Enduring attraction of Ratana

By Jon Stokes

There is a modesty in the four items, handed over in the 1936 meeting between the head of the Ratana Church, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, and the then Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage.

Three huia feathers, representing Maori, protruding from a potato - symbolic of the land taken from Maori, leaving them unable to grow the staple crop. Pounamu (greenstone) representing Maori mana, which had also been lost. A broken gold watch, handed down to Ratana by his grandfather, representing the broken promises of the Crown. And the symbol of the Ratana church, Tahu o te Maramatanga (a pin with a star and crescent moon).

The imagery of the items, symbolising the state of Maoridom and its relationship with the Crown, was profound for Savage. It is said the items were buried with him when he died four years later.

Their meeting was held in Wellington while the country was still in the grip of the Depression. At the end of the meeting an alliance was formed between the two movements, remnants of which survive today.

Ratana wanted equality for Maori in the new society, and recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi. He wanted equal access to the unemployment benefit, and old age pension, and demanded Maori have the same rights as non-Maori to access public hospitals and the education system.

The Labour Party wanted the Ratana movement's two parliamentary seats, won in the 1935 election. Ratana joined Labour after the meeting. In 1943 the alliance took the remaining two Maori seats.

Raiti Abraham has returned to the annual celebrations at Ratana Pa, 20km south of Wanganui, held in the week of January 25, for more than 50 years. For the 70-year-old church apostle (minister) it is a time to pay homage to the founder of the Ratana faith, on the date marking Ratana's birth, 133 years earlier, at Te Kawau, near Bulls.

Abraham says it a time of spiritual replenishment for the church's morehu, or faithful, and a time to rekindle friendships with members from throughout the country. More than 30,000 visitors are expected to descend on the 109-house settlement of Ratana Pa for the five days of sports, cultural and religious activities.

"It is a time to mix and mingle, there are days of festivities but the biggest attraction for the morehu is to go to the temple. Once they have been there they can mix and mingle with a spiritual connotation.

"The temple is our Mecca. Without it the church could not function. It is a real binding aspect and tonic for the faithful."

On Tuesday Prime Minster Helen Clark and a number of the Labour Party caucus will front up for the political forum, as will leaders and MPs from several of the main political parties. For Labour, it is a time to re-affirm its alliance and to strengthen ties. For the other parties it is a chance to offer an alternative to the predominantly Maori audience, and to wave the party flag.

Ratana Church spokesman Wayne Johnson says while the Church appreciates the strong political turn-out, there is some frustration among church members at the emphasis their attendance gets in relation to the wider celebration.

He says for most there is little interest in the arrival of politicians. The priority is on celebrating T. W. Ratana's birthday and enjoying the sporting, cultural and religious events.

"Quite frankly a lot of people aren't interested in a lot of the politics that goes on. It's not as if we have thousands of people waiting with bated breath for new political policy to be announced on the marae. Most are pretty disinterested ..."

He says the official birthday church service on the 25th is the event's highlight. The service is followed by a performance by around 400 band members, drawing together all of the movement's seven brass bands.

Johnson says it is a logistical nightmare ensuring the small settlement copes with the temporary tent city that sprouts on the site each year.

He says while politics are part of the Church, it is its religious focus that has alway taken priority. There is no tribal affiliation - rather a pan-tribal philosophy is in play.

At the last census more than 45,000 or 8 per cent of Maori listed Ratana as their religion. The church does not keep a head-count, but Johnson estimates followers could number as high as 65,000. In 1918, at the height of an influenza epidemic, Ratana, a hardworking, hard drinking farmer who enjoyed rugby and horse-racing, had a vision that would make him one of Maoridom's most powerful religious leaders. God told him to unite Maori and turn them to God.

He studied the Bible and preached unity. He was a staunch advocate of the Treaty of Waitangi, believing ratification of the Treaty was the way to improve the deteriorating lot of increasingly landless Maori.

As his following grew, with congregations setting up throughout the country, Ratana took on the title of "mangai", the mouthpiece of God.

He soon realised that it would require political influence to affect change, turning his attentions to politics in 1922. That year he took a petition with 30,000 calling for the ratification of the Treaty to the Government. It was ignored. Undeterred, Ratana led a delegation to Britain to deliver the petition to King George V. The King refused to see them, a decision said to have been influenced by the New Zealand Government. The situation was repeated in Geneva, when the party attempted a meeting with the League of Nations.

