellison.
While she does not recall meeting him, Amanda holidayed in Karitāne when she was young and believes it is likely their paths would have crossed.
Amanda also knew Mere was an ancestor but didn’t know of the Plunket link until she started working for the organisation.
She became CEO in 2016 when the organisation was on the cusp of a “huge transition” as it wanted to be a better Treaty partner.
“A key facet of Māori culture is finding connections with people you talk to,” she says, adding mention of the two degrees of separation New Zealand is known for.
Learning two Māori midwives were involved in the foundation of Plunket has been very well-received, she says.
The story of Mere and Ria is also going to appear in a children’s book about Māori women in the history of Aotearoa.
Amanda says she has received “fabulous support” from Mutu’s son David Ellison.
In 2016 David had sought recognition for Mere and Ria. An interpretive panel overlooking the Waikouaiti River was updated as a result, and in 2020, Whānau Āwhina Plunket rebranded its logo to acknowledge its founding Māori midwives.
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