What a feed! The white-topped tables lining the wharekai have a second tier to accommodate all the food. Hundreds of plates and bowls chock-full of chicken, beef, pork, corn on the cob, mussels, fish, potatoes, vegetable salads, dressings, breads, fresh fruit, jellies and cakes. On the other side of the table, rising above the two tiers of food, is a line of kuia, dressed in black, with moko on their lips and more than a tale or two on their tongues. The tap, tap, tap of a fork on the tabletop quietens some 400 guests, with another 250 eating outside in a marquee, and we bow our heads to pay respect for this kai with a karakia.
Hardly is food on our plates before the singing starts; “Ha-e-re-mai, everything is kapai… you’re welcome as the sunshine, you’re welcome as a king.” The six guitars and one ukelele keep it up for the duration of the meal and as we finish eating, some add to the harmonies and others to the chatter and laughter that fills the hall. Women weave among the tables, taking some beef here, moving some eel there, clearing away empty plates and filling our cups with steaming coffee and tea.
Like all poukai, there’s no alcohol. My neighbour struggles with his meal but manages to tuck it away and as he licks his fingers clean says, “I had to take my time eating the eel because it was so fat.” By now, there are 20 singers over by the kitchen whooping their way through Making Whoopee. But this meal, which is fit for a king, eventually comes to an end, and after King Tuheitia rises from his table at the top of the wharekai, we follow him outside into the hot Te Kuiti sun.
The british never warmed to the idea, or for that matter the reality, of a Maori king. Christopher William Richmond, who would become Minister for Native Affairs in August 1858, visited Waikato in mid-1857. He wrote, in the patronising tones typical of the day, “The native question is in an interesting state. Those aspirations for the maintenance of a separate nationality, which I [described] in ’55 as the secret cause of the opposition to land sales, have lately taken the shape of an agitation for a Maori King… I hear in it the voice of a people crying out to be governed—a people weary of anarchy and desiring guidance in the right way. I believe it is a movement which we may take possession of and turn to great uses but which if neglected will become dangerous.”
But there was as much chance of the British taking possession of the Kingitanga as there was of Maori taking possession of Queen Victoria’s court, and within a year of Richmond’s letter, Maori anointed their first king—Potatau Te Wherowhero. When he died just two years later, his son Matutaera took the reign. (Te Ua Haumene, prophet of Pai Marire, gave him the name Tawhiao in 1864.) In July 1863, British troops invaded Waikato—partly in an attempt to crush “the King Movement”—and within 10 months, they had spent £300,000, lost 700 lives, killed 1000 Maori, and driven King Tawhiao into what the British called the King Country—largely the district of Ngati Maniapoto. Although they didn’t break the Kingitanga, Maori did suffer significantly, particularly due to the loss of their lands. Under the New Zealand Settlement Act 1863, Waikato had 1.2 million acres confiscated. Maori called it raupatu—seized land. It was the combined effect of the wars and raupatu on Maori that convinced King Tawhiao to establish the poukai tradition, a series of gatherings aimed at bringing together and feeding those who had been driven from their land.
At 7pm on 29 March 2008, King Tuheitia stands at the gates of Te Tokonganuianoho Marae. With 28 annual poukai from Horahora Marae at Rangiriri on 1 January to Reretewhioi Marae at Waiuku on 9 December, it’s a demanding circuit for the King. He’s come directly from Marokopa Marae, one of the 11 poukai held every March, and in the tradition of people accompanying the monarch, two busloads from that poukai are supporting him at the gates. Shortly, they’ll be welcomed on. But first, Taonui Campbell is encouraging the group who will be performing the songs of welcome. He had told me earlier, “We believe taking care of people is a privilege and an honour and it shows the strength and mana of the people. We don’t get any monetary gain out of this but [we have] the pleasure of being able to host and feed and make sure our people and guests are honoured as they should be. This particular poukai signifies our support for the Kingitanga, for the past Maori kings and our late Queen, right down to where we see ourselves today with her son, Kingi Tuheitia.”
Campbell hasn’t slept much over the last week while preparing for the poukai. But now he’s wired, extolling the group with an impassioned plea: “Give it all we’ve got whanau! Think about all our Maniapoto marae! Awa! Maunga! What we display here today is our mana! Our mana!” It’s time. A wailing karanga calls out in the summer evening, raising the hairs on the back of my neck, and the King leads the guests on to the marae. Beside them is a brass band in full flight.
