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In a moving ceremony which combined formality and family, Dunedin artist Ralph Hotere was yesterday invested with this country's highest honour, the Order of New Zealand.
About 50 people, mainly family and close friends, gathered as Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae conferred the honour in the fitting surroundings of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Three of Hotere's art works hung on the walls behind them.
Hotere (80), who had a debilitating stroke 11 years ago and was unable to travel to Government House in Wellington for an investiture ceremony, arrived in a wheelchair pushed by his wife, Mary McFarlane, a white albatross feather in his hair.
He smiled, nodded and acknowledged many family members, including his daughter, Andrea Hotere, and his five siblings who had travelled to Dunedin from various parts of the North Island.
After Sir Jerry placed the red-ribboned medal around Hotere's neck his sister Charlotte Courtenay broke into a spontaneous karakia which was followed by about 10 family members singing a waiata.
An emotional Mrs Courtenay said seeing her brother receive New Zealand's highest honour was "awesome".
Hotere was the 10th of 15 children and it was right that all his surviving siblings were there to support him, she said.
Ordinary membership of the Order of New Zealand is limited to 20 living New Zealanders.
There are 18 ordinary members at present, with Hotere becoming the latest when he was appointed in December last year.
Membership of the order affirmed many things, Sir Jerry said.
"It speaks of service, merit, endeavour, perseverance, commitment, excellence and, above all, mana."
Hotere's contribution as an artist had enriched the cultural and social fabric of New Zealand, he said.
When a member of the Order of New Zealand dies, their medal is handed back and presented to another recipient.
The medal given to Mr Hotere had been worn by two other outstanding New Zealanders before him, Sir Jerry said, the Rt Rev Manuhuia Bennett, the Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa from 1968 to 1981, and Sir Paul Reeves, the first person of Maori descent to be appointed Governor-General of New Zealand.
After the ceremony a morning tea was held. Mr Hotere did not speak to media but talked to many of the guests and seemed to be relaxed and happy.
Hotere Foundation Trust chairwoman Judith Ablett-Kerr said Mr Hotere was feeling well and had been looking forward to the ceremony.
When asked how he felt about receiving his honour Mrs Ablett-Kerr said he had told her: "I think this is the best day of my life".
"He is very proud, and we are very proud of him."
The albatross feather Mr Hotere wore was given to him by Mary Laurenson, a guide at the Taiaroa Head albatross colony.
Leading Maori men may wear an albatross feather on important occasions, and Mrs Laurenson, who attended yesterday's ceremony, said she had been contacted by Mary McFarlane to see if she could get a feather for Mr Hotere.
Because of Department of Conservation regulations, it was not possible to pick up or keep feathers, so Mrs Laurenson gave Mr Hotere and Ms McFarlane a feather each which had belonged to her mother, Sarah Ruhia Te Tapu (whose surname translates as sacred feathers).
The feathers were the only two she owned, she said.
"I thought they should to go to someone like Mr Hotere rather than sit in a drawer. It was the right thing to do and I cried like a baby when I saw him wearing one today. Look at what he has done for our country. Look at what he has done for Maoridom."
Order of New Zealand
• New Zealand's highest honour, established in 1987 to recognise outstanding service in a civil or military capacity. There are three categories - ordinary members (limited to 20 living New Zealanders at any time), additional members and honorary members. At present there are 18 ordinary members, five additional members and one honorary member.
• Ordinary members: June, Lady Blundell, Jim Bolger, Sir Bob Charles, Helen Clark, Dame Miriam Dell, Ken Douglas, Prof Lloyd Geering, Sir Murray Halberg, Ralph Hotere, Jonathan Hunt, James Keith, Margaret Mahy, Sir Don McKinnon, Mike Moore, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sir Miles Warren, Dr Cliff Whiting, Cardinal Tom Williams.
• Additional members: Michael Duffy, Sir Brian Lochore, Dame Cath Tizard, Prof Karl Stead, Sir Arthur Woodhouse.
• Honorary member: Sir Shridath Ramphal.
Source: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet