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Māori and Nursing

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Alice Taylor and Angela Wanhalla
19 February, 2021

In this final article on vocational guidance we focus on nursing, one area of employment Māori girls were encouraged to take up, and which gained greater prominence and importance during the war. 

Māori Vocational Guidance Officer, Kahi Takimoana Harawira (Te Aupōuri), recommended nursing as a suitable occupation for women. His view of the employment options available to young Māori was not as narrow as that of McQueen. Rather than agricultural or industrial work, Harawira foresaw Māori entering the professions, like teaching and nursing, in greater numbers. He hoped this would lead to a new generation of leaders.

As an occupation nursing has been dominated by women. In New Zealand, it was dominated by Pākehā women, although this was challenged after the war.

Nursing attracted the interest of Māori girls prior to the introduction of Vocational Guidance, and became more popular during the war. New Zealand’s medical services were stretched and in need of trainees, so there were opportunities for employment, but the war also heightened the value of the nursing profession to the wider community. For young Māori, nursing was attractive because they could train in a profession that enabled them to contribute to their community.

Prior to the Second World War, Māori girls were being trained in domestic science, which focused on preparing them to be a wife and mother. Of particular note is the establishment of Kurahuna in Auckland by the Methodist Women’s Mission Union in 1931. A School of Domestic Science and Hygiene, designed to train Māori girls for domestic service, Kurahuna was followed by another, Rangiatea, which was opened in New Plymouth in 1940.

By the early 1940s, students attending Kurahuna preferred to enter nursing, rather than domestic service. Girls at St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ School, Turakina, Queen Victoria College and Hukarere were also seeking opportunities to enter the profession. Sister Crescentia, matron at St Joseph’s advised Mary Lambie, the Director of Nursing in the Department of Public Health, in 1941 that “more girls are remaining longer at school”. She requested “to know what possibility there is for employment for them in nursing.”[1]

Unfortunately, racial prejudice was a barrier to entering the profession. Chair of the Patea Hospital Board advised Lambie in December 1941 that they would not take on a Māori nursing trainee because they assumed “being a Maori and with perhaps the 6th standard primary education she would need more supervision than we would be able to give her.”[2] The matron at Greytown Hospital in the Wairarapa declined an invitation to train a Māori nurse. Her justification was that in “a small hospital in a small town there are so few attractions the nurses are allowed many privileges, ie., having male friends to afternoon tea, on the tennis court and they have an occasional dance and if there was a Maori nurse they would have the same concessions, so in a short time I am sure that I would have very few nurses on the staff. Please do not think that I dislike the Maori, for there are many I admire.”[3]

Unsurprisingly, the 1941 annual report on Māori education noted the “number who made good in the professions is not large, though a few Maori men and women have taken up teaching or nursing and some have entered the Public Service.”[4] With a limited number of secondary schools, most of them located a significant distance from Māori communities, post-primary education was unaffordable for most families. School Certificate was required to enter teaching or nursing. Between 1940 and 1945, just 24 Māori girls entered nursing compared to 82 Māori who went into teacher training.[5]

Furthermore, only five nursing scholarships were available for Māori girls to complete secondary education, limiting their access to the profession. Whether on scholarship or not, those entering training had to be accepted by a hospital. Mary Lambie, Director of Nursing in the Department of Health, worked hard to find places for Māori, but the level of interest outstripped the number of hospitals willing to open their doors to Māori, either as trainees or as staff.[6]


War effort

Not only were many young women being trained at the beginning of the war, as discussed earlier, but several who had already qualified as nurses were serving overseas.

Jane Kiritapu Nēpia, a former teacher at Hukarere College, and who had trained as a nurse at Napier Hospital, served with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. She was the first Māori nurse to serve overseas. Pupils of Hukarere “were thrilled to know that she was the first nurse to represent the Maori race in this war”, reported the Gisborne Herald. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross, which she received in September 1947 at Uepōhatu Marae. 

Wikitōria Kātene was the first Māori voluntary aid to go overseas. She served in Egypt and Italy. Such was the respect for her, she was invited to visit the East Coast in 1945 by the families of the young men she had nursed.[7] Sir Apirana Ngata said that “several of the local soldiers had told him of her very great kindness and care of them when in hospital overseas. ‘One of our lads who was badly wounded and is still here on crutches, told me that if it were not for her care and the care of her kind he would not be back with us now’”.[8] You can listen to her and a group of Māori patients at No 2 General Hospital singing here.

Wikitōria’s place was taken by Kia Rīwai from the Chatham Islands. She was a former pupil of Te Waipounamu Girls College in Christchurch and heavily involved in supporting the Māori war effort in that city. She was a leader of the Ngati Otautahi Club, for instance, and volunteered for the Red Cross.

Māori service in the war inspired nationalism and patriotism that attracted Māori girls to nursing as a vocation. 


After the war 

By 1946, Hospital Boards began to call for greater support to train Māori women. This would assist them to cover the acute shortage in nursing staff. Admitting they “had not encouraged applications from native girls” in the past, the Whangārei Hospital Board supported this suggestion, recognising their stance had been ‘unjust’.[9] The following year, discussion at the Hospital Boards’ Association Conference held in Dunedin supported a remit “that a genuine attempt be made to provide greater facilities for the training of Maoris as medical officers and nurses”.[10]

Harawira, as first Māori vocational guidance officer, expressed immense interest in encouraging Māori girls into nursing. It is hard to measure if vocational guidance had an impact on the numbers of Māori who entered nursing. 

By November 1946, 96 Māori nurses in training, hospital boards employed 26 Māori nurses and 10 were employed by the Health Department.[11]



Although nursing was advocated as a vocation, inequities in access to secondary education needed to be overcome. Harawira reflected that “I do not think people are ignorant of the vocations available to our children but some do not quite know the ways of entering them.” Access and knowledge are powerful tools that, as a vocational guidance officer, Harawira hoped to address.

Vocational Guidance was inspired by forward thinking approaches, yet also fueled the blaming narrative. It produced and sought to produce beneficial outcomes, and yet it also hindered Māori by narrowing employment options. A few officers, like Harawira, hoped it could offer more to young Māori, including access to the professions. As we can see from the example of nursing, even when Māori women were keen to enter the workforce, they faced structural, educational and racial barriers at a time when more staff were needed to support stretched services.

 Image: Wiki Kātene and some hōia of the 28th Māori Battalion, Photograph Album: Charles Bennett - WWII, National Army Museum.  Link:

  1. Sister Crescentia to Mary Lambie, 7 August 1941, Nurses – Maori girls as nurses, 1938-1941, H1 Box 1324 21/104, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  2. Patea Hospital Board to Mary Lambie, 12 December 1941.
  3. Matron, Greytown Hospital to Mary Lambie, 25 May 1941.
  4. AJHR, E1, 1941, p.3.
  5. AJHR E3, 1946, p.7.
  6. Mary Lambie to Matron, Kurahuna, 20 November 1941.
  7. Gisborne Herald, 7 June 1945, p.7.
  8. Gisborne Herald, 19 June 1945, p.4.
  9. Northern Advocate, 13 August 1946.
  10. Otago Daily Times, 10 February 1947.
  11. Otago Daily Times, 7 February 1947.

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