The Tuhoe of Te Urewera

The struggle of the Tuