Saana Waitai Murray (CNZM, QSM)

Ngāti Kurī
Saana Murray (left) at the inaugural Kāhui Whiritoi Gathering, Rotorua, 2006. Image courtesy of Christina Hurihia Wirihana

​Born and raised in Te Hāpua to Rapine and Ngaio Norman, Saana Waitai Murray was a renowned master weaver and tireless Tiriti o Waitangi activist descended from Ngāti Kurī. Growing up, she was the eldest of fourteen children, attending schools in Te Hāpua and Ngataki before going on to study nursing in Auckland. Saana then moved to Kaitaia with her husband, Tupari Waitai, and together they had five children. In 1952, she suffered the immense grief of losing her pāpā, her husband, and one of her children all within the same year, but her resillience and kaha was all-encompassing and she strived to channel her sadness into positivity. 


Returning to Auckland, Saana later married Nicholas Murray and they worked hard to provide for their growing family. Thoughout the 1970s, she was a Māori Studies teacher at Hillary College. Saana enjoyed guiding rangatahi – both in school with her students and at home with her whānau – because she so valued the preservation and passing on of ancestral knowledge, especially within those urban Māori who had been separated from their marae. Her ultimate desire was to build a whare taonga, an outpost school, where young people disconnected from their whenua could reconnect back to the kāinga. 


…if they do not associate with their land, they will not have that tree of knowledge—that the land first and foremost gives you life. Survival is in the land and in the sea.” 

Left to right: Emily Schuster, Ruhia Oketopa, and Whero Bailey with Saana Murray, Weavers National Hui, Parihaka, 1993.

Saana posessed a deep knowledge of te ao Māori, particularly within the arts. Taught by her parents and kuia, she was a master weaver. Wherever Saana went, she always carried weaving materials like pīngao, harakeke, or kōrari with her. She taught many people to weave and encouraged them to use their weaving skills for the betterment of themselves, te taiao, and Māori everywhere.


Saana was also a writer, producing waiata and poetry in both English and te reo Māori. In 1974, Māori Organisation on Human Rights published Te Karanga a Te Kotuku: Some Records of the Land Struggle of Saana Murray and her people of Te Hiku o Te Ika, which includes letters and poems written by Saana expressing her people’s struggle for land rights. This launched within an era of Māori cultural renaissance, catalysing the 1975 Māori land march against the continual confiscation of Māori land, which left from Saana’s home of Te Hāpua. 


“…she brought with her a deep knowledge of Māori arts, particularly weaving and that this expertise combined with an unflappable commitment to protecting taonga Māori made her a treasured artist.” (Patricia Wallace)

Indeed, throughout her lifetime, Saana continually fought for tino rangatiratanga over taonga Māori and this was apparent in every aspect of her life as a teacher, weaver, writer, and advocate. Her mother, Ngaio, made her promise to keep fighting for the ratification of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, solidifying Saana’s staunch commitment to the interests of Māori. Always at the frontline of advocacy, Saana marched in all land hīkoi, used her teaching, weaving, and writing to preserve mātauranga Māori, and worked tirelessly to retrieve the land and rights of her people, Ngāti Kurī. In the 1970s, she was also involved in the establishment of Te Hāpua Traditional Arts and Crafts Trust, which was intended to foster weaving and other customary arts and crafts in the Far North. 
Te Kāhui Whiritoi, Rotorua, 2006. Image courtesy of Christina Hurihia Wirihana.
Perhaps most notably, Saana Murray was one of the six original Wai 262 claimants, alongside Hemanui-a-Tawhaki (Dell) Wihongi (Te Rarawa), Witi McMath (Ngāti Wai), Tama Poata (Ngāti Porou), John Hippolite (Ngāti Koata), and Christine Rimene (Ngāti Kuhungunu). Lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal in 1991, the Wai 262 claim grew from the apparent lack of Māori involvement in decision making regarding our flora, fauna, and taonga, and thus sought to restore tino rangatiratanga. This is the most extensive and broad claim lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal, encompassing the Crown’s historical actions as well as their existing laws, policies, and practices. Due to this complexity, Saana was the only claimant of the six original iwi representatives still alive when the Waitangi Tribunal finally delivered their report in July 2011 – twenty years after Wai 262 was lodged. 

​​For her contributions to Māori, Saana was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) in 2009 and awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal in 1993 as well as the Queen’s Service Medal (QSM). As an artist, she was appointed to the Arts Council of New Zealand in 1998, recognised for Lifetime Service and Dedication to Raranga Whatu at Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa’s 2001 National Weavers’ Hui, and inaugurated as an esteemed member of Te Kāhui Whiritoi in 2006.
Saana Murray lived her life in pursuit of a better future for Māori, dedicating most of her 85 years to the protection of taonga Māori and retrieval of Māori land. Ahead of her time in the revival of Māori arts and culture, she was a brave visionary, a wāhine with a passion for pīngao, and ‘a pint-sized old lady with a twinkle in her eye’.

Written by Lily Kara-Liu (Waikato-Tainui, Ngāpuhi​). 03 Feb 2023.