Dame Jenny Shipley says the late Titewhai Harawira was a "treasure" and her work was underestimated.
Her comments came as she spoke to 1News following the dawn service at Waitangi this morning.
Asked how significantly the occasion had changed in the 33-odd visits she'd made to the commemorations, she said race relations in New Zealand had changed.
"We are far further together. The Māori economy is huge, it was only really beginning when I was prime minister — in real scale."
Waitangi had also changed a lot, she said, but there were "still things to do".
"Titewhai, when she held the hands of prime ministers, was anchoring that in her tipuna, who were some of the great leaders, who believed in working with the Crown."
Harawira was a respected elder who died on January 25. She had been a regular face at Waitangi over the years, leading many prime ministers to the marae in front of Te Whare Rūnanga on the Upper Treaty Grounds at Waitangi.
Dame Jenny said Harawira "guided the Crown" and there was more depth of meaning to her holding the hands of prime ministers than people realised.
"I never accepted the commentary of Titewhai was just, in some trite way, holding the hand of prime ministers, she was doing far more than that."
Tearing up, the former prime minister said she missed Harawira.
"I honour her...for the role she played, because we had fierce debates, strong women stood up to each other. But I understood what she was doing, and she understood what I needed to do."
Dame Jenny said that was an understanding that was rarely made.
"I treasure her. Her legacy, will be, I hope, that that continued balance will be available to us."
New Zealand 'lucky' to have a Treaty
Dame Jenny said she felt a "joy and a weight" at Waitangi.
"We're very lucky to have a Treaty.
"Every new generation and every prime minister has to bring that treaty to life.
"This is our place, everyone's place — Māori and Pākehā."
Asked how she viewed the country's progress, she said it was worthy of "rejoice".
"Our Parliament is one of the most diverse in the [world]. We have a disproportionately large group of Māori, along with our Pākehā colleagues, governing our nation. Indigenous people worldwide are not in that position New Zealand is.
"We are well through our Treaty settlement process. I signed the Ngāi Tahu agreement in 1998, I now live in Ngāpuhi's rohe and I hope we'll see this last big one over the line at some stage in the future.
"This settlement stage of grievance and redress is nearly there, and now we just have work as New Zealanders to see that equity and fairness, and there's a lot of work to do there...and we should discuss that and be committed to solving those problems."
She said while she was touched she was credited for beginning the dawn service in this morning's proceedings, she would "not overstate it". She said she had a contributing role.
Returning Russell to its original Māori name
Dame Jenny also said she supported a conversation about the restoration of the name Kororāreka, for the Russell township, where she lives.
"It inherited this name from a prime minister from Britain who never came here. In the north it's the only town that's got an English name, so there is a conversation around whether we should make it the official name again.
"I want my grandchildren to understand that it's both an important colonial site, but a very valuable gathering place of chiefs over centuries.
"I do support the conversation, I also support the Geographic Board's process in listening to the submissions, consulting properly and that's what we're doing over there."