Who are Tūhoe?
Romanticised one moment, betrayed the next, the Tūhoe tribe of Te Urewera have been an enigma to outsiders for 150 years. Now, with settlement of its Treaty of Waitangi claims in sight, the iwi reasserts its right to determine its own destiny.
For the past 25 years, since lodging the first of a long series of Treaty of Waitangi claims, Tūhoe has walked resolutely backwards, retracing its steps towards a moment 118 years ago when the tribe had within its grasp what no other Māori iwi had been able to attain under colonial dominion: recognition of its right to govern itself and to forge its own destiny.
On August 27, 2012, Tūhoe stopped walking. On that day, the New Zealand Cabinet agreed to offer Tūhoe a settlement that included financial redress, control of the tribe’s traditional homeland—Te Urewera National Park—and a pathway to autonomy.
The settlement is unique, both for the Crown’s willingness to negotiate over so prized a public asset as a national park and for its readiness to address the politically volatile concept of mana motuhake, the assertion of independent authority. No other iwi has made mana motuhake a non-negotiable component of its treaty claim. But perhaps no other iwi craves self-determination the way Tūhoe does.
For 150 years, Tūhoe has felt suffocated by the secondhand smoke of European dominance. For Tūhoe, mana motuhake represents the pure oxygen of freedom.
Tūhoe is certainly not alone in Māoridom in desiring independence, but only Tūhoe has been granted a clear shot at it, because of a day in 1896 when Parliament passed the Urewera District Native Reserve Act. The legislation was the culmination of more than 20 years of negotiations between the Crown and Tūhoe’s leadership, a collective of chiefs known as Te Whitu Tekau, ‘The Seventy’. It enshrined Tūhoe’s traditional lands as a 2650 square kilometre reserve within which titles would be determined not by the Native Land Court that lever of dispossession—but by a Tūhoe-controlled commission. Most importantly, the act allowed for internal self-government based on Tūhoe customs and values.
Tūhoe had been granted something unique and precious. The Urewera reserve was the only autonomous tribal district ever recognised in New Zealand law. But it was too good to last. The promised fresh wind of change petered out into a bureaucratic doldrum. The government procrastinated for almost 13 years before it elected a committee to govern the reserve. Then, in utter disregard of its own policies, the government began buying up the very land it was supposed to be protecting. The bold new act was sidelined, undermined and, in 1921, repealed. Mana motuhake o Tūhoe failed to launch.
But, incredibly, a new countdown has begun. As this story goes to press, the 40,000-strong iwi is debating the fine print of the government’s offer. “It has taken us until 2012 to reach the point we were at in 1896,” says Tāmati Kruger, Tūhoe’s chief negotiator. Signing the deed of settlement, he says, “will be the biggest decision for the iwi since walking from Ruatāhuna to Orakau in 1864 to have a scrap”. That decision—to fight alongside Waikato iwi in a battle that became known as “Rewi’s last stand”—set Tūhoe on a collision course with the Crown. Ever since, the relationship with the Crown has been marred by “tyranny, distrust, suspicion and superstition”, says Kruger.
Today, in Tūhoe’s Bay of Plenty townships and across the mountains at Ruatāhuna and Lake Waikaremoana, there is the feeling of history being made. Yet for the past several years, the words ‘Tūhoe’ and ‘Urewera’ have been associated in the public mind not with ending one of the most iniquitous sagas of injustice in the history of Aotearoa but with guerrilla training, illegal surveillance, state-sanctioned terror raids and the trial and conviction of the ‘Urewera Four’.
Convinced that the public perception of Tūhoe was at best a distorted reflection in a series of bent media mirrors, photographer Peter Quinn and I packed our bags and headed into Urewera country to press noses with its inhabitants and see if we could produce a portrait of an iwi on the eve of independence. Uppermost in our minds was the question: what does it mean to be Tūhoe?
A tear swelled and spilled from the eye of Patrick Orupe. It left a wet trail across the blue-black lines of his moko. He looked at me and said: “You raped my grandmother. You shot my grandfather. You dug up my potatoes and set fire to my crops. And in 2007, you came and pointed guns at my children. Should I feel happy about that?”
We were talking a few metres from the house where the prophet Rua Kēnana died, up the Waimana Valley in the eastern Bay of Plenty. Orupe is descended from members of Rua’s community and has inherited some of his brimstone and sorrow. The anger burns hotter with age. As a child, raised by his grandmother, Orupe was oblivious to the injustice. His grandmother would look at photographs of the Maungapōhatu community and start to wail. “But I didn’t realise what it meant,” Orupe said. “I was just a snotty-nosed little brat, thinking, ‘Why are you still going on about that, Nan, wailing like an old lady?’ But when she died, that wailing became a fire.”
The fire is what keeps Orupe, nicknamed Onion for his shaved head that has the sheen of a billiard ball, close to his ancestral marae. It is a fire of history and a fire of whakapapa. It is also a burning sense of betrayal that many Tūhoe feel when they reflect on 200 years of interaction with the colonial power.
Tūhoe history should make you weep. If you have the stomach for tragedy, read Judith Binney, the historian upon whom Tūhoe bestowed the name Tomairangi o te Aroha, the dews of love, in recognition of her meticulous and compassionate work. She was to have written this New Zealand Geographic feature, but her life was cut short by cancer in 2011.
After reading Binney’s masterwork, Encircled Lands, I found it impossible to travel around Te Urewera and not sense the ghosts of the unquiet past. Driving east from Rotorua, passing the stark volcanic sentinel of Putauaki/Mt Edgecumbe, I realised that all this flat fertile land—kiwifruit and mandarin orchards, dairy farms, here and there the stubble of harvested corn—was once Tūhoe’s best land and their best chance for a stake in the colonial economy. It was confiscated by the Crown in 1866 through a combination of punitive zealotry and bureaucratic ineptitude. Even when the mistake was realised—that the wrong tribe had been punished—the evil was compounded in that the land was never returned.
It was “the very kernel of our lands”, as one Tūhoe described it, a coastal strip roughly 80 km by 20 km. Not only was it the best land for cultivation, it was also Tūhoe’s corridor to the plentiful seas of Ōhiwa Harbour and the Bay of Plenty. Confiscation robbed them twice over and made them a landlocked and impoverished people.
The inland boundary of the appropriated land—the much-hated ‘Confiscation Line’—is public knowledge now, thanks to a 2007 police roadblock set up near it. But imagine if you lived in Waimana or Ruatoki and crossed that line every day—crossing, metaphorically as well as actually, from the hard-scrabble lands of Tūhoe to the milk-and-honey lands of others. What would that do for your belief in a just society?
At Te Whaiti, on the Ruatāhuna road, I thought of the famines that killed nearly a quarter of the population of Te Urewera in the late 1890s—the legacy of confiscation and military destruction. The people of Te Whaiti lived on earthworms, pūhā and fern root. Heavy frosts had destroyed all other crops. The government’s response was “parsimonious and inconstant”, wrote Binney. Māori were a doomed race. Why smooth their dying pillow?
At Maungapōhatu—Tūhoe’s Jerusalem, its sacred mountain, its sanctuary within a sanctuary—I stood on the porch of the meeting house. Here Rua Kēnana and two of his sons watched Police Commissioner John Cullen—‘Czar’ Cullen, as one historian has called him for his head-cracking style of policing—lead a column of 60 sweating constables, armed with pistols and carbines, up a steep path from the valley.
In a show of contempt, Cullen rode his horse on to the marae and demanded Rua’s surrender on charges of sedition.
From somewhere, a shot was fired—it has never been determined from which side—and a short but disastrous exchange of fire left Rua’s son Toko and his uncle Te Maipi dead and several on both sides injured.
Further horror followed. Descendants speak of rape and torture. One told me that several men were mock-buried in an open grave. Jewellery, money and taonga were pillaged as trophies.
Binney, describing the field work she conducted for a biography of Rua, said that the photo of his arrest became crumpled and stained with tears from those she showed it to. “Bitter as gall,” she wrote, are the memories of the people of the events of that day in 1916, Maungapōhatu’s Bloody Sunday.
It was a vendetta. From the entrapping legislation to the thuggish police action, the thing stank of vindictiveness—a vindictiveness born of wartime paranoia and intolerance. The government had expected bellicosity from Rua, the ‘Māori Kaiser’, as the newspapers dubbed him, but the police were met in peace. “Rua didn’t resist at all,” admitted one of the police officers years later. The government had expected conspiracy, but none was to be found. At Rua’s trial, the longest for 60 years, all the serious charges were thrown out, and Rua was convicted on the vague charge of offering “moral resistance” to constables who had sought to arrest him months earlier for illicit sale of alcohol a charge for which he believed he had already served time. He was sentenced to a year in prison and 18 months of hard labour. Eight of the jurors protested against the severity of the sentence, saying that the judge had misinterpreted their verdict as meaning resisting arrest. “Our sympathies were and are entirely with Rua, both as to his treatment by the Magistrate and by the Police,” they wrote in a petition to the House. Their plea for a pardon or prompt release was ignored.
I walked among the graves in the Maungapōhatu urupā, where fantails and silvereyes flitted among the flowering cabbage trees, and the still, sunny day seemed heavy with peace. Rua had named his community Te Maungarongo, the ‘people of lasting peace’, but the community never recovered from his incarceration and the crippling costs associated with the trial.
Near the urupā, on a promontory between two streams, Rua’s house still stands—just. Part of the roof has fallen in, and there are mummified possum carcasses under the wire-wove bed bases. The place consists entirely of bedrooms, four on each side of a central hall one for Rua and the other seven for his wives. Cooking was done outside. In Rua’s room was a collection of rusting tin trunks and a pair of slippers—almost the only items that have not been purloined by souvenir-hunters since the house was abandoned in 1945.
Across the valley, the mountain itself was cloaked in cloud. In a swamp on the summit lies Te Kooti’s diamond, or so it is said. Stories are told about a priceless stone whose dazzling rays guided the legendary leader at night. He left it on Maungapōhatu, covered with a rainbow shawl. Rua claimed that he and his first wife, Pinepine, were guided by an angel to the site, and saw the gem. By linking himself to the diamond, Rua affirmed that he was the promised one, the one Te Kooti prophesied would complete his work. Not all Tūhoe accepted Rua’s messianic claims. For many, in Rua’s own time and ours, he forfeited his messiahship by his willingness to sell land to the Crown—Tūhoe’s unpardonable sin.
Te Kooti—or Te Turuki, as Tūhoe know him—had warned Māori not to sell their land. “Do not trample on the people or the land,” he wrote. “The Atua [god] is not a man of love to those who take land. Nor am I.” Tūhoe gave him shelter and were his staunchest followers, and he adopted them as his people. He understood their experience of captivity and exile, and they his. He was able to place their plight within a biblical narrative and give them hope.
Tūhoe built a number of meeting houses to honour their Moses figure. The great wharenui that stands on Mataatua marae, in Ruatāhuna, takes its name from the prophet’s fugitive wanderings in the wilderness: Te Whai a te Motu, the ‘pursuit across the land’.
For three years, Te Kooti and his followers ranged across Te Urewera, eluding capture by an increasingly desperate military force. Like a cat with nine lives, he escaped numerous ambushes, sometimes streaking stark naked from his whare when the first shots were fired.”
“There was something magical about his ability to evade his pursuers. He was shot at least five times, losing fingers, being struck in the shoulder and the ankle. Stories are told of his Sam Brown belt being severed by a bullet. Te Kooti himself frequently prophesied his invulnerability: “I shall never be seized by them, neither shall I die until the man to follow me appears.”
One morning, on a high ridge above Waimana Valley, I listened spellbound to the fluting calls of kōkako—the sound of the forest’s soul—and imagined Te Kooti waking to the same dawn aria. Mist filled the valleys, and I pictured his band of followers eating a morning meal of wild honey and eels, “hunkered down, guns across their thighs, alert and listening for the slightest sound of a twig snapping”, as Binney wrote. Her biography of the man, Redemption Songs, is a powerful tribute to this defender of mana motuhake and guardian of the land.
No less moving than Binney’s work, no less devastating in its revelations, has been the methodical documentation of the Waitangi Tribunal, which has now released three mammoth volumes of deliberation on the Tūhoe claims. (Tūhoe, it should be noted, did not sign the Treaty of Waitangi. The iwi was not given the opportunity. But because the Crown undertook treaty obligations to all Māori when it proclaimed sovereignty in 1840, Tūhoe’s grievances fall within the tribunal’s remit.)
Reading the reports is an illusion-shattering experience. It is not just the catalogue of unjust acts by successive administrations that bursts the illusion of fairness, but the calculated intent to destroy.
During the first military expedition to root out Te Kooti, who was being given sanctuary by Tūhoe, those in command repeatedly voiced their desire to exterminate the Urewera natives. In personal letters home, a nonchalant inhumanity was standard fare. Major William Mair, leader of a force that made its way up the Whakatāne River to Ruatāhuna, boasted in a letter to his sister of deception and desecration: “In the morning a nigger came close to the edge of the bush and called: two of my fellows rushed out, and taking cover, invited him in the politest manner to come along; as he came out of the bush they saw he was armed, and knocked him over. Making a big fire over old Murakareke’s grave, we put on a pig to roast, and firing the place, advanced to the next place.”
Murakareke was one of Tūhoe’s most revered ancestors. To cook a meal on such a tapu site was an abomination. I visited the place where this happened, near Ruatāhuna—now just a copse of trees, a place of no obvious importance except to those who know its past, for whom the stories “live on in the pages of our historical minds”, as one Tūhoe put it.
Starvation was a brutal weapon in the government’s arsenal, and was used without hesitation. The phrase “scorched earth” is almost too familiar to the modern mind to capture the terror of what it meant to those on whom it was visited. Yet it was carried out with relish. It was treated as sport. Colonel George Whitmore, head of the Armed Constabulary, wrote in his official report that when his men were off duty, they “roamed about the country foraging, destroying crops, burning kaingas [dwellings], and seeking the enemy’s scouts”. Destroying potato crops was almost too easy. Break down the fence surrounding the garden, and, by morning, wild pigs would have rooted up the entire crop. What the pigs didn’t eat, the frost would spoil. At Lake Waikaremoana, the officer in charge of the expeditionary force gloated that his men had destroyed a quantity of potatoes that would have fed 1000 men for 15 months.
It was Colonel Whitmore who expressed regret, in his official report, that “all [the rebels] could not be killed”. And it was Whitmore who handed over Tūhoe women and children prisoners to Te Arawa, an enemy tribe, with the intent that Arawa men would “remove them to their own Country so that this hapū will be destroyed”. Judith Binney called this an act of calculated genocide.
At the same time, Whitmore made it clear to the women’s husbands that they could be reunited with their families if they came out of the mountains. The women “were used by the Crown as pawns to secure the surrender of their men”, Binney testified to the Waitangi Tribunal. The goal was to empty Te Urewera of its inhabitants. Coercion was a convenient mechanism.
I camped a night on the dunes at Te Putere—Tūhoe’s “concentration camp”, as Binney called it. A cold wind blew along the coast from Whakatāne, a few kilometres to the east. Black and sluggish, the Tarawera.
River meandered through sprawling scrub. This was Tūhoe’s Babylon. Here they wept when they remembered Zion. Every morning, they would look at the green-grey mountains on the horizon. Every evening, the dying sun would make those mountains glow.
Women, children and old people were corralled here on land that was either swamp or dune, and expected to eke a living while their fate was weighed by government officials. They were given neither seeds nor tools for planting, nor boats for fishing.
When the expedition was over (without achieving its goal—Te Kooti would never be captured), Whitmore and his troops were praised by the Governor for their “conspicuous courage”. Only now, a century and a half later, does their inconspicuous brutality come to light.
So I was not surprised at Onion’s tears. He considers himself to be one of the lucky ones—lucky to have Tūhoe’s history and custom instilled in him as a child. That awareness of identity and whakapapa is what brought him back to the fringes of Te Urewera, where 3000 Tūhoe struggle to survive despite scant employment opportunities. He rejected the allure of the city—“the bling-bling of the fast life, the comfortable life”. He lives here because this is the hearth of te ahi kaa—the long-burning fire of his Tūhoetanga, his essential being.
For many Tūhoe, the sense of identity ingrained in childhood is either weak or absent. Eighty-five per cent of the iwi live away from Tūhoe’s traditional homeland territory they call their rohe potae, the encircled lands. Forced by economic necessity to leave their marae and their rohe, they face the almost certain reality of cultural loss. Tikanga fades, and the memory of what it means to be Tūhoe becomes harder to retrieve.
It is for this reason that mana motuhake has been central to the iwi’s negotiations with the Crown. “Mana motuhake is the ability to live your own dreams, rather than being forced to live the dreams of others,” says Tāmati Kruger. And what is the dream? Tūhoetanga—the essence of being Tūhoe.
Tūhoetanga is a thousand traditions, many of them not exclusive to Tūhoe but perhaps more forceful and alive in Te Urewera than in many other places, here where the fires of identity are kept well stoked.
Tūhoetanga is the soft rapping of an elder’s knuckles on the dinner table for quiet before he says a karakia for the kai.
It is the tapping of wooden mallets on chisels in a carving class at Ruatāhuna School, where the motto is ‘Iti rearea teitei kahikatea ka taea’; the smallest bird can reach the top of the tallest tree. The boys worked eagerly, seeming not to want the class to end. Marni Te Are, a powerfully built man with a swirling moko and serious eyes, moved among them, giving advice in a voice so quiet it was barely audible. A bell rang, the chisels were carefully wrapped in their cloths and the boys gathered for karakia. Te Are pulled the beanie from his head and lowered his eyes as he released the class from the tapu that encloses the carving tradition. This is sacred work.
Tūhoetanga is walking with an aunty into the forest as she collects leaves for rongoā, traditional Māori medicine. Nanny Pohutu took me early one morning into a patch of forest near Ruatāhuna School to show me how it’s done. The morning was crisp and cold, typical of midwinter in Te Urewera. Pohutu was wearing a thick bush shirt over her other clothes and had a blue scarf wrapped around her head.
She had already been in the forest that morning, soon after daybreak. Dusk and dawn are when the mauri, or life force, of the forest is strongest, she said. We paused at the edge of the bush for a few moments and she said a karakia, asking the forest to welcome us. Everything Tūhoe starts with prayer, even tribal conference calls. It’s a matter of respect, an acknowledgement of human limitation. We waited a little longer. “The ngāhere is like a marae, or someone’s home,” Pohutu said. “You wait to be invited in.”
We followed a sun-dappled path and Pohutu pointed to this plant and that, stroking the leaves as she passed. Kokomuka, a species of hebe, for curing rashes. Manono, a coprosma, for cuts and sores. A type of fern for toothache. Tawiniwini, snowberry, to ease a cough. Makomako, wineberry, for tired eyes. Kāramuramu, another coprosma, for detox. “Sometimes the tree tells you what it’s useful for,” she said.
Pick respectfully, Pohutu said, reaching out and twisting my ear hard, catching me unawares. I got the message. Be mindful. Plants are the children of Tāne. Adjust your cosmology.
Pohutu grew up with some of this medicinal knowledge through watching her mother, but paid scant attention back then. “Too interested in other things,” she said. She finds it remarkable, and humbling, that so much has come back to her. One memory she was unlikely to forget was of being treated for school sores with tutu. “Our mother boiled the berries and leaves in a tub, and dipped us in. It stung like hell. You went in red and came out purple.”
Pohutu sang a waiata as she picked. Her soft, lilting notes made harmony with a stream that babbled beside the path. The waiata, she explained, was sung in the forest and when cooking the plants at home to make ointments and medicines. It started and finished with the words: ‘He aha koe e pātai nei, e moko?’ What is your question, child? This is the timeless method of knowledge transfer in Tūhoe: the passing of tikanga across the generations, one child at a time.
Ron Tahi was one of those children. Like many of his generation, born in the 1940s and 50s, he was a whāngai, raised by his grandparents. This arrangement was standard Tūhoe practice. It freed the parents to concentrate on making a living, and had the important benefit of ensuring a concentrated delivery of Tūhoe custom and tradition. Elders, having reached the age of clarity, where their scale of values has tilted away from material irrelevancies and towards essential truths, are ideal teachers. One thing matters supremely: that their mokopuna walk in the ways of the ancestors, fully alive to their Tūhoetanga.
There is nothing capricious about a whāngai decision. In Tahi’s case, he was the matāmua, the first-born, and thus a likely choice to be given away. But like every important decision, it was made only after lengthy discussion by the elders, and included Tahi being given the name of a soldier who had been killed in the war. The wisdom of the decision may be inferred from the fact that Tahi has become a respected Tūhoe leader and chairman of the Ruatāhuna tribal executive, and was a former principal of Ruatāhuna School. He can also skin a possum in under a minute.
