Parihaka: Keeping the peace

By Pamela Wade

Parihaka's people still preserve its tradition of hospitality, writes Pamela Wade.

Maata Wharehoka has a family connection with Parihaka dating back to the time of the 1881 invasion. Photo / Pamela Wade
Maata Wharehoka has a family connection with Parihaka dating back to the time of the 1881 invasion. Photo / Pamela Wade

Now here's a good bit of information for you," Maata says with a wry smile.

"Christchurch Cathedral was consecrated on the first of November, 1881. On the fifth of November, they had 1000 children in the cathedral and gave them sticky buns and ginger beer; whilst here in Parihaka, our children were feeding bread to 1500 armed constabulary."

We're sitting in the meeting house at Parihaka in Taranaki near Pungarehu. Maata and two other kuia have welcomed our group with a powhiri, then a whaikorero from her son, and we've responded with an unimpressive rendition of Pokarekara Ana that has us all making notes to self: learn the words properly.

Maata's welcome party, comprising a selection of her many children and foster-children, all neatly dressed in red and black, have sung beautifully before disappearing into the kitchen where, with a great deal of cheerful clatter and chatter, they're preparing our four-course lunch.

In the meantime, we sit and listen to Maata - "I'm the matriarch" - who is filling in the many shameful gaps in my knowledge of Parihaka.

"Passive resistance to government land seizure" is as far as that goes; but there's so much more to the story.

I'm surprised to learn that this village, a small cluster of houses surrounded by farmland, beyond which Mt Taranaki sulks behind a veil of cloud, was in the 1860s home to 2500 people, with its own bakery and bank, and not only self-sufficient, but growing cash crops in its gardens.

Trouble was coming, however: government surveyors had reached this remote area and were marking out the land.

In the Waikato, this had initiated some of New Zealand's fiercest fighting; but in Parihaka chiefs Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi had chosen a different approach: a campaign of civil disobedience and passive resistance, 50 years before Gandhi made headlines around the world with the same ideas. Survey pegs were removed, land was ploughed, but the strangers were treated with courtesy.

It wasn't returned; the Government passing self-serving legislation to allow land to be confiscated without payment and protesters to be imprisoned without trial.

On that fateful day in November 1881, the troops arrived with cannons, invading the village where they were met by children singing and the offer of food.

Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested, as were over 100 others who were taken to provide hard labour around the South Island.

The village, crops and stock were destroyed, women violated, property looted. When the chiefs returned two years later, it was to a sorry version of the thriving community they had founded.

Undaunted, they started again, but though the new village had modern amenities like electricity and running water, there was not enough land left for it to be economic, and when the leaders died in 1907, it dwindled to the point where, in 1952, the Government closed it down: "All Maori people living on the marae were asked to leave their community and go and live in the cities," Maata sums up with admirable restraint.

"We were told never to come back here."

We go through to eat, at the very same tables where Te Whiti and Tohu once sat, and as we're served a tasty and beautifully presented meal, Maata explains that our presence here is part of a new initiative to make Parihaka self-sufficient again, to provide employment and encourage young people to return.

She's done her bit towards that, her own children being the first to be brought up at Parihaka since 1952, and the contented baby being passed around his aunts and uncles is the first of the newest generation.

Back in the wharenui, we look at the photographs of the bustling village from over 100 years ago, at the paintings of the resistance showing uniformed men on horses trampling Maori men; and also at the signed rugby ball, the children's artwork, the carvings and family photos.

Outside, Maata has us look towards a low hill where the cannons were set up. We're standing where the children performed their haka and poi dances for the invaders, where the village people sat in silence as the troops rode in, spurning the offer of fresh bread.

We go up the rise to where a sturdy decorated pillar stands behind an iron fence: Te Whiti's grave.

Maata recites his philosophy, symbolised by the three white feathers on each side of the column: "Glory to God, peace on earth, and goodwill to all men."

There are feathers in her hair, too.

CHECKLIST

Where to stay: On the side of the mountain at Stratford Mountain House, or far from traffic - but not civilisation - at Caniwi Lodge, or in a comfortable cabin right on the beach.

What to do: Visit Parihaka for one of a variety of tours which all include refreshments or a meal, entertainment and the story of Parihaka.

Further information: See taranaki.info.

Pamela Wade was hosted by Venture Taranaki.

- NZ Herald

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