Aaron Smale

Ratana: church, state and whanau

Every year pilgrims flock to a small settlement just outside Whanganui. They gather to celebrate the birthday of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, the founder of a movement that changed the religious and political landscape of New Zealand.

Written by       Photographed by Aaron Smale

A salvaged motor turns a pipe on which several chooks and a substantial chunk of pork have been tethered with fencing wire. Tongues of blue gas-flame lick at the rotating meat, which Robin Muru bastes with care. “Here, take a piece,” he offers, slicing off a chunk of crackling from the pork with a butcher’s knife, his giant hands performing the task like a delicate surgical operation. In the tent his nieces and nephews are running through a rehearsal on their brass instruments, competing with numerous bands which march up and down the street outside. His nephew keeps time by whacking a cardboard box with a wooden spoon.

Every year Muru erects his family tent across the road from the marae at Ratana pa, a celebration of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana’s birthday on January 25. The festivities last for the best part of a week and attract thousands of devotees to the town of Ratana, once the site of the Ratana family farm. For Muru, coming here is partly summer holiday, but also an opportunity to pay tribute and remember his family’s own connection to the spiritual leader of the Ratana movement which has impacted on the social and political well-being of Māori for almost a century.

“Our grandfather contracted some disease that covered his eyes and inevitably he went blind,” he says. “So my grandmother sent a telegram to the pa, and the response she got from Ratana was to take him to the water’s edge, bathe his eyes and to have whakamoemiti [worship] morning, noon and night. The children used to take turns leading him down to the water’s edge and over the period of a week and a half, it cleared.

“The first day he could see the horizon, the second day he could see the birds on the horizon. As kids we were brought up with that story, and it’s quite a sensitive story to hold and pass on.”

[Chapter Break]

Born in 1873, Ratana grew up to be a champion ploughman and wheat stacker on the rolling country-side just south of Whanganui. He was also the local bookie and a frequent visitor to the local taverns.

Ratana’s aunt Mere Rikiriki had been a renowned spiritual leader but it wasn’t until Ratana was 45 that he started following in her footsteps. The story goes that he was enjoying a night at the pub when he received a call to tell him that his son—who had a chronic infection—had taken a turn for the worse. Ratana rushed home and prayed for the boy, then walked out onto the verandah. As he was gathering his thoughts, he saw a cloud coming towards him and a vision of pathways and roads leading to his house. A voice told him to unite the Māori people and turn them towards God.

His son recovered, but Ratana’s claims of spiritual insight led some to believe he was simply going mad. However, the strange events and Ratana’s growing reputation for being able to heal through prayer caught the attention of Māori throughout the country, a people increasingly in need of hope.

Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, who was of Ngati Apa descent, began his healing and preaching ministry in 1918 while Maori were still reeling from an influenza epidemic. He never intended to start his own church, but his message of hope attracted a large following that continues to this day.
Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, who was of Ngati Apa descent, began his healing and preaching ministry in 1918 while Māori were still reeling from an influenza epidemic. He never intended to start his own church, but his message of hope attracted a large following that continues to this day.

The times were not good for Māori. An outbreak of influenza in 1918 hit Māori communities particularly hard—including Ratana’s own family—and this followed decades of sickness, warfare and the rapid loss of land.

Word of Ratana’s spiritual gifts spread quickly. One early claim of healing was of an elderly man from Te Kuiti who could only walk with the aid of crutches. After a visit to Ratana he returned home and astonished his family by walking briskly down the street. The most famous beneficiary of Ratana’s unique gift was Fanny Lammas of Nelson, who’d been bedridden and encased in a steel frame for 19 years. Specialists were at a loss to diagnose or cure her condition, but after writing to Ratana in 1921, who told her to put her faith in Christ, she apparently recovered completely within a few weeks.

Consequently, the family homestead became a magnet for those looking for healing and guidance. Ratana also went on healing tours. Members of other denominations flocked to see him, although some church and Māori leaders regarded Ratana with disdain. Older members of the church still remember the arduous journeys people were willing to endure to get to the homestead, a tradition that carried on after his death.

Raiti Aperahama, a cousin of Robin Muru’s grandfather and a senior minister in the church, remembers the trip down from Te Hapua every year on the back of a truck. It took three days and was a journey of faith on its own. “We slept on the back of the truck, and if you couldn’t fit on the back you’d get underneath. All we had was empty wool bags, so if it rained you got all wet. Sometimes if we were a bit short of cash we’d go and see a cockie around shearing time and do a bit of shearing…we’d use the money to get some more petrol to carry on.”

Church members listen to both politics and music during the annual Ratana celebrations, an event that has become a staging post for politicians of all colours to tout their Māori policy. Sisters Makarita Smallman (left) and Agnes Henare Keremeneta enjoy a quiet moment (bottom).

