Māori All Blacks: Looking Back at One of Our Own

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Rotorua is home to a number of Māori All Black greats. With the 2017 Māori All Black squad in town, we thought we would look back at one of our own: Hector Archibald Steele (1915-1990).

Rugby team photograph (detail showing Heke), date unknown. Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (2005.175.18)

Hector, known as Heke, was the youngest son of Duncan and Ngaroma Steele who both came from early settlement families in Rotorua. From an early age Heke excelled in sports. During his time at Rotorua High and Grammar School he played rugby in the 1st XV, represented New Zealand in athletics at the 1934 Intra-Empire Public School Sports in Melbourne[1] and was part of the 1930 school Shooting Team. However, Heke wasn’t just a sports man, and with a good head on his shoulders, he became the first Māori Dental Surgeon to graduate from the University of Otago.

New Zealand Māori Team in Fiji, August 1938. Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (2005.175.15)

While studying, Heke was selected for the New Zealand Māori Rugby Team,[2] which toured Fiji in 1938.[3] Heke’s daughter, Heather Birkett, remembers her father speaking fondly about his time on tour where he made lifelong friends with a number of people, including Ratu Sir George Kadavulevu Cakobau (1912-1989) the Governor General of Fiji 1973-1983.[4] The tour was filled with a mixture of excitement and nerves; Heke was excited to see his sister and brother-in-law who were based in Fiji, but nervous about playing the physically bigger Fijian side.[5] Heke played in all five matches of the tour, scoring tries in the second and third test.[6] Despite the player’s best efforts the Māori side ended up drawing the series.[7] This tour marked the beginning of a significant relationship between the two rugby sides, with the New Zealand Māori Team going on to play Fiji more times than any other side.[8]

Heke Steele with Fijian Man (identity unknown), 1938. Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (2005.175.17)

Heke’s rugby career was disrupted by the outbreak of World War II.[9] He enlisted as a member of the Army Dentistry unit where he served in areas of the Pacific, including Fiji. Throughout this period, he continued to play rugby, this time as part of the New Zealand Service Rugby Team. At the end of the war he remained abroad for another year to assist with the treatment of returned Allied prisoners of war. Heke eventually returned home to Rotorua and set up his own dental practice on Pukuatua Street. His daughter describes him as the “life and soul of the party” and remembers that he “loved people”. It isn’t surprising then that he was active in the community throughout his life, serving as a member on Lions Club boards from 1958 and becoming a foundation member of the Geyserland Lions Club in 1972.[10]

The Māori All Blacks have a rich history of men who have excelled. To learn more about this history, make sure you head to the exhibition Tīma Tangata Māori Rugby at the Energy Events Centre on Queen’s Drive which celebrates over 100 years of Māori All Blacks. Click here for more information on exhibition


70x70_imogen-stockwellASSISTANT CURATOR
Imogen Stockwell


[1] “The Don Stafford Collection”, Sports 1934.
[2] During this period the M?ori All Blacks were known as the “New Zealand M?ori Rugby Team”.
[3] “Heke Steele fine athlete in youth,” Rotorua Daily Post, 29 September 1990.
[4] Communication with Heather Birkett, 12 June 2017.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The test scores were: first draw 3-3; second loss 5-11; third won 6-3. Arthur H Carman, Maori Rugby 1884-1979 (Wellington: Sporting Publications, 1980), 51-53.
[7] Carman, 51-53.
[8] “Maori rugby – Whutupaoro”, Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, accessed 8 June 2017.
[9] Heke was also a member of the New Zealand M?ori Team in 1939 playing against Fiji when they came to New Zealand. This was the last year that Heke played for the team, as the outbreak of World War II meant a seven year break before the M?ori Team was reassembled. Malcolm Mulholland, Beneath the Maori Moon: An Illustrated History of Maori Rugby (Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2009), 84.
[10] “Heke Steele fine athlete in youth.”

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