Mihi Stirling was descended from venerable Māori ancestors on both sides of her Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou lineage. She was named Mihi Kōtukutuku in memory of her eldest sister, who drowned before Mihi was born and was discovered on a rock with a flowering kōtukutuku (native fuchsia) above her body.
When Mihi's remaining elder sister died several years later, while Mihi was still a girl, it was believed the daughters were cursed and Mihi should move away and eventually marry a man who was not local to Raukokore, in the Bay of Plenty. She married Duncan Stirling. a builder who was part-Māori but could speak very little of the language. They moved back to Raukokore where Mihi became the local chief, as was her birthright – however, many locals initially felt that their chief should be a man.
As a chief, Mihi was one of very few women who had the right to speak on a marae in her own district. But over the years this right was often challenged. At a tangihanga (funeral) in 1917, a chief from another district told her to sit down and said he wouldn't let her "trample on the protocol" of his marae. In response, Mihi simply recited her whakapapa (family tree), an effective slam-down that made her seniority crystal clear. She also reminded him that a women had given birth to him, so he should show women more respect. The rebuttal was not forgotten by some of the local iwi, even 40 years later after her death, when insults were flung at her grave.
As a chief Mihi had many other rights, including the first claim to any fish caught in the area and she also owned much of the land. But Mihi was very generous, sharing everything she had with the local community, and was known as an expert kumara grower. She also supported the rise of the eminent Māori politician and leader Sir Apirana Ngata (whose face now adorns NZ's $50 note), and did a great deal of voluntary work for her people.
Mihi's tireless work to improve the health and welfare of Māori, plus her influence in housing and land development, was rewarded with a medal from Buckingham Palace and she had a personal meeting with Queen Elizabeth during her New Zealand visit in 1953.
To learn more about NZ history, including Māori history and culture, Michael King's book Penguin History of New Zealand is highly recommended.
Source: Ballara, Angela. "Mihi Kotukutuku Stirling". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.