In 1928, brandishing the Bible in one hand and the Treaty in the other at the dedication of the Ratana temple on his 55th birthday, Ratana said the Church's candidates would win the four Maori seats.

By now his followers numbered around 20,000, about a third of all Maori. By 1934 morehu numbers swelled to around 40,000. Though his candidates were unsuccessful in the 1928 election, a strong showing caused politicians to reassess the movement.

In 1932 Eruera Tirikatene became the first Ratana MP and Ratana assured Labour of the movement's full co-operation. Tirikatene was joined by Ratana's son, Tokouru, elected for Western Maori in 1935. Both men joined the Labour Party.

In 1936 Ratana declared himself and his family to be Labour Party members and, in the April 1936 meeting, presented Savage, with the symbolic items. Savage's acknowledgement of Ratana's mana laid the base of an alliance between the Ratana movement and Labour Party.

Ratana died at Ratana Pa on September 18, 1939, survived by his two wives, three daughters and three sons. He was buried near the temple on September 24.

This weekend members of the Ratana Church will run a workshop at a Labour Party "summer school" tasked with renewing links between the organisations. Labour will discuss ways of breathing new life into its Ratana relationship.

It is the emergence of the Maori Party that has strained links. Some church members believe the Maori Party, with its focus on the Treaty, better reflects the ethos of the church founder. At last year's celebration divisions emerged between two sons of the movement's tumuaki (leader), Harry Mason. Andre Mason, a Maori Party member, criticised his brother Errol's decision to contest Te Tai Hauauru seat under a Labour banner. The seat was retained by Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia with an almost 4000 vote majority.

Criticism of the movement's links with Labour have continued. Abraham says there is growing frustration among members at the continued support for Labour from church leaders, a move he believes goes against the mood of the morehu. He says the death knell for the Labour alliance was Labour's moves on the foreshore and seabed. He predicts the Maori Party will continue to win support among church members.

A former Maori Party member, Abraham said he worked to ensure Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples won the Auckland based Tamaki Makaurau seat.

Massey University's Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Maori) Professor Mason Durie agrees that any formal arrangement between the Church and Labour is no guarantee of the vote of church members. He says the political landscape, and the complexity of Maori voters has changed since the 1930s.

"In 1936 the Labour philosophy was very clear, that the state would be the provider of basic services. That is no longer as clear. Then there were only two political parties to choose from. For Maori the options were stark. Now Maori voters are better informed. We are no longer in the poverty-stricken, depressed era of the 30s."

Professor Durie says the success of the Maori Party in areas where the church is strongest - Northland's Te Tai Tokerau, Waiariki in the central North Island and Te Tai Hauauru along the North Island west coast - would have sent a clear message to both Labour and the movement's political leaders. Labour's Mita Ririnui, a Ratana minister, lost his Waiariki seat to newcomer Te Ururoa Flavell.

Despite the seeming preoccupation with politics, Professor Durie says the spiritual significance of the Church continues, and next week's celebration will rival Tainui's coronation ceremony - marking the anniversary of the crowning of Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu - as a highlight of the Maori calender. "Ratana Day has become a bit of a political showcase, when in fact most church members who go there have little interest in the political speeches."

He believes the days of Maori blindly following the dictates of cultural and religious leaders on who to vote for are long past.

Labour Party president Mike Williams is upbeat about the relationship between Ratana and his party. He says while Labour took hits in the candidate vote at the last election, it increased its share of the party vote in the Maori seats. With just 46,000 votes separating National and Labour in the final count, the support of Ratana was critical to the party, says Williams.

"A huge number of Maori did a clever thing at the last election - they split their vote."

He says the alliance has benefited both groups, and it will continue to.

Wayne Johnson declines to discuss ongoing political alliances for the Church. He is aware of growing concern among some members with links with any political party.

He says the object of the celebration's political forum is to encourage robust debate and to allow members to hear from the various political parties.

"What makes the forum different from other marae, is that we are pretty accommodating to all political parties. They can come together on one day, they can voice their opinions. We don't have any hard and fast rules. Just don't be too offensive."

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