Most people will not have made the trip to Ruatoki or Taneatua, deep in Tuhoe country in the Bay of Plenty. It's not that these small towns, with their backdrop of the rugged Ureweras, are hard to get to.

Taneatua is just 13km from Whakatane, and if you carry on another 9km you reach Ruatoki. Both are little rural towns where horses graze in backyards, towns with longstanding reputations as hotbeds of Maori rebellion.

Ruatoki once had shops but Taneatua is now the hub with two dairies, a couple of takeaways, a police station and a pub.

If you did make it to Taneatua, possibly to take the turn to Opotiki and Gisborne, you would not have seen the nub of the matter.

Further along, you drive over some faded white paint. It is the outlines of bodies with hair tied back, hands holding mere. Splashes of red paint represent blood.

You will also drive over some words: CONFISCATION LINE and STOLEN LANDS.

It was here early last year that Tuhoe put on a powerful re-enactment of their past, the theft of their land and the burning of their homes and crops in the 1860s and 1870s.

It was during that re-enactment that one of Tuhoe's best-known sons landed in trouble with the law yet again, this time for firing a shotgun.

Tame Iti's now infamous shooting of the New Zealand flag caused much controversy. Amid cries of treason, however, he was only charged with brandishing and firing a shotgun.

He defended himself by saying the shooting took place behind the confiscation line on Tuhoe land and he was acting within Tuhoe custom, but was yesterday found guilty.

For several weeks it looked like he would not be charged at all, until politicians saw the incident on television.

But even former Act MP Stephen Franks, who lobbied hardest to get Iti arrested, says his pursuing Iti was incidental to another political point he wanted made.

Iti, and others in Tuhoe, say shooting the flag diverted the focus of what was really going on that day, but that in the end the case turned into something bigger.

They say that the charge against Iti by the Crown ties into the Tuhoe struggle for sovereignty, something that has been going on since the land confiscations and wars of the 1800s. Tuhoe, many will proudly point out, never signed the Treaty of Waitangi, never gave away their autonomy. Iti's case, they say, is history repeating itself.

It is a bitingly cold day in Ruatoki.

Iti is hard to track down but his home town is such a tiny place you are bound to see him eventually.

I flag him down as he drives past Ruatoki school. We've met before so he pulls over. He is friendly and polite and says he will talk to me, but that the case is not about him, it's about the whole of Tuhoe, and it would be better if I talk to others first.

We arrange to meet later and I head back into Taneatua to visit Te Hue Rangi, 55, a Tuhoe researcher and educator.

He is not expecting me but welcomes me into his house. He went to school with Iti and recalls the days when they were punished for speaking Maori, when the history they were taught had nothing to do with them.

We talk about the re-enactment of the history that was not taught at school.

The day was January 16, 2005, and members of the Waitangi Tribunal were coming for a week of hearings into Treaty of Waitangi claims.

Tuhoe planned a welcome not to be forgotten. At the confiscation line tribunal members were greeted by men on horseback and naked warriors.

Cars were set alight and the valley echoed with gunshots as the tribunal members were escorted a few kilometres to Tauraarau Marae, which is where Tame Iti shot the flag.

Rangi says no one was expecting this and some were shocked. But it had been a day of tremendous excitement and adrenalin. Tuhoe had finally been able to confront the Crown and what was unleashed was a huge outpouring of grief, anger and hurt. He calls it "an orgasm of performance".

"It was more than adrenalin, you can go beyond it, beyond what you can physically do ... you'll never see anything like it again. So the people that were there, they were there to fully support the day and fully support the actions that had happened." And nobody got hurt, he says. Just a flag.

Instead of an anger in the community about the charging of Iti, there was an excitement, Rangi says. "An excitement in this way, because they know more about Tame than what they did about 20 years ago. And now they can see the purpose of his protest. And there is a purpose behind it."

Whether the community knew Iti was going to shoot the flag seems largely irrelevant now. All those spoken to on our unannounced visit backed him, although some elders disagree with his methods. The Tauraarau Marae has since banned the firing of guns in anger on its grounds.

Later in the day Iti is in his marae office in Ruatoki. He is wearing green battle fatigues with black trousers tucked into boots.

He won't say whether he planned to shoot the flag or if the adrenalin of the day took over.

Joe Public never come here, he says. "They don't know what it's like here, they don't have the same feelings.

"They have made a judgment from a video, they don't see the whole picture, they know nothing of the hurt and grief and anger."

Of course no one was going to be hurt that day, he says. "We're the ones who invite them [the tribunal members] into our territory, we made sure they get here safely, from A to B. So what do they do? They arrest me for doing exactly that."

He talks of people who have been diminished and undermined, then draws a rough map. Seven settlements are dotted on a large area of confiscated land. What wasn't confiscated is now in control of the Department of Conservation and Tuhoe are left with little pockets, about 10 per cent.

This is what the Treaty claims are about. But more importantly to Iti is a Tuhoe claim for sovereignty.

Tuhoe is the only tribe to have lodged a constitutional claim with the tribunal and it is not a stupid idea, he says. "It's already a reality in Ireland, Scotland and Wales." Besides, he adds, he didn't shoot the New Zealand flag, he shot the Union Jack on the flag.

"It was really about the whole symbolism of the Union Jack, it wasn't about the New Zealand flag."

Tuhoe were one of the last tribes to be reached by the English. They lived in the isolated Ureweras, reliant on the mountains, forests and rivers.

But key events unfolded which saw them irrevocably drawn into New Zealand's colonial history. The Rev Charles Volkner was killed in Opotiki in 1865 and government agent James Fulloon was killed in Whakatane.

Tuhoe were among tribes labelled as rebels and in the 1860s prime land was confiscated. Hence the confiscation line. On one side was Tuhoe, on the other the settlers.

