Paul Moon: Tuhoe's long-standing call for autonomy

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Tuhoe tohunga and prophet Rua Kenana. File photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Tuhoe tohunga and prophet Rua Kenana. File photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

By the time Elsdon Best was jotting down notes for what would be a pioneering study of Tuhoe at the beginning of the twentieth century, the iwi had already been shunted into the hinterland of the Ureweras as a result of one of the most avaricious land confiscations in New Zealand history.

Condemned as anti-Crown collaborators, in 1866, Governor George Grey assented to thousands of hectares of Tuhoe land being confiscated, depriving the iwi of most of its arable terrain, and vital access to the coast.

As unedifying as the fact of the confiscation is, it was overshadowed by the means in which it was executed. Crops were destroyed by Crown troops, communities forcibly uplifted and re-settled elsewhere, and the means of economic survival deprived from some Tuhoe hapu, to the point where they endured starvation, on top of all the other Crown-instigated privations.

As late as 1895, some hapu in the Ureweras were preparing to resist Government incursions by force - a crisis that was averted by the intervention of the Northern Maori MP Hone Heke Ngapua.

Both the Crown and Tuhoe were forced into making some concessions at this time, but Tuhoe's desire for autonomy was a firm as ever.

This urge for self-government manifested itself again in the early decades of the twentieth century in the actions of the Tuhoe tohunga and prophet, Rua Kenana. Rua established a community of followers of his Iharaira faith (an off-shoot of Ringatu) among the mossy crags of Maungapohatu - Tuhoe's sacred mountain. There, Rua preached a combination of salvation, millenarian judgement, and independence from the outside world.

The Crown's response was initially through legislation (the notorious Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 was aimed at this recalcitrant religious leader) and when that failed, it turned, once again, to the use of force. In April 1916, seventy heavily-armed police raided Rua's settlement at Maungapohatu. Rua's son and another resident were killed in the skirmish, and around half a dozen people were injured.

Rua was found not guilty of sedition at the subsequent 47-day trial, but was none-the-less imprisoned for resisting Police attempts to arrest him. His community remained, but during the next decade, dwindled in size.

In 1954, confident that the age of Tuhoe resistance had passed, the Government brought the Urewera National Park into being. At over 2,100 square kilometres, it is the largest national park in the North Island. A handful of Maori settlements in the area were not included in the park's territory, but this was largely a nominal concession and a means of overcoming the fact that there were existing settlements in the national park.

Just how sensitive the Crown and Tuhoe were on matters of the iwi's desire for autonomy was again exposed on 2007, in the so-called "anti-terror raids". The sediment has not yet settled on this matter, and it may be left to a future generation of historians to discern with greater clarity than we can now the motives for the Government's actions, but from the perspective of some of those at the receiving end of the police actions, the after taste has reaffirmed long-standing suspicions over the Crown's intentions, and helped quicken the enthusiasm for a "Tuhoe nation".

* Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society

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