After a meal, the guests sleep in the wharenui (a gift to Ngati Maniapoto from Te Kooti) and the King sleeps in his designated house on the marae, resting for the poukai events tomorrow.
King tawhiao named the town Whatiwhatihoe after the exclamation of a waka captain demanding a great and sustained effort from his crew—because he knew resolving raupatu would be a long and difficult fight. He was right. It was the late Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who finally witnessed the raupatu settlement by signing an agreement with the Crown in 1995, more than a century later.
In 1882, James Kerry-Nicholls and the Minister of Native Affairs John Bryce travelled to Whatiwhatihoe to discuss raupatu with King Tawhiao. Kerry-Nicholls described Tawhiao as, “a little below the medium height, sparely made, but keenly knit. In his left ear he wore a large piece of roughly polished greenstone, and in his right a shark’s tooth… a cast in the left eye… [his face] elaborately tattooed in a complete network of blue curved lines”. At the hui, “Tawhiao arose… arranged his blanket in toga fashion across his breast, and raising his bare right arm, began his speech in slow, but well-delivered tones, and with the calm, confident air of one who had been accustomed to sway the multitude and to speak, as he expressed it in the figurative language of his race, ‘straight from his breast’”. Kerry-Nicholls was there to gain, in essence, a tourist visa to travel through the King Country, which was strictly off limits to Pakeha, and had been so for 20 years. Tawhiao made it clear to Bryce (who had led the sacking of Parihaka the previous November and would later pardon Te Kooti), “You can remain on your side and administer affairs, and I will remain on my side… I will not go off in any new direction, but will be as my ancestors were.”
Around the same time, Tawhiao hosted the first poukai at Whatiwhatihoe. Says Phillip Crown, a kaumatua of Ngati Maniapoto, “The type of food that was served at that particular poukai [was] tawhara kai atua—or food of the gods. And that was the name of the very first poukai—Tawhara Kai Atua. It was to bring the pani, all the bereaved families; the pouaru, the widows; and the rawakore, the ones that had nothing. You can just imagine after the Waikato wars, the number of families that were destitute, were fatherless, motherless, and so the poukai [gave] a chance to come together and enjoy a really good meal as a family again.”
It’s 11am on Saturday 30 March 2008 and dozens of buses and cars fill the parking lot. Hundreds of people, dressed mostly in black, have been welcomed on to Te Tokonganuianoho Marae for this poukai. Dozens of guests; speakers, kaumatua and kuia, sit under a marquee with its walls removed so they may catch any breeze on this hot day. Others brave the sun while many find relief from the heat in the shade of trees, verandahs and the sides of buildings. King Tuheitia and about 75 relations from his extended whanau sit in their own marquee, Whare o te Kahuiariki (House of the Royal Family). Over the lawn from him, the host speakers sit on the paepae. They briefly break the speeches, which have been going for an hour, to welcome on more guests, including some from Whanganui. A few walk directly to the wharenui, where they join others who have lost whanau over the last 12 months. They recline on mattresses and pillows in the porch, clutching photos of those who have passed on. The speeches soon resume (although the monarch does not speak at poukai) and, until lunch, are mainly concerned with sharing greetings.
After lunch however, the content changes. This is where one poukai will be noticeably different from the next. Koro Wetere, who sits on this marae’s kaumatua council, explains, “Generally debate ties back to the raupatu. They want to know how the grants are going.” Tiwha Bell, chair of the committee, adds, “But there are bigger things than just grants; the political side, the relationship with different tribes, the economics and all of those things.”
I ask if anyone can stand up and speak. Hinekahukura Tuti Aranui, or Aunty Tuti, says, “Yes—but anybody has to be somebody. They have to have some standing in the community.” Although the poukai committee has a pretty good idea who will come and speak, there can be the unexpected. “Jokers come here wanting to push a barrow on the day of the poukai,” Bell explains, “but I soon put a stop to that nonsense.”