We rode through flowering heather as high as the horses’ withers to visit the place of his childhood. The narrow trail beside the Whakatāne River wound through steep gorges and out onto grassy flats that had been farmed and cultivated once, but were now reverting to bush.
“Up there is where Kereopa lived,” Tahi said as we passed a copse of trees on a hillside. Kereopa Te Rau was given sanctuary by Tūhoe for five years after the slaying of Opotiki missionary Carl Volkner in 1865. Volkner was hanged and decapitated by members of his congregation on suspicion of spying for the government. At the time, Kereopa was a hot-headed evangelist for the
Pai Marire faith (also known as Hauhau), which promised deliverance from Pakeha oppression. In a display of anti-government fervour, Kereopa ritually gouged out Volkner’s eyeballs and swallowed them, calling one Parliament and the other the Queen and British law.
Nearer our destination lay a landmark of happier memories. A sacred hīnau tree, Te Ihoo-kataka, the ‘tree of life’, once grew here. In former times, the umbilical cords of children were hung from its branches, and the tree was said to have power to enable childless women to conceive. Tahi said that there was probably no one alive today who knew the exact location of the tree, or if it was still standing.
We turned away from the riverbank trail and rode our horses up a path to Ohaua-terangi, a grassy flat high above the river and invisible from it. A wharenui stood at one end, and in front of it, a low mound showed where an earlier meeting house had stood. A scattering of shacks made up the rest of the buildings, apart from one modern bach that looked out of place, and of which Tahi disapproved, despite it belonging to a relative. A community had thrived here, but no one lived permanently in Ohaua now. Tahi’s grandparents had been the last to leave.
Tahi found a key and opened the one-room tōtara-slab hut where he spent his childhood. We sat on a wooden form at the same rough table he had eaten from, and began to prepare the evening meal of mince, onions and potatoes.
We talked into the night, Tahi reminiscing about his boyhood. Toys were unknown he made roads in clay banks and used pieces of wood for trucks.
He made horseshoe stamps from condensed milk tins and pressed hoof shapes into the soil, dreaming of the day he would own his own horse. He learned how to salt meat, seal it in tins and store it in a swamp. He learned how to catch dragonflies to use as bait for trout.
Sitting behind his koro on long horse rides, he learned his hapū geography: where the boundaries were, whom you needed to ask permission from before passing into other areas, where to hunt pigeons, where to catch eels. At night, it was his job to collect embers in a kerosene tin to provide warmth in the sleeping hut. Sleeping and eating were strictly separated, he told me. To sleep in the same room as you ate would be considered a gross breach of tapu. Tahi regards European lack of respect for the sanctity of food to be further evidence, if that were needed, of the “upside down Pakeha world”.
We dossed down in the wharenui. After we’d blown the candles out, I listened to Tahi saying karakia and singing the evening hymn, the way he must have listened to his koro 60 years ago. Next morning, the ground was white, and frost flowers had grown on the bleached deer skulls and antlers on the roof of the hut. The water pipe had frozen, so Tahi sent me to collect a billy full from the marae. I brought armfuls of frosted mānuka logs to top up the firewood stack, and my fingers grew numb with cold. Tahi remarked that it had never been a problem getting up in the morning when he was living here because it was so cold in the sleeping hut that it was preferable to be up and moving.
We cooked and ate and tidied the hut. Tahi threaded big cubes of aromatic green rat poison on to a loop of wire and tied it to a wooden chest. He pointed to a message he had written on a set of metal cupboards where foodstuffs were kept: “I am watching and waiting—kiore.” I didn’t doubt it. Near the door was a rat hole the size of a drainpipe.
On the ride back to Ruatāhuna, we heard the bleat of a whio from the river and the whistling wingbeats of kereru from the forest. Tahi’s education at Ohaua in the 1940s included pretty much everything there is to know about kererū and how to preserve them. He told me about the process, stressing that every part of it was under the strict control of hapū leaders—as, indeed, was the harvesting of every food resource. The number of birds to be collected was decided beforehand, based on the rangatira’s assessment of their condition and abundance. Two weeks was set aside for the harvest—no more, no less. Each hunter was given an exact number of birds to collect, always a multiple of 20.
There was elaborate ritual surrounding the harvest itself, from the karakia uttered to lift the rāhui, to the burial of the tail feathers and long wing feathers in the forest to maintain the mauri of the birds, to the plucking and sorting of the remaining feathers by women back at the marae. Inferior feathers were used for mattresses and pillows; the more colourful ones—whites, greens and blues—were saved for cloaks. Then there was the cooking, first in water, then in fat. Tahi painted an unforgettable picture of a line of kuia sucking the scalding liquid out of boiled pigeons prior to plunging them into hot fat.
The kererū harvest was ohu at its finest: the marae working as a team. “Nothing was wasted,” said Tahi. It was a lesson drummed into children by their parents and grandparents. Survival depended on it. When possum hunting came in, for example, the carcasses were always brought home from the bush to feed pigs, cats and dogs. Tahi, who is 68, still hunts possums for pocket money. The fur fetches better than $100 a kilogram, and a kilogram of fur can be plucked from 15 to 18 possums. Skins fetch more per animal, but curing them costs time and chemicals.
He quoted a Tūhoe proverb: “By the sweat of your brow and the calluses of your hands will the whānau, the hapū and the iwi be lifted up.” No one would disagree that that ethic has been eroded in the past 50 years. By some estimates, three-quarters of Tūhoe living in the rohe today depend on some form of government benefit. Overhauling a culture of dependency is one of the preoccupations of the current Tūhoe leadership.
Tūhoe have a word for the indolent: patunamu, a swatter of sandflies. Tūhoe’s aim is for that expression to disappear through lack of use.
At a meeting of the Tūhoe iwi authority in Tāneatua, I watched the tribal executive unveil the blueprint for the next 40 years. Tūhoe’s administrative entity is called Te Uru Taumatua, the ‘grove of taumatua trees’. The image of a grove signifies the many hapū that make up the iwi. Taumatua are trees which, through their strength and productivity, function as islands of life within the forest, attracting and creating sustenance from which others can prosper—a good metaphor for an iwi on a path to self-governance.
Standing in front of cards inscribed with the date of each decade, they spoke of where they expected the iwi to be by that time. By 2020, health infrastructure in place, tribal and marae leadership strengthened, job creation under way. By 2030, “non-welfarism” a reality and the word “beneficiary” no longer used, housing programmes in place, tribal-based industries being created. By 2040, a Tuhoe education system operating.
I was surprised to hear the executive stress that by 2050 the role of the tribal authority is expected to diminish to that of a mere administrative shell. It is not often people seek to do themselves out of a job, but devolution is a core principle for Tūhoe: hapū-level governance must increase, iwi-level decision-making must decrease.
