Atamira Tumarae-Nuku, 30, stands looking out over the valley at Maungapōhatu. One hundred years ago this was a thriving village home to over 1000 people, but today only one family lives here.
“I guess it’s like taking a child away from their parent. Taking us away from our environment, our whenua, our land,” she says.
Atamira’s mountain, the village’s namesake, rises behind her, shrouded in a mist so thick we can’t see the top. Birdsong and the sound of the river below carries up the hills.
“It’s a really special and sacred place to us.”
We’re deep in Te Urewera, an immense forest that lies between Whakatane, Gisborne and Taupō in the central North Island.
The last bullet of the New Zealand Wars was fired here in 1916. At the time Maungapōhatu was a flourishing community led by the prophet Rua Kēnana, one of Atamira’s ancestors who founded the Iharaira faith.
On April 2nd 1916, 70 police officers invaded Maungapōhatu to arrest Rua Kēnana, an act that has now been recognised as illegal.
As they arrived with their guns, the village was readying to welcome their visitors. “Rua and his people had prepared a hangi or hākari, a feast, for the soldiers that were coming in,” Atamira says.
But the situation quickly turned violent. The police invasion lasted three days. Women were raped and 31 people arrested. Two men of the village, Te Maipi Te Whiu and Rua’s son Toko, were shot and killed.
Rua Kēnana was arrested and taken to Auckland. The Crown accused him of sedition - inciting others to rebel against the government - but it didn’t stick.
He was eventually charged with resisting arrest. It became one of the longest trials in New Zealand history, running for 47 days, and he was jailed for 18 months. Afterwards, eight members of the jury wrote to the Auckland Star newspaper protesting the length of the sentence in comparison to the crime.
The people of Maungapōhatu had to pay legal costs of £1300, around $180,000 in today’s money. In order to afford this they had to sell most of their sheep, cattle and land.
Over 100 years later, the shame and stigma for Rua Kēnana’s descendants runs deep. Known as Ngā Toenga o Ngā Tamariki a Iharaira - the last of the children of Iharaira - the loss of their leader and of their village caused a level of economic and spiritual damage the community never recovered from.
“For me, as a young person from Maungapōhatu, what happened 100 years ago has been handed down from one generation to another generation,” Atamira says. “And the trauma associated with what happened is trauma that we still face today.”
In 2012, the Waitangi Tribunal ruled that the arrest was illegal, that police used excessive force, and that the Crown “effectively destroyed a functioning vibrant community”.
But the conviction of Rua Kēnana has stood till now - he’s permanently recorded in our history books as a criminal.
When Re: travelled deep into Te Urewera to meet with Atamira that was all about to change. The following week she would travel to Wellington to hear something that her people have waited generations for - an official apology and pardon for Rua Kēnana read at Parliament.
“One of the main traumas that I see today is the disconnection from our people from our land,” says Atamira. “The disconnection of our people from our identity, the disconnection of our people from our faith and our beliefs. And that disconnection leading to a number of families being lost.”
“Because without our whenua we cannot live.”
The wind is blowing in Wellington and the skies above the Beehive are bright blue. On the day of the reading Atamira walks up the stone-covered forecourt of parliament. Inside the pocket of her coat sits a small painted stone, on one side a portrait of Rua Kēnana, the other the line “Kāore te whakamā … Great is my indignity.”
She holds the stone the entire day, taking it out of her pocket every now and then to look at it.
She wipes her eyes, not from tears, but from tiredness. She’s been up since 5am. It’s a long road from the town where she lives, Ruatahuna, to Parliament - an hour’s drive down a dirt road, another hour on the highway to Rotorua, then a flight to Wellington.
But she’s here now. “I’m feeling a bit of mixed emotions at the moment,” she says with an anxious smile.
“Would you mind taking a photo for me?” she asks. She’s posting photos and videos to Facebook throughout the day, for the whānau back home who couldn’t make it down to Wellington.
In Te Urewera, dense native bush covers three mountain ranges, and runs down to the shores of Lake Waikaremoana. All are cloaked in mist basically year round.
“Is it misty even in summer?” I ask. “Yeah,” says Atamira, “it gets hot as, but still misty.”
After land confiscations, Tūhoe were left with just 16% of Te Urewera. In its inquiry, the Waitangi Tribunal said the “shocking poverty” seen in most Te Urewera communities - including families living in caves, or with little to eat but rotten potatoes - “was in large part caused by the Crown’s many breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.”
In 1954 Te Urewera was taken under the control of the Department of Conservation and named Te Urewera National Park.
But in 2014, as part of the Crown’s Treaty of Waitangi settlement with Ngāi Tūhoe, it became the first place in the world to be granted legal personhood - given all the rights and responsibilities of a person. This means the land owns itself.
Less than a third of Tūhoe people live on their ancestral lands. Most are scattered in towns and cities around New Zealand. Atamira has spent nearly her whole life here and can’t imagine being anywhere else.
She lives in the small town of Ruatahuna, an hour’s drive through the bush from Maungapōhatu, with her husband, Willy, and their three sons Noera, Peura and Tukutoromiro.
Previously a Department of Conservation treaty ranger, she now works with tamariki from Ngāi Tūhoe, bringing them into the bush to learn pest trapping, hunting and conservation.
“For me it’s being able to connect our young people, our youth, back to the forest and to connect them with the importance of our role as kaitiaki, our role as stewards for our land.”
