Tariana Turia writes on the deep connection Tuhoe have with their ancestral land
I read a statement this week from Henare Nikora that instantly tugged at my heart.
"If Tuhoe talks to Tuhoe, then you are talking to Te Urewera. You cannot separate the two. We are all around and within it.
"We have relations here, there and there. And we are all intertwined. Tuhoe and Te Urewera are one. It is incomprehensible to see them as separate."
Incomprehensible. Intertwined. You cannot separate the two. It is precisely the same feeling that I have as uri of Whanganui. Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au - literally, I am the river and the river is me.
It is a powerful, psychological, physical connection with our sense of place.
This is what it is to be mana whenua, people of the land. The sense of place is so strong, the attachment so profound that it becomes an integral part of our identity.
We are bonded to our rivers, our mountains, our land in ways which I can only explain as defining the essence of who we are.
The deep connection that Tuhoe have to Te Urewera sustains them whether they live in Ruatahuna or New York.
One of the many emails I received this week was from a young man living in Wellington who spoke with true Tuhoe passion, about the meaning of Te Urewera to him.
He told me: "Te Urewera is a unique takiwa like no other in terms of the majority occupiers of the land - previous Treaty settlement case studies need not apply here. Returning 'formal ownership' of the park to Tuhoe would be akin to merely affirming the 'reality' of the situation regarding the day-to-day living of Tuhoe still in occupation of Te Urewera."
In as much as Te Urewera is unique, the distinctive character of the Children of the Mist has grown out of a tight spiritual tie to the land. Some estimate that 95 per cent of the population living within Te Urewera are local Tuhoe - they look after themselves, they look after Te Urewera; as they have for a century and more.
The rugged isolation of the Urewera environment has had a major say in shaping the Tuhoe spirit.
For Tuhoe, the Urewera have a compelling spiritual strength, a place to return for healing and revitalisation.
Yet this place of refuge - home to the mist, birds, insects - has also endured a savage history which every Tuhoe carries with them today.
The New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 established the legislative framework for confiscation; a scheme ostensibly devised to punish those Maori deemed to be in rebellion against the Crown.
But when the Crown confiscated Tuhoe land in the mid-1860s it was actually designed to punish other iwi.
The Crown took Tuhoe land, and even when it realised that the original confiscation of Tuhoe's best land was a mistake and illegal it did nothing.
The Waitangi Tribunal has noted that the Crown's actions were brutal, the repeated invasions of Tuhoe land unjustified.
Military forces acted mercilessly, killing non-combatants intentionally; executing some prisoners and destroying homes, food supplies and taonga.
Few people know this history of a people treated so badly by the Crown. The tribunal revealed that the senior military officer involved in the operations of 1869 spoke to his troops of "extermination".
People were starved out of the region under the impact of the scorched earth policies. Many of Tuhoe died, either as casualties of armed conflict, or from hunger and deprivation.
The tribunal concluded its report last year saying that "there is little for the Crown to be proud of in its actions during this period".
But despite the lasting legacy of pain and suffering, the grievance has never been adequately addressed.
Over the past 18 months it finally appeared as if a breakthrough had occurred. That is, until Monday this week.
One would think that the way in which Te Urewera has become so important we are talking about a prosperous resort, a lush national park that is the pride of all New Zealanders.
In reality, locals would suggest the park has been sadly neglected under Crown ownership.
The Urewera Forest Park DoC headquarters at Te Aniwaniwa, Waikaremoana, is now shut down and has been relocated to Murupara, well outside the park boundaries.
Besides DoC huts, there are no essential services such as power lines, water and sewerage.
Along a 120km strip of metal road on State Highway 38 there are only two petrol pumps - one at Ruatahuna and the other at the Waikaremoana Motor Camp.
So why all the fuss? One argument has been that of precedent - not wanting to set a pattern for other iwi to follow.
And yet it could be argued just as forcefully that the precedent was set in 1895 with the Native Reserves Act in which the Crown recognised Tuhoe ownership of land in the Urewera.
We have also been told that vesting sole ownership of the Urewera in Tuhoe hands would be outside the broad principles that have operated for other Treaty negotiations.
I know only too well that with all other negotiations in good faith, adjustments have been enabled to respond to the unique circumstances of that iwi.
One thing is clear. The reconciliation of trust and respect are at the heart of Tuhoe claims.
It took Tuhoe nigh on a century to want to seek a relationship with the Crown; a relationship based on peace rather than war.
Paramount in their aspirations was the desire to create opportunities for their people, to advance their drive for self-management, to consolidate a strong cultural, economic and social base for Tuhoe founded on mana motuhake.
Intertwined throughout their claim was the central importance of Te Urewera as their home; a home into which they are happy to welcome others.
Tuhoe hold their responsibility as guardians of Te Urewera with the utmost reverence. Tuhoe is Te Urewera, Te Urewera is Tuhoe - each belong to the other.
They/We have come too far to let this moment pass.
* Tariana Turia is the co-leader of the Maori Party.