Tūhoe’s blueprint is mana motuhake in the 21st century. By the end of the process, Tūhoe expect to be running their own services for their own benefit. “And the most attractive part for the Crown is that Tūhoe will be paying for it themselves,” Kruger said. “We will be saying to the Crown, ‘No, we will not be requiring your money,’ because the moment you grab the public dollar you are hooked, you are a servant. That’s the hardest thing to unlock for many Māori people, because they’ve become accustomed to the room service, as terrible as it is—cold pies, flat beer—yet you’re hooked.
“We’re trying to restore a sense of self-belief, and that will take two or three generations. The attitude is more important than the programme itself—that we should not be dependent. We should not be beneficiaries. That’s your mana—your sense of sanctity, of worth, of purpose, and your collective consciousness of what you believe are the values of life, of humanity. So this is not a protest. Tūhoe is not saying, ‘We want out from Kiwiana, we want out from New Zealand.’ Rather it’s a restoration of what we have lost.”
The key to that restoration is Te Urewera itself. It is impossible to overstate the sense of attachment Tūhoe have for Te Urewera. It is their place in the world and a signpost of who they are. “The Egyptians had their pyramids. The Mayans had their temples. We have Te Urewera,” one man told me.
Tūhoe talk a lot about wairua, the spiritual side of life. For Tūhoe, the mingling of physical and spiritual seems as effortless as breathing. One morning, as we sat at her kitchen table, Ruhia Temara, a young Ruatāhuna mother, spoke of the way that something as simple as weaving flax can be food for the soul. “I can’t weave alone,” she said. “Weaving is for sharing, for talking and laughing. Like the flax plant itself, it’s a family thing. Harakeke is like family. You shouldn’t bully it. You shouldn’t neglect it. If you have a problem you can take it to the flax, and out of the flax will come the answer. That’s part of Tūhoetanga.”
At the marae at Maungapōhatu, Temara’s father, Iharaira Temara, described his understanding of Tūhoetanga in a stirring kōrero. “It is my cultural and spiritual being. It is my identity. It is my mountains, my rivers, my marae, my hapū. It is the way I behave. It is my language. It is my heartbeat. It is my world. It is my connection to my past and my inspiration to take me forward. It is everything I grew up in, and it makes me proud to be Tūhoe.”
The previous night I had slowly cruised the road to Maungapōhatu with Iharaira Temara, spotlighting for deer. My arm had gone numb with cold and fatigue, holding a spotlight out the ute window, shining it on the road ahead and into the forest on each side. Temara drove, with the barrel of his rifle sticking out the window. “Jiggle the light when we come to a corner,” he had said. “The movement makes them curious, and they stop and have a look.”
The Maungapōhatu deer must have been devoid of curiosity that night, for we trolled the road without seeing a single animal. But on a grassy slope near the marae we picked up the eyeshine of a doe, and Temara shot it. In the morning, I helped him gut the dew-covered carcass and together we lugged it up the steep hill to the road.
There probably isn’t a Tūhoe male—one who lives in the rohe, at least—who hasn’t gone into Te Urewera for deer or pigs or eels or the tips of pikopiko fern, bush asparagus. Tūhoe speak of Te Urewera as their “cupboard”, though it is far more to them than that.
“The mountains are our elder brother,” said Taane Rakuraku, a kaumātua with a flowing white beard. “They listen to the kōrero from all our maraes and store it up. They are our sentinels. We look up to them and say, ‘I’m home.’”
For Tūhoe, this sense of blood relation to the land is not metaphorical, it is real. One of their great ancestors, Potiki-Tiketike, was born from the union of mountains and mist. He sprang direct from the land, and because of him all Tūhoe trace their ancestral links to the land.
When Tūhoe call themselves “children of the mist”, they are not making a poetical statement about a romanticised past, but are declaring Te Urewera to be indispensable to their sense of identity. “We are this land and we are the face of the land,” Tāmati Kruger told the Waitangi Tribunal. “Wherever those mountains come from, that’s where we come from. Wherever the mist emerges from and disappears to, that’s where we come from.”
Everything about Tūhoe is “entangled in this place called Te Urewera”, Kruger told me. “Our cuisine, music, poetry, proverbs, sayings, even the lilt of our language, is almost befitting the rugged isolation and wildness of Te Urewera. Our self-image, as well as our values, is part and parcel of this place. And this is something that Tūhoe people have decided they must not give up.”
Yet the fight for repossession has been long and fraught. Kruger recalled the government’s first offer, in 2009, of compensation and co-management of Te Urewera National Park—but no return of the land to the iwi. Tūhoe leadership had already decided co-management was a non-starter for them. They had sent delegations to Australia and Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic, to ask indigenous people there how co-management with the state had worked out for them. “We found that those people had sold their treaty rights for services. They get free housing, free education, free health, but at the price of their honour. They told us, ‘Don’t do this.’”
So when the co-management offer was put to Tūhoe, the iwi leaders felt disinclined to accept it. But it was not their decision to make. Tikanga required that the people be consulted, so a series of hui were held around the country, and with Tūhoe in Australia.
“I remember one marae we went to,” Kruger said. “It was an evening meeting, called with only a day’s notice, yet the wharenui was full of Tūhoe of mixed ages. I outlined the Crown’s offer and someone got up and said, ‘And your recommendation is…?’ And I said, ‘My recommendation is that we reject the offer.’
“There were some other questions, and then a young mother—who I knew was living in a caravan with her five children at the back of a relative’s house—she put up her hand and asked: ‘Is Te Urewera coming back?’
“I said, ‘No, John Key is not offering that.’ “‘How much money is he offering?’
“‘Oh, 120 million’, or whatever it was. Without hesitation, she said, ‘Then we’re not interested.’ The money didn’t put a gleam in her eye at all. This is someone struggling to buy bread and school shoes, and what mattered to her was if her land, land she shares with 40,000 other people, was coming back. The money did not mean anything. I sat there and looked at the faces in that whare and did not see anyone who seemed to be thinking, let alone saying, ‘Hold on, let’s think about this. It’s not often you get a 120-million-dollar offer.’ There was nothing. Nobody raised any more questions. That young woman and another parent moved and seconded the motion to reject the offer. I went home and said to my wife, ‘There are still people around that money can’t buy.’
“In wharenui after wharenui, I saw people on the edge of hopelessness and ruin—or the second and third generation of ruin—living under the tyranny of despair, saying, ‘I will move the motion. We don’t want his money.’
“I feel blessed to be part of what we are told is a passing race, people who don’t live by mainstream values of riches, position, net worth. Some of these people come in to the office and give $10. ‘This is for the cause,’ they say. ‘I’m sorry, it’s all I can afford.’
“So this is their cause. It may look like an organisation’s cause, but in this case it is not. I consider myself to be under orders, under direction, from these people. My charge is to represent Tūhoe—not just Tūhoe who are living today, but the values and virtues of Tūhoe past, present and future. The Tūhoetanga in me is the same as in a newborn child and a 97-year-old kuia.”