Meanwhile, Te Kooti from Poverty Bay was on the run and sheltered in Tuhoe land. As the authorities searched for Te Kooti, the scorched-earth campaign began. Troops burned everything in sight, taking prisoners, killing, leaving people to starve.

Back in the present, Tamati Kruger puts the kettle on in his modest house in one of Taneatua's few roads. He is another kaumatua, respected in the community as historian and teacher. He appeared during Iti's trial as a defence witness.

The irony, he says, is that when the police need to dissipate tension they go and see Iti, who has an unparalleled success rate in diffusing it. Then they arrest him, charging him with violence. Kruger shrugs. It's nothing new.

He believes that for all the theories that the Crown took the land as punishment for Tuhoe rebellion, it was only ever about getting the land by whatever means necessary. It was fertile land. And it was rumoured there was gold in the hills. "The only thing standing in the way of hard-working white people were the black people."

Kruger believes that what began in 1865 and ended in the early 1870s with a "coerced" surrender, was an extermination attempt. There was never a true surrender: "I think when you go up to a person and say, 'You'll never see your wife and children again because we've got them in a camp 25km away and we will give them away to other friendly soldiers', then you will be in a position to sign the documents saying, 'Well yeah, the Queen is lovely and so is the Crown'."

It was winter when the soldiers came, the weather as cold as it is today in Taneatua. "They destroyed villages, they destroyed all of the crops, then confiscated all kinds of harvest that was there, all stored food."

People were taken away, families separated. Many were killed, Kruger is not sure how many starved. But the memories are alive and strong.

"You can talk to my children and they will be able to tell you that all of that land was stolen, our tipuna were killed over there, people were murdered over there. We teach our children so they won't forget."

The battle might have been for land but the real conflict was about sovereignty, says Kruger. "The Crown wanted total and supreme sovereignty over the whole country. It would never accept partial sovereignty, nations within nations."

But Tuhoe never gave up sovereignty, which is why the Treaty claim for sovereignty has been lodged.

"Essentially, we say that we are a sovereign nation and that the Crown and its agent, the Government, has no authority in our territory. It cannot point to any history or any event that would compel people to see that Tuhoe surrendered, resigned or ceded their sovereignty."

And Iti's case too, he believes, is about sovereignty and the right to follow your own custom on your own land.

How the Waitangi Tribunal views Tuhoe's case is not yet known. The tribunal has finished hearing evidence, but a report is not expected for at least a year.

Surprisingly, Stephen Franks, the man who takes credit for the police charging Iti, has no problem with him having fired his gun. "I agree with him," he says. "He should be able to use a firearm as long as he's not endangering someone on private land."

Franks' gripe is about equality. He says farmers who brandish firearms to defend themselves are soon charged by police and endure costly court cases - but are usually found innocent by juries.

"To me it's utterly wrong that the police charge farmers who step out on their verandah to scare people away."

When he saw footage of Iti shooting the flag he was annoyed that no action had been taken and raised the matter in Parliament. He wrote to the Minister of Police and the Police Commissioner and spoke out publicly. Iti was charged.

Not that he has any sympathy for Iti being used to make a point. "In fact, these protesters ... the reason they break the law is because it gets attention, because it's saying 'Look, see how strongly I feel about it, I feel so strongly I'm prepared to do something really offensive and break the law'."

But if the law was not enforced the protesters would have to do something even more extreme. "Because the whole purpose is to have the state come down on them, and I think it's the duty of the state to come down because it says, 'Yes there is a boundary ... if you choose to go past it, the law will apply".

Franks thinks that Iti is quite a character. But he says that Iti, like some other Maori radicals, has been encouraged by weak responses to believe he is above the law.

Kawana Te Makatu sits outside the Taneatua dairy, wrapped in a warm jacket, bearded, and wearing a hat and sunglasses.

Te Makatu, once a Mongrel Mob member, he says he is now a tangata whenua justice of the peace. This plastic table is his office, he giggles. People stop by to greet him, saying "morena" (good morning), to kiss him on the cheek before going inside to get bread or milk. He explains to them what the reporter is doing in town, and all say they support Iti.

As we talk, logging and stock trucks thunder by, another cause for complaint.

Te Makatu says people at Ohope complained so the trucks were diverted this way. "That sort of thing is why we get pissed off." Te Makatu is proud of what Iti is doing: "All we want is a fair go."

The next morning, there is great hilarity. Police Minister Annette King is expected in town to open the new police station right across the road from the dairy.

Te Makatu reckons the station won't last long. "It's too close to the road," he says, predicting one of the gangs in the area will drive by and torch it.

Iti pulls up outside the dairy for a few minutes. He's on his way to a tangi. He says the police paid him a visit this morning looking concerned.

He and Te Makatu laugh uproariously. The police were worried a protest might interrupt the official opening of the station.

Iti doesn't think anything will happen but he can't guarantee it. "There are over 1000 of us live here, some are a lot more nuttier than I am."

There's more laughter.

In the end, aside from a few heckles from Te Makatu, who yells, "Go home, go home," to laughter from the few locals watching from the dairy, the opening goes smoothly.

A welcome is performed outside but the cold wind soon drives the officials inside the war memorial hall.

Yet even here among the more moderate of Tuhoe attending the welcome, there is strong sentiment for the Tuhoe nation.

As speeches go on inside, a young woman from the official party says she thinks 90 to 95 per cent of the people support Iti.

Even some of the older ones who were not keen that he shot the flag have come round, she says.

They believe the Crown may have done some good in charging him, by awakening some of the younger ones to the struggle.

People around here are Tuhoe first, she says, always and forever.

- additional reporting Juliet Rowan