Ten years after the 'terror raids' in Ruatoki, Tame Iti talks about the theatre of protest and the power of an apology.

Moments before giving an historic apology to Tuhoe, Chris Finlayson returned a gift to Tame Iti.

The taonga was a koikoi (sharpened stick) which Iti gave to Michael Cullen, Finlayson's predecessor as the Minister for Treaty Negotiations.

The koikoi was a symbol to assist negotiations and be given back to Tuhoe once a settlement was reached with the Crown.

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"I'd like to thank Tame. The koikoi did its job," Finlayson told the crowd at Mataatua marae in August 2014.

"It gives me great pleasure to be able to return the koikoi to Tame."

It was a small gesture on a remarkable day for Tuhoe; when the Crown admitted 170 years of injustices and recognised te mana motuhake - Tuhoe's right to determine its own future on issues such as health, housing and education.

"We're grateful it happened. We needed to hear that. We had to let go - mentally and psychologically and spiritually," said Iti, drawing a deep breath.

"We had to let it go from the puku," he exhales loudly, "see you later ... bye bye. You can't keep it here, it's no good for you. Hold your breath and let it go."

Finlayson's gesture to Iti was also remarkable, more than just an acknowledgement of the activist's instrumental role in the negotiations.

Because not so long ago, Iti was the alleged mastermind of "Plan B" - an armed uprising should the negotiations with the Crown end in failure.

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of when masked police set roadblocks to raid Ruatoki, the tiny settlement at the mouth of the Urewera forest, under the auspices of the Terrorism Suppression Act.

Read more:
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No terror charges were ever laid in Operation Eight; criminal charges were later dropped after the Supreme Court ruled the video surveillance evidence was unlawful.

The Urewera 17 shrunk to the Urewera 4.

Bugged conversations played at trial talked about "war" and "revolution", the existence of semi-automatic weapons, video footage of military-style exercises at the camps.

The Crown argued this was proof of training for guerrilla warfare; the defence said it was a battle for hearts and minds in the context of Tuhoe's struggle for independence.

So what was really going on in the bush? The jury could not decide on the most serious charge: that the Urewera 4 were an organised criminal group, preparing to carry out violence including murder, arson and sabotage.

Tama Iti, Te Rangikaiwhira, Urs Signer and Emily Felicity Bailey in the High Court in Auckland. Photo/NZ Herald.
Tama Iti, Te Rangikaiwhira, Urs Signer and Emily Felicity Bailey in the High Court in Auckland. Photo/NZ Herald.

But the jury did convict Iti - as well as Rangi Kemara, Urs Signer and Emily Bailey - on firearms charges.

Iti and Kemara were jailed for 2½ years with the trial judge saying the evidence showed a private militia being established.

"A crime committed in pursuit of a noble ideal is as much a crime as a criminal act done for a base motive," said Justice Rodney Hansen.

"The end does not justify the means."

However, the High Court judge gave Iti credit for his "altruistic motives" and success in progressing the Tuhoe negotiations.

Most importantly, Justice Hansen said there was no evidence of imminent plans for violence.

"One of the enduring mysteries of this case ... is that you saw it as necessary to have a Plan B at all ... there is nothing to show any real likelihood that Plan B would be implemented."

Walking out of Waikeria prison on parole nine months later, Iti took a deep breath - and exhaled.

"It pissed me off. But I had to let it go."

Tame Iti in his art gallery in Taneatua with one of his paintings on the centre of the wall. Photo/Alan Gibson.
Tame Iti in his art gallery in Taneatua with one of his paintings on the centre of the wall. Photo/Alan Gibson.

To his way of thinking, the Urewera camps were another step in his indigenous activism dating back to the 1960s.

There was the Vietnam War, the Land March to Parliament, Bastion Point, the Springbok Tour and anti-nuclear protests.

Later, his distinctive profile (and buttocks) - became the face of Ngai Tuhoe's protest over Waitangi Treaty claims.

Spitting, shooting the national flag, baring his buttocks made headlines and made Pakeha New Zealand uncomfortable.

Sometimes, Iti's actions made his own Tuhoe people cringe.

But these were calculated acts of protest to attract attention, says Iti, which were widely misunderstood at the time.

"It is theatre. It is a performance," says Iti. "It is a reminder to the Crown that Tuhoe is not going away."

Kanohi ki te kanohi, or speaking eye-to-eye on the same level, is how Iti expresses this concept in an online speech.