Tūhoetanga is a taproot and it is a lifeline. When lives go adrift, Tūhoetanga can bring them back to safety.
Tūhoe Hauora, a Tūhoe-operated, Tūhoe-oriented health service provider in Tāneatua, runs what they call tikanga programmes for men, women and at-risk youth. Those who attend have usually been referred by the Corrections Department, which sees in tikanga an effective antidote for recidivism.
The four-day programmes are a crash course in Tūhoetanga. They are held on local marae—an essential choice of venue, because the marae is the distillation of Tūhoe identity, and the programmes aim to reconnect people to that identity.
Nikapuru Takuta, a counsellor who works on men’s and youth tikanga programmes, explained how a Tūhoe person can lose his way. “The tikanga you were born with and grew up with on the marae doesn’t fit with the tikanga in town. You have to learn to manoeuvre through new tikanga around alcohol, drugs, sex, relationships, work. But those tikanga don’t come with any framework or belonging—they’re just out there. And that’s when trouble starts. We call it stepping on land mines. You’ve had a few beers with the boys at the pub, and you decide to drive home. You just stepped on a land mine. Or you get home, you’re pretty drunk, and you walk in the door and there’s no tea on the table. You know what that does to a man. Another land mine. It becomes a pattern.
“How do we stop guys stepping on mines? We bring them back to the marae. Finding your tikanga gives you back a sense of belonging. You think, ‘These are my tīpuna, this is my turangawaewae, this is where I came from. I’m not here just by accident, dumped here by my parents. I’m part of a bigger story. I have a connection, and I will respect it.’”
When the realisation hits, the impact can be huge. Takuta has seen it with members of rival gangs who are in the same programme. “You might have a Mob man, a Black Power man and a Tribesman, and a couple of days into the programme they realise they’re actually cousins. ‘Shit, that’s my relative!’ For a moment they’re willing to put aside the difference because they’ve seen something stronger. They’ve seen the world of tikanga. They get the idea of whānau and hapū, and it’s about unity. It’s about support. Actually, it’s about the things that attracted them to the gang in the first place.”
The tikanga programme “changes the paradigm”, said Takuta, laughing as he used the Pakeha jargon. He is studying for a degree in social work. He already has a diploma in counselling and a certificate in Māori social services. “The reason I can talk to men on these programmes today is because I know what it’s like to be out of touch with your whakapapa and identity.”
Takuta grew up in Wairoa. By the age of 14, he had given up on education and got a job in forestry and joined a gang. He was in his 30s when his mother said, “You need to go home.”
“‘I am home,’ I said. ‘I was born here.’ “‘No, you need to go home to where I come from. To the lake.’
“She said it because I was creating a lot of carnage. So I went back to Waikaremoana and moved on to her land. I chopped down some blue gums and built a log cabin. The design came from watching a John Wayne movie. I didn’t want to be involved with the whānau, but it wasn’t long before the aunties started coming around, waking me up—‘Boy, I need a hand. Get in the car and come up to the marae and chop some wood.’ Or, ‘There’s some meat that needs to be cut up.’ I would stand there, looking at half a mutton hanging in the freezer, and ask, ‘How?’ ‘We need pieces that will fit in a pot. You figure it out.’
“It wasn’t an easy time. I had several cousins there who were in a rival gang. I got challenged a few times, shot at a few times, but I stuck it out because I was on a mission to discover who I was.”
Now Takuta tries to reach out to those who are stuck in the world he left behind. How does he shift their thinking, I asked, when the tikanga of the gang is so strong?
“A lot of the ones I work with are young fathers, between 19 and 30. I ask them, ‘So, how many kids have you got?’ ‘Got a baby. Eighteen months.’ ‘Oh, so where to from here?’ ‘I don’t know, bro.’ ‘What do you mean? You knew when you jumped into it.’ ‘I didn’t have my baby then, so I didn’t really care.’ ‘Oh, so now you care?’ See, now he’s got two loyalties. His gang family and his new family. He’s got a lot of thinking to do. This is you over here, and that’s you over there—which you do you want to be?”
We were talking in an office in Hauora’s new building on the main street of Tāneatua—the flashest building in town. There was an empty desk next to Takuta’s. “That’s Tame’s desk,” he said. Tame Iti helped to develop the tikanga programme, “to offer something to guys who were standing on land mines”, Takuta said. Iti was jailed for taking a supposed interest in the real thing—if not mines, exactly, then Molotov cocktails, semi-automatic weapons and other accoutrements of insurrection. But those who know him say his interest lies in restoration of Tūhoetanga rather than conspiracy against the state.
Along the corridor, I met Hauora staff who organise tikanga programmes for youth. These programmes try to catch youngsters—rangatahi—before they fall out of the waka.
Their aim is the same as in the adult programmes: building connection, belonging and pride. Many of the young people arrive at camp desperately short of these things.
“I see a lot of sadness,” said Hauora social worker Zoe Wilson. “Rangatahi keep getting knocked back and knocked back. Maybe it’s a teacher continually telling them they’re dumb, that they don’t know what they’re doing. The rangatahi start believing they are dumb. They think, ‘I’m dumb, so I’ll act dumb. And I’ll keep making dumb choices for myself, and I won’t think about the consequences of those dumb choices.’ You sink further into darkness.
“One of the techniques we use is to put them into the time line of the Tūhoe story. We go back to Io, Tawhaki, Maui, the ancestral leaders, then move forward to current leaders, and then future leaders. ‘That’s you!’ we tell them. It’s easy to show them this in the wharenui, with all the carvings and the photos on the walls. We’ll have a kaumātua walk around the house, talking about the carvings, connecting each one of the youth through whakapapa to a figure in the whare. ‘Far—that’s me!’ they say. It’s probably the first time they’ve made that connection.”
Whakapapa, tikanga, tribal histories and narratives—these are effective in rebuilding shattered esteem and redirecting lives adrift. So, too, are practices such as kapa haka and mau rākau, the use of traditional weapons such as taiaha.
One afternoon, I walked across the green hills of a Waimana farm and down into a bush-ringed valley beside a stream. On a grassy flat, 30 Tūhoe youth, mostly boys but a few girls, too, crouched, stepped and lunged with sticks. They were part of a mau rākau wānanga. A leader beat a heartbeat rhythm on a drum while another called the names of the stances and moves.
I watched from a distance, conscious of the tikanga regarding visitors. As with a marae, you wait for an invitation. Tei Nohotima saw me and walked over. As he approached, a pair of fantails swooped and chattered around us. “See, the pīwakawaka are welcoming you,” he said. It was no random remark. Nohotima and his fellow leaders take the cues of the natural world seriously. “The core of the training is moving in unison,” he said—unison with the other participants, with the mau rākau tradition, with the land. So, at the start of each session, all the trainees drink from the stream—an act of purification and separation, of binding themselves to the purpose at hand. No rākau is cut from the forest without a karakia, and the branch must be selected with consideration. “The stick calls you,” said Nohotima.