People from Ngāi Tūhoe are known as the Children of the Mist and after just a few hours in this part of the country it’s easy to see why. Atamira takes us through the drizzle up to a small hill beside her house. At the top stands a single tree. “This tree marks the site where Hinepūkohurangi and Te Maunga came together,” says Atamira, placing her hand on the trunk.
Hinepūkohurangi is the maiden of the mist and Te Maunga is the mountain. “It was from their coming together that our people came forth.”
For many iwi, their origin story comes from the joining of Ranginui, the sky father and Papatūānuku, the earth mother. “But our belief within Ruatahuna, within Tūhoe is that we come from the sky and we come from the earth and that our origin is from Hinepūkohurangi and Te Maunga.”
Atamira’s grandmother used to tell her a story about the tree. As a young girl, her father had told her to go look at the tree and asked if it was living or dead.
“She saw that one part was dead,” says Atamira, “but she also saw that the tree itself was still alive. And the leaves were growing.”
Around 40 members of Atamira’s hapu have made the trip to Parliament to hear the first reading of the bill to pardon Rua Kēnana. They file into the public gallery in the House. It’s something they’ve been waiting for and working on for over 100 years.
Nanaia Mahuta, Minister for Māori Development, stands and introduces the motion to the House.
“E ai ki te kōrero a te koroua, "Kotahi te tur e mō ngā iwi e rua". Kua mana ana kupu i tēnei rā. E te mana nui, e te tohunga, e te rangatira, Rua Kēnana Hepetipa, moe mai rā, e moe.”
(The male elder once said, "One rule for two peoples". His words are true on this day. The authority, the spiritual intermediary, the leader of people, Rua Kēnana Hepetipa, rest in peace.)
Over the course of the next two hours, 13 MPs, Māori and Pākehā, from Labour, Green, NZ First and National stand and speak. Many are visibly emotional.
It’s the same in the public gallery. At times Atamira is sitting on the edge of her seat, leaning forward as far as she can to see into the debating chamber. Kaumātua around her wipe away tears.
Co-leader of the Green Party Marama Davidson’s voice breaks in her first sentence. “I wanted to get further than the start of my speech before I started having a tangi (cry),” she says.
“It’s quite hurtful to be an educated wāhine Māori leader in this House and not know this history.”
That morning, the government had announced that it would be a requirement that New Zealand history be part of school curriculums. Up until now, it wasn’t at all compulsory to teach our own history in our own schools.
A brand-new plaque commemorating the New Zealand Land Wars sits behind the politicians, unveiled only hours before. The debating chamber is ringed with plaques to other wars New Zealanders have fought in - wooden wreaths with place names like Gallipoli, Korea, Egypt carved into them.
It seems almost unbelievable that it’s taken till now for one that recognises the wars fought right under our feet to be given the same respect.
“I want my children to know your story ... because it is our story,” Marama Davidson continues. “I want to stop feeling inadequate about what we grow up not knowing as a nation.”
The last speaker, Labour MP Tamati Coffey reads aloud the text of the official apology.
“The Crown unreservedly apologises to you, the descendants for a) the lasting damage to the character, mana, and reputation of Rua Kēnana, his uri, and Ngā Toenga o Ngā Tamariki o Iharaira, and
“b) the deep hurt, shame, and stigma suffered by them as a result of the invasion of Maungapōhatu.
“This pardon is provided to Rua Kēnana for the conviction that he sustained for moral resistance to arrest. The restoration of the character, the mana, and the reputation of the man, his uri, and Ngā Toenga o Ngā Tamariki o Iharaira Faith is declared."
“This is an apology— and let's face it— an apology doesn't cost a lot,” Tamati Coffey says. “An apology is nice, but it's just a first step.”
Afterwards, Atamira walks out surrounded by her hapu. Politicians come out of the House for hugs and photos.
“That was quite an emotional experience,” she says. “Though we’ve been working on the bill itself alongside Parliament, hearing the ministers and everyone else read it out, or even find their own personal connection with Rua Kēnana and us, was really special.”
She looks lighter, like part of an emotional weight has been lifted from her. “I feel better than I did when I first talked to you.”
She sighs and wipes tear-marks from her glasses. “Regaining Rua Kēnana’s dignity and our own dignity in terms of what happened is really good.”
There’s still two more readings of the bill to come until it can be passed into law. “The significance of this day is that there is hope for what we believe,” Atamira says. “There is hope for a better future for our people, and our land.”
“And this is a stepping stone towards that hope.”
Back at Maungapōhatu, the display on the car’s dashboard says the temperature outside is 1 degree.
As we drive along the windy track, the mist condenses and thickens to snow. Little white flakes swirl around the car and stick to the windscreen.
Atamira pulls the 4WD to a stop in the middle of the track. “Do you guys have bottles?” she asks.
There’s a natural spring at the side of the road where fresh water pours down from the mountains. A spout has been installed so you can easily fill a bottle. The water is bracingly cold and tastes incredibly clear.
These are the kind of things you can do here - things you can’t do in the city. Things we’ve lost.
Atamira wants to move to Maungapōhatu within the next year with her husband and kids. There’s a lot of mahi to do - they’ll have to set up solar power and plumbing and everything else. Her 13-year-old’s not sure - he’d prefer to move to Rotorua where he can be closer to his basketball team.
But Atamira wants to reestablish what’s been lost. “For us to return back to the land, and to utilise the land, and care for the land and live as one with the land.
“Ko te whenua te toto o te tangata, the land is the blood of the people. And without the land, we will not survive.”
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