To engage with authority on the same level, Iti says in the TedTalk presentation, his decades of activism taught him to constantly keep the pressure on authority.

This is to test their mana and remind those in authority of the need for proper conversation, as equals.

The training camps, says Iti, were the same as his previous theatrical stunts.

"We needed to radicalise our thinking," says Iti of a time when negotiations with the Labour Government had stalled.

"We needed to step it up. And the Government needed to take us seriously. I knew they were monitoring me."

While Tuhoe never raised the heavy-handed tactics of the police during Treaty negotiations, Iti believes the events of October 15, 2007 galvanised the iwi.

For the innocents caught up in the raids, the raids were history repeating itself in the Urewera: the Scorched Earth warfare, confiscated lands, the killing of innocent Tuhoe, the armed police invasion to arrest prophet Rua Kenana.

"The raid helped elevate what Tuhoe was talking about," says Iti. "We'd had 170 years of this."

Police Commissioner Mike Bush later personally apologised to those caught up in the 'terror raids' including Iti's partner, as well as the other affected families in Ruatoki.

Tame Iti and Police Commissioner Mike Bush after the police apology to those caught up in the raids. Photo/Supplied.
Tame Iti and Police Commissioner Mike Bush after the police apology to those caught up in the raids. Photo/Supplied.

The police apology - on the back of a critical IPCA report - was another "let it go" moment for Iti and Tuhoe.

Soon after, Chris Finlayson delivered the Crown apology and $170 million settlement.

Iti has been publicly credited by Tamati Kruger, the lead negotiator for Tuhoe, as being instrumental to the process.

So does Iti feel he's achieved his goal?

"I see that as a huge achievement for Tuhoe. We can let it go and move forward," says Iti.

"We've finally got to the stage of building our mana motuhake. And I'm really excited by that."

Tame Iti pictured in front of a mural he collaborated on in Taneatua. Photo/Alan Gibson.
Tame Iti pictured in front of a mural he collaborated on in Taneatua. Photo/Alan Gibson.

After so many years of protest, seeking an equal conversation with the Crown, Kanohi ki te kanohi, is it now time for the theatrical character of Tame Iti to retire?

He's 65 now, a kaumatua, and would like to spend more time painting his distinctive artwork.

A new generation of Tuhoe must build on the foundations he helped create.

"The power is here. We need our people to believe that. We need them to radicalise their thinking, come back here and create something," says Iti.

"That means someone needs to be ticking boxes," says Iti. "My brain is still sharp, I can be an ambassador for Tuhoe. But I'm not a tick-box guy."

Operation Eight

October 15, 2007: More than 300 police were involved in raids around the country using powers granted under the Terrorism Suppression Act. Tuhoe activist Tame Iti and 17 others arrested after covert investigation, dubbed Operation Eight, into military-style training camps in the Urewera. Those arrested faced firearms charges.

November 8, 2007: The Solicitor-General declines permission to lay terror charges. Dr David Collins, QC, said the police had uncovered some "very disturbing activities'' but could not prosecute under the Terrorism Suppression Act. This was because the terror law was "unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and as a result almost impossible to apply to the domestic circumstances observed by the police in this case".

September 6, 2011: Firearms charges against 13 accused are dropped after the Supreme Court ruled video surveillance evidence was gathered unlawfully. However, the same evidence was allowed to be used against Tame Iti, Rangi Kemara, Urs Signer, Emily Bailey and Tuhoe Lambert. This was because they faced more serious charges of participating in an organised criminal group. Lambert died before standing trial.

March 20, 2012: The 'Urewera 4' were convicted of firearms charges after a four-week trial in the High Court at Auckland. However, the jury could not decide on the most serious charge of participating in an organised criminal group with "objectives including murder, arson and using guns against police".

May 24, 2012: Iti and Kemara were sentenced to 2½ years in prison, while Signer and Bailey received home detention. Justice Rodney Hansen said the evidence showed a private militia being established, although there was no imminent plans for violence. "A crime committed in pursuit of a noble ideal is as much a crime as a criminal act done for a base motive," said Justice Rodney Hansen. "The end does not justify the means."

May 22, 2013: The Independent Police Conduct Authority report says Operation Eight was justified, but criticised police actions at roadblocks and detaining people in their homes as unlawful.

August 13, 2014: Police Commissioner Mike Bush visits Ruatoki to apologise. While the investigation was necessary, Bush apologised for the manner of the raids. "The situations some community members were placed in, the fear that was experienced and the harm that was caused was unacceptable."