That evening, at the marae where the group was staying, I talked to Jason Amoroa, a young father and one of the older participants of the wānanga. For him, the training was a chance to do something about regaining his Tūhoetanga. His father is from Waimana, his mother from Ruatoki. “Always in my life there was the longing to come back to the land,” he said. “But the bills drag you away.”
He spent nine years working as a scaffolder/rigger at Glenbrook steel mill, south of Auckland. “You can get lost in that world,” he said. You can even lose your life. With a wife and two young children to support, Amoroa was commuting long distances and working extreme hours. One night, as he drove home, he fell asleep at the wheel and crossed the centre line, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision. “That was it for me,” he said. “I packed in the job and came home.”
Like the tikanga programmes, mau rākau is a pathway to identity. “Through the rākau you discover something about yourself,” said Amoroa. “Just the way you handle the stick. It’s like a switch. Something switches on inside you. You realise you are carrying on what has been handed down by the ancestors.”
This was the third wānanga to be held in the Tūhoe rohe, and more are planned. As with Asian martial arts, there are skill levels—in the case of mau rākau, 12. It normally takes six months to progress from one level to the next. One of the objectives of the programme is to train kaiwero—the warriors who lay down the ritual challenge to visitors at the start of a powhiri. It can be difficult to find someone to fill that role if marae ranks become too thinned by migration to the cities. The same is true of other ceremonial functions. In the Tūhoe rohe there are 40 marae and not enough women to serve as kaikaranga—the women who call visitors on to the marae. Skilled kaikaranga circulate from one marae to the next as occasion demands. When a tangi happens, marae leaders often have to phone around to see if a kaikaranga is free.
Marae are not happy about the situation, but fulfilling such roles is not a matter of learning tunes and words. It is a question of mana. The mana of the home marae rests on the excellence of those who perform the traditional roles. Flubbing your part would seriously dent a marae’s prestige.
A few days later, I watched the taiaha recruits give a haka at a tangi. In the short time they had been together they seemed to have tapped a source of boldness and purpose that radiated like heat from a fire. As they began Tūhoe’s famous haka Te Puru, the bull, the atmosphere was charged. The haka leaders hissed like snakes, as if laying down a challenge to death itself. And then the rumbling growl of the haka bellied up from somewhere subterranean in the collective psyche and seemed to shake the ground.
The tangi marked the end of the wānanga. Behind the wharenui, the participants stood in a circle. One by one, they walked the circle and greeted each person. The touching of the sticks, the grasp of the hands, shoulder pressed to shoulder, the hongi—each contact spoke of connection and belonging. Here was the heartbeat of Tūhoetanga that Amoroa had come back to find. Here the cloak of tradition was being passed to a new generation.
The past heals the present. The past gives shape and meaning to the present. The past reaches forward and taps the present on the shoulder. When the Waitangi Tribunal began its hearings into Tūhoe’s treaty claims in 2003, Tāmati Kruger and other Tūhoe leaders sought a way to demonstrate to the tribunal members that, for Tūhoe, history is never past, never finished.
“We knew that the tribunal was very aware of 20 or so Tūhoe leaders who had been the main players in the interactions with the Crown in the 1890s,” Kruger said. “So what we did was put up a large portrait photo of each one on the wall, and had his direct descendant sit beneath it. We would point to each of these chiefs and say, ‘This is Te Whenuanui’, and then add, ‘Oh, by the way, this guy is also Te Whenuanui.’ And he gets up and says, ‘Yes, I’m his descendant. Let me tell you about my tīpuna.’
“What happened was it evaporated the importance of lawyers and experts. I mean, here’s the real expert—his descendant. It gave the tribunal the idea that for Tūhoe, history is very much alive and that it’s not monetary settlement that is important to us, it’s something else.”
So past and present have an ongoing conversation, to which all Tūhoe are listening. Equally, there is a geographical conversation happening between those who are home and those who are away. People define themselves by where they and their loved ones are in the tidal flow—going out, coming in.
Each group has expectations of the other, and for each, the flax may look greener on the other side of the fence. Those who tend te ahi kaa, the home fires, are accorded a degree of respect for taking the economically more difficult road, but they are also envied because they dwell in the heartland of the iwi, living a marae-based life full of whānau support, cultural connection and the gifts of the land.
Those at home may envy the freedom and material wealth of the roamers. Freedom, not least, from never-ending obligations on the marae. But many who have left—to Auckland or Wellington, or higher-paying jobs across the Tasman—have returned. As I travelled around the rohe, it seemed that every person’s story was built around their geographical passage: how far they went, how long they were away, what brought them back.
For many, the return comes after financial goals have been reached, or the children have left home, or the career has run its course. For Richard White of Oputao, a marae near Ruatāhuna, it was a tap on the shoulder from whānau. White spent 28 years in Rotorua working as an automotive machinist. He moved back with his family in 2000 at the request of his father, who had started a tourism venture involving horse trekking, hunting, fishing and marae stays and wanted one of his sons to take over.
White came home to fulfil an obligation, but found his return gave him a sense of purpose he had not expected. “Coming back here, working on the marae, it was like a light switched on. You’ve got to have something to have pride in. For me, this is it, the ahi kaa. I keep thinking, ‘Why didn’t I do this 20 years ago?’”
We were talking in a small office. Through one door was the marae kitchen. Through another was a lean-to with a fireplace that took up an entire wall. Steam rose from the spouts of huge soot-blackened kettles of the kind that marae specialise in, kept constantly on the boil to ensure that a cup of tea can be poured at a moment’s notice. All social encounters in Māoridom start, end and are interspersed with tea.
Outside, men were sharpening knives on steels. Carcasses of mutton were laid on wooden benches and the men set to with hacksaws, boning knives and cleavers, filling dixies with fist-sized hunks of meat for boil-up. That night would see the start of Tekau-ma-rua—the Ringatū ‘twelfth’, a church service held on the twelfth day of each month—and Oputao was the host marae.
Ngai Tūhoe is a bastion of the Ringatū faith, an indigenous expression of prophetic Christianity that arose from a series of visions granted to Te Kooti during his incarceration on the Chatham Islands in the 1860s. To be Ringatū is a clear expression of Tūhoetanga, though not an essential one. In Waimana, especially, many Tūhoe are as devoutly Presbyterian as their Ruatāhuna or Ruatoki cousins are Ringatū, or members of any other religious fold. But Ringatū channels Tūhoe history in a way no other faith can. It puts you among the morehu, the survivors. In a sense, all Tūhoe are survivors. That is how they think of themselves. That is the core of their hunger for mana motuhake.
As the marae bell tolled on the night of the 11th, the faithful filed in to Te Ngawari, the wharenui at Oputao, whose name means to be at peace. Mostly older people, but a few younger ones and a gaggle of children, laid out sleeping bags on the floor, tangata whenua on their side, visitors on ours. When the bell stopped ringing and the last person was inside, White slid the whare door shut and stood with his back to it, and the service began.