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Every January people from around the country make the pilgrimage to Ratana. “Even today, I wonder why people still do it,” says Wayne Johnson, a commercial lawyer and the legal adviser to the church, whose father was a senior minister. In the shade of a tent awning he lights a cigarette as he ponders the question.   

“What makes people still come here? Is it obligation? Is it memory? We used to come here because our parents and grandparents used to come here. Not everyone can afford it, some people make it their holiday of the year. They save up for it, and they get here whatever way they can. We used to come across in the Hawke’s Bay motor company buses.”

Buses still come and a huge tent city springs up on a vacant piece of land in front of the temple, with its two towers at the front looking like an improvised version of a Greek Orthodox church. “This place is a real melting pot. You have people here from Nga Puhi, from Ngati Kahungunu, from the South Island. You only have to look at the street names to see it.”

[Chapter Break]

Ratana’s public career was split into two distinct periods, one dealing with spiritual concerns and the other which turned his attentions to political issues.

From 1918 through to 1928 he was famed for his healing ministry. He encouraged his followers to put aside some aspects of traditional Māori spiritual beliefs while still upholding the essence of their culture. He believed the gospel of Christ could overcome tribal factionalism, a desire borne out by the church he founded, which has become one of the more successful pan-tribal movements.

The church’s creed was orthodox, although the emphasis on angels and the perceived cult of personality surrounding Ratana was still a matter of controversy for mainline denominations. However, Reverend Seamer from the Methodist Church continued to support Ratana as did Reverend Joseph Kemp, the Baptist minister at the Baptist Tabernacle in Queen Street.

Toddlers join their mothers on stage during a concert, an event that carries on well into the night.
Toddlers join their mothers on stage during a concert, an event that carries on well into the night.
A brass band, always a regular feature at Ratana events, forms a guard of honour as church members enter the temple gates for a service. Generations of families visit Ratana Pa every year, many because a family member was touched by Ratana’s ministry decades earlier.
A brass band, always a regular feature at Ratana events, forms a guard of honour as church members enter the temple gates for a service. Generations of families visit Ratana Pa every year, many because a family member was touched by Ratana’s ministry decades earlier.

Ratana was also credited with prophetic insight and a number of cryptic utterances he made continue to be seen as evidence. When the Manuao building was opened in 1938, Ratana made a prediction that, at the time, seemed odd. “He made reference that one day the two towers of power and greed will crumble to the ground,” recalls Johnson. “That was opened on September 11, 1938.”

Ratana’s extensive travels around the country, not to mention a world tour with a brass band concert party, left large pockets of converts scattered around the country. He left behind other legacies as well. “He’d cure something and leave them with an obligation, something for them to carry on. A lot of those marae still honour those,” says Johnson.

Ratana’s spiritual mission culminated in the building of the temple which was officially opened in 1928 and has been the focal point of the township of Ratana ever since. The huge structure was built by members and features two large bell towers at the front, a feature that is echoed in similar but more modest Ratana churches throughout the country.

But by this stage Ratana’s attention was shifting to more secular concerns.

“When he finished the building of the church, he realised that to advance the social and economic well-being of our people we needed to have a political voice,” explains Johnson.

The first Ratana candidate to enter parliament, E.T. Tirikatene, was elected in a by-election in 1932. A second followed in 1935 and by 1943 all four Māori seats were held by Ratana members, including Eastern Māori, previously held by Sir Apirana Ngata.

Kimberley Abraham and members of the band Te Reo o te Mangai have a practice during Ratana celebrations, 2008.
Kimberley Abraham and members of the band Te Reo o te Mangai have a practice during Ratana celebrations, 2008.

From the outset, the Ratana MPs campaigned on a platform of honouring the Treaty of Waitangi. Ngata and other Māori MPs had worked tirelessly to have it honoured, but it had fallen off the political agenda.

The Ratana movement has had a huge influence over Māori political tendencies and national politics as a whole. As early as 1922, it highlighted the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi, arguing it should be entrenched in legislation. When he was in England in 1924, he also sought an audience with King George V to highlight breaches of the treaty, but to no avail.

It wasn’t until 1975 that Matiu Rata, a Ratana member and Labour MP, finally pushed through the Treaty of Waitangi Act, which brought about the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal, an institution that has been fundamental to the treaty settlement process ever since.