Under the trees at the sunny end of the wharekai, people are taking time out from the speeches; drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and invariably starting conversations with something like, “Hey, auntie, good to see you! Kei te pehea koe?” Catching up with whanau has long been a feature of poukai but, for those like Kingi Turner, it can go deeper than that. Down from Te Awamutu for his fourth poukai this year, this proud father of two and grandfather of six tells me, “[Poukai] means I get a chance to come back home to Te Tokonganuianoho in Te Kuiti to reconnect with my whanau, my marae, my waahi tapu (sacred ground) around here. It gives me a chance to reconnect the strands that I know are very strong—from our Maniapoto people to the Kingitanga—and it reconnects me to those people who are no longer with us.” Is it a matter of identity as well? “Oh yes. We live in mainstream New Zealand life where another culture predominates.
Their language predominates, their way of doing things predominates. I love mainstream life, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a component that I just cannot connect into. When I come back here, I’m aware that I’m coming onto a place where we can still exercise our tinorangatiratanga (sovereignty) and our mana Maori motuhake (identity). And that’s really important to me.” That sense of a Maori institution is also important to Wetere; “There is no influence of Europeanisation in this organisation. The poukai is run by Maori, for Maori, for hapu, that’s it! You don’t get any strangers coming in and trying to tell you how to run the poukai.”
How the poukai is run, says Oti Poa, goes back, “to how they operated in the past, what has been passed down from their grandparents and the way they did it, and there has been little change.” Wetere says, “The poukai has, for me anyway, a sentimental value. When you look at the people here this morning, they represent all our families that go back to the origins, some of which are still coming and some are doing the same job as their parents and their grandparents did.” Kawe Kawe-Roes is doing jobs that his great-great-grandmother did. The 19-year-old, who has attended 18 poukai with his “nan”, Amohaere, unplugs his iPod and tells me, “Our part of poukai in my family is we dress our ancestors; the carvings in the wharenui. This is Mahinarangi; she has her own special korowai (cloak) for poukai.”
Tiwha Bell, recalls that when he was a boy most, if not all whanau, would contribute food to poukai. “In those days, there was work to be done and that’s what you done. We had a place up the top here,” and he throws his thumb over his shoulder, “We use to have the big gardens up there and we planted potatoes, kamokamo, pumpkin and everything.
It was more or less all for the pa. Some of the other families would be fattening pigs for this special day. Our uncles would get a beast ready. We made sure that we had plenty of kai to feed everyone.” Although living elsewhere for the last 10 years, Bell always came home for poukai, usually towing a trailer full of kina or mussels.
During Tawhiao’s time, people also dropped koha, often a three-penny piece, then known as ‘Tawhiao’s money’, into kete at the wharekai’s entrance. That tradition continues today, albeit to a greater extent, and Aunty Tuti tells me, “Monetary value was never evident during the time that I was young. It’s the money that actually keeps the thing going now. It’s not the gifting of food, as such, although there are still families who do that. There was a whole contingent who went out to the coast to make sure there was seafood [for this poukai]. But the [families are] getting smaller and smaller and the kids are asking, ‘Well, will we pay for it?’ They don’t realise the significance of what it is to manaaki. Manaaki means not only to bless the table by filling it, but also to provide the mana which is part of the mana of the people.”
“Before The Boss died”, says Wetere, using his affectionate term for the late Queen, “a new policy was introduced because poukai were still going at six o’clock in the evening. A lot of people have to travel a long way so she said, ‘Right, start at 10 o’clock, finish at four’”.
It’s 4:12pm and as if the speaker needs a subtle hint that time is up, the railway-crossing bells start clanging and the Overlander passenger train clatters past on the main trunk line that borders the marae, drowning out the public address system.
The brass band strikes up and raffle results are announced: “and this winner is… number 93. Kingi Turner.” The brass band plays their last oom-pah-style tune and four women dance in the centre, jiggling their well-endowed stomachs towards the King and others, much to the delight of all. But the mirth stops as a slow and sombre tune wafts over the marae and, just as at 7.30 this morning when they raised the marae’s poukai flag and the King’s flag, everybody stands. Slow hands ceremoniously lower both flags. This poukai is over. Hardly has the karakia finished than the sound of feet shuffling here and there, whanau gathering themselves, and someone shouts, “All aboard! Back on the bus!”