Special unveiling on river journey

By Laurel Stowell, laurel.stowell@wanganuichronicle.co.nz


The grave of a man who died of tuberculosis in Tasmania in 1847 will be unveiled during this year's annual canoe journey for Whanganui Maori.

The Tira Hoe Waka spiritual journey has been happening since 1989, this year's organiser Gerrard Albert said.

"It's a journey on the river in waka [canoes] to experience the lives of the old people. It's to travel on the river, and commune with the river," Mr Albert said.

About 150 people will be afloat this year, starting from Taumarunui with a powhiri at Ngapuwaiwaha Marae this morning. Participants have to be over 12 years old and descendants of the Whanganui River. People have come from all over New Zealand to take part, and even from overseas, sometimes.

There's no alcohol or drugs allowed on the trip, which is for learning and especially teaching for young people.

"It's a place where young people come and learn to be children again. They learn to be children of the tribe, and that's a different kind of thought process," Mr Albert said.

Rangituehu Twomey-Waitai, 13, will be there for the first time this year, along with her mother and two older sisters. She said she expected rain, sun and fun from the journey.

The paddlers stop at selected river marae on the way. They are welcomed by about 100 "roadies" and hear the stories of the places. The journey takes place in high summer, traditionally a time when Whanganui Maori were on the move.

"It's typically a time when our people are more likely to travel and explore relationships from the mountain to the sea," Mr Albert said.

The stop at Jerusalem/Hiruharama is a special one this year. On the morning of January 14, after the travellers have spent a night at the marae, the grave of Te Umuroa Panata Rukuwai (Hohepa Te Umuroa) will be unveiled at a nearby urupa (cemetery).

Te Umuroa was an important tupuna (ancestor), Mr Albert said. He was born in the 1820s, in the Jerusalem area, and was said to be a very tall man. In 1846 he and six other Whanganui men travelled south to Porirua, to help the Ngati Toa leader Rangihaeata resist European settlement.

They were captured in August and, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand says, should have been treated as prisoners of war. Instead Governor Grey accused them of rebelling against the Queen's authority. They were subjected to a court martial of questionable legality, were unable to defend themselves in the English language, and pleaded guilty. Five of them, including Te Umuroa, were sent off to a penal colony in Tasmania. When they arrived in their traditional dress they created a newspaper sensation and portraits of them were painted. The Australian authorities queried their criminality and they were given separate accommodation in a prison colony on Maria Island.

Te Umuroa fell sick, and died of tuberculosis in 1847. He was buried in an isolated grave, and the others in his group were sent back to New Zealand soon after that.

More than 100 years later, in 1985, Te Umuroa's lonely grave on the island was discovered by a woman with a New Zealand background. She recognised the Maori language on the headstone. After three years of negotiation his remains were finally returned to New Zealand and buried on his home soil in 1988.

That return has been linked with nankeen night herons, which are Australasian birds, taking up residence along the river.

A party including Whanganui's Nohi Wallace and George Waretini and the late tohunga Matiu Mareikura, went to Australia for the remains.

Te Umuroa's story captivated writer Witi Ihimaera, who used it in the book The Trowenna Sea. And it was made into the opera Hohepa by New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod.

The opera premiered at the International Arts Festival in Wellington in March, and hundreds of Whanganui Maori went to see it, relative Nohi Wallace said. Deborah Wai Kapohe, who has Jerusalem connections herself, sang one of the roles and is now Wanganui District Council's arts facilitator.

Nohi Wallace and his cousins will be among those at Jerusalem for the unveiling of his ancestor's grave on January 14.

"It's time," he said.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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