[Chapter Break]

The basis for the close alliance between the Ratana movement and Labour was a visit by Ratana to the new Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, in 1936. In a famously symbolic gesture, Ratana met Savage in parliament and laid out four objects in front of him: a potato, a broken gold watch, a greenstone tiki and a huia feather. The potato was a symbol of the ordinary Māori needing his lands. The broken watch, which had belonged to Ratana’s ancestor, Ratana Ngahina, represented broken promises relating to Māori land. The tiki represented the spirit, mana and traditions of the Māori people. And the huia feather represented the sign of a chief, something Savage would be entitled to wear if he protected Māori. This meeting was, in years to come, seen as something of a pact being signed between Ratana and Labour. Ratana also warned Savage that if he forgot his responsibilities to Māori, his government would fail.

Ratana members were once a predictable and reliable Labour bloc, and while there is unofficial support for the Labour party, these days the church membership of 56,000 has a diversity of political views.

“Obviously we have very strong historical links to the Labour Party, but when those links or allegiances were formed there were only two choices,” says Johnson. “Now our options have changed, especially with MMP. Our people now have a lot more options politically.”

A key character in the new political landscape, Tariana Turia, has set up camp a couple of blocks away, where her son is cooking paua fritters. He wanders over to his mother, barbecue tool in one hand, cellphone in the other. “It’s some guy from Radio Live,” he announces flatly, handing her the phone. The politician answers the phone politely, although the warmth of the family banter only a few seconds earlier has somehow dissipated. It’s as if the journalist has caught her in a private moment at home.

The celebrations at Ratana Pa in late January are as much a summer holiday as a religious festival.
The celebrations at Ratana Pa in late January are as much a summer holiday as a religious festival.
Maori Party memberslike Te Ururoa Flavell and Turia have made the Treaty ofWaitangi the touchstone for their policies, as did generations of Ratana MPs.
Māori Party memberslike Te Ururoa Flavell and Turia have made the Treaty ofWaitangi the touchstone for their policies, as did generations of Ratana MPs.

Part of Turia’s childhood was spent in the Whangaehu Valley where she attended the school at Ratana. Her father was related to Ratana. Turia absorbed much of her politics by osmosis, listening in on conversations about Ratana, and also a generations of politicians that she would follow into parliament.

“When I was a teenager I started to knit things together about Ratana, what he was trying to do. As a kid Ratana defined who you were when you went to the pa. Even today, if I’m away from home and a Ratana band strikes up, I will cry. It affects me quite deeply and I can’t explain why. Must be a wairua thing.

“When I first had my children I began to think about my dad and the things that he said and the things I had heard when I was out at the pa. It all began to come together, make some sense to me about what had happened to us as a people.”

Turia’s mix of political pragmatism and principle is heavily influenced by memories of Ratana MPs who were also whanau; ideals that still shape her politics today. She is now allied with National, although doesn’t regard this as political betrayal.

“I can remember when Aunty Iriaka was with Labour, the relationship wasn’t always that rosy. For her to get houses in Ratana Pa she had to go to National—Labour wouldn’t do it. I remember that being talked about as a kid and it kind of gave me an understanding when I went into politics how important it was to have alliances across the house. Of course it was frowned upon to build alliances with National, me being in Labour [at that time].”

“The alliance was never unconditional,” agrees Johnson. “If one day Labour passed bad laws for our people, they would go elsewhere.”

And they have. Last month the Māori Party, once so wedded to Labour, honoured Ratana’s warning to Savage, crossed the floor and signed an historic confidence and supply agreement with National.

[Chapter Break]

It’s the morning of the 25th, the day of Ratana’s birthday and the focus of the celebrations. Crowds gather. A snare drum strikes up a rhythm and a brass ensemble in brightly coloured uniforms blows a giant chord that cuts through the afternoon heat.

As the band marches down the street towards the temple a bunch of children tag along, swinging their arms and imitating the band members, giggling and dancing. Behind, ministers of the church glide along in crisp white gowns with brightly coloured sashes draped around their necks, accompanied by women in purple dresses and white headgear.

Maori MP Tariana Turia with her granddaughter Tariana during Ratana celebrations, 2008.
Māori MP Tariana Turia with her granddaughter Tariana during Ratana celebrations, 2008.

After a rousing service the congregation spills out onto the temple grounds and surrounding streets. After kai, the brass bands battle it out in a fiercely contested competition. One band begins with what sounds like a Wesleyan hymn before chopping seamlessly to Santana’s Black Magic Woman. Impromptu dancing breaks out and an elderly couple launch into a creaky jive.

While Ratana never fully achieved the unity among Māori that he had aspired to, the influence of the church that he founded has continued. The hope that it offered, and the possibility of redemption that drew Māori in the early 1900s has the same relevance in this century as the last.

Robin Muru turns a giant roll of mutton on the spit, the last big kai he will cook for the week. He prods at the meat to see if it’s cooked and makes a mental appointment. “We’ll be back next year.”

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