There is nothing modern about Ringatū. There is no attempt to make it ‘relevant’ to the contemporary world. Its relevance lies precisely in its fidelity to its founder. The hymns, chants, readings and prayers are as Te Turuki dictated them. (Tūhoe prefer to use Te Kooti’s birth name over his transliterated surname from the European missionary Dandeson Coates.) Repeating his words, the people stepped into the wrinkle in time where Tūhoe past and Tūhoe present become one. History came close in another way that night: there was a power cut, so we worshipped by candlelight.
The ancient tunes and phrases eddied around the walls, swapping from one side to the other as the participants wove a liturgical pattern I was unable to divine. The best I could do was listen for the repeating coda, “Kororia ki tou ingoa tapu”—Glory to your holy name—and join in with the “Amine”, intoned like a sigh, raising my right hand with the others. Ringatū—the upraised hand.
Some of the congregation had come from outlying districts of the rohe, as they do every month, though even with the ring-ins, the attendance was only a few dozen adults. Tūhoe may identify staunchly with Ringatū, but that doesn’t fill the whare any more than traditional Protestant churches pack their pews. Out-of-towners included Neuton and Huia from the lake, and Muggins from Waiohau. I liked Muggins, with his unruly white beard and broad-brimmed leather hat pulled down to his dark, gleaming eyes. When he pressed noses with me, it was intense and emphatic, the equivalent of a vice-like hand-shake that leaves your fingers tingling. I wonder if there is any greeting in the world as affirming as a hongi, with its clear and profound statement that here, now, in this moment of contact, we two humans share the breath of life.
When the congregation stood to sing or pray, the people seemed to be almost representing the atua figures painted on the whare walls behind them, as if they had just that moment stepped out of the past. Most Tūhoe wharenui are painted, not carved. Carving was not a strong part of Tūhoe tradition there was no time for it. People were always on the move in their quest for food. But whatever the mode of decoration, the message of these ancient figures to the people could not be clearer: Encoded in these images is your cultural DNA. These gods and ancestors are the first incarnations of the cosmic particularity that exploded through space and time to become who you are today.
Filling the gaps between ancient time and now—and literally filling structural gaps between ceiling and rafters—are keepsakes of the recently deceased: a carved walking stick, a lace scarf, a favourite hat. Framed photos—from studio portraits to casual snaps—line every wall. Within the time capsule of a Tūhoe whare during a Ringatū twelfth, every image and utterance seems to say, “We have survived, and we will survive.” And this is no trivial, game-show, let’s-all-pretend survival. Tūhoe stared down the barrel of actual annihilation while the government spun the cylinder. The great Waimana chief Erutia Tamaikoha once proudly declared, “No man dare quench my fires”, but his fires, and all Tūhoe’s, came within a flicker of dying.
I asked Tāmati Kruger: “How do you keep from being overwhelmed by the pain and injustice of Tūhoe’s history with the Crown?” I told him I had winced as I drove through Matata, seeing street names honouring Mair and St John, military leaders whose path through Te Urewera was marked by cruelty. If I, a newcomer to Tūhoe history, felt this way, how must it be for the people?
“History can bruise you and injure you and make you bleed,” Kruger agreed. “But it also reminds you that you have a heart, that you are living. Then you sit down with a single thought: Can we change history? And apparently Tūhoe has always had the view that it can alter the course of history, that we can break the repetition of disappointment and failure, that we can stop the oppression and ignorance. Yes, history has been a blunt teacher, but the option of forgetting our history is not one we can contemplate.”
Yet history’s blunt-force trauma has continued to be inflicted, up to the present day. In 2010, Tūhoe’s hopes were bludgeoned once again when, at the very moment of settlement, Prime Minister John Key revoked the offer his negotiating team had assembled. Te Urewera National Park, the centrepiece of the deal, would not be returned to Tūhoe after all.
The move took everyone by surprise. In Waimana, where the signing of the agreement was to take place, food for more than 1000 guests had been arranged. Marae cooks were standing by to light the hāngī. Flights and motels had been booked. Commemorative pens had been engraved. Speeches written. All on the basis that the land was coming back to the iwi.
At the time, Kruger characterised Key’s decision as a “loss of courage and nerve”. Others portrayed it as a cynical calculation to appease reactionary elements in the Prime Minister’s National Party; a shrewd move to ward off a racial backlash ahead of an election year.
One lesson Kruger took from the experience was that although Tūhoe had been negotiating with many individuals in the Crown’s Office of Treaty Settlements, under the aegis of the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, “ultimately there is only one voice of government that matters, and it is the Prime Minister’s”.
A second insight had to do with the word ‘ownership’—the sticking point for the Prime Minister. Vesting ownership of Te Urewera National Park with Tūhoe was “unacceptable to the government”, Key had said in announcing his u-turn.
“I realised he was misunderstanding what we were on about,” said Kruger. “Ownership was his obsession, not ours. So now we don’t use that word. It’s not a Tūhoe concept anyway. In the course of these negotiations, I’ve had to study the European understanding of that word ‘ownership’ and where it came from. Ownership is the proof that something is yours to sell. So it is more about how to rid yourself of something, to gain material benefit from it, than to preserve and keep it.
“Māori people have generally seen this principle of ownership as trumping tikanga, trumping mana whenua [territorial rights], trumping te ahi kaa. Today, many cannot tell the difference between ownership and mana whenua, but they are completely different concepts. They come from different mindsets. This thing called ownership was used to marginalise and dispossess Māori, but by adopting it for themselves, Māori have played into the Pākehā mindset.”
“My feeling is that the land was here first, so nobody owns it. It owns you. The water owns the water, the land owns the land.”
And this, in fact, is how the Crown’s deal with Tūhoe has turned out. If the settlement goes ahead, Te Urewera’s national park status will be revoked and the land will be vested as an independent legal entity under its own act of Parliament. Tūhoe will be recognised as tangata whenua and will, after a transitional period of dual management, be guardians and governors of the land.
For Kruger, the true impact will be felt when Tūhoe stand on a marae, or a school parade ground, or at an Anzac ceremony, and say, “Ko Maungapōhatu te maunga, ko Tūhoe te iwi, ko Te Urewera te kainga…” and the words will not be symbolism or metaphor, but reality.
“When iwi stand up and recite the name of their mountain, it’s probably owned by a forestry company. Their river is probably with a regional council. Their historic sites are with some government department. We want our people to be able to nod when they hear those names and say, ‘Yes, we are connected to all of those and we are responsible for all of those.’ We want there to be no falseness there.”
In 1908, a meeting took place between Rua Kēnana and Prime Minister Joseph Ward in the Commercial Hotel at Whakatāne. Ward, seeking to disabuse Rua of his aspirations for mana motuhake, told him that there could be only one government and one king, and that “there cannot be two suns shining in the sky at the one time”. Rua retorted that although there might be only one sun, “it shines on one side—the Pakeha side—and it darkens on the other”.
A century later, the Crown’s monopoly of the political heavens has been challenged, and a small star is rising to shine on the heart of the North Island. In Kruger’s words, Tūhoe is saying to the government, “We don’t need your illumination. We have our own source.” And let no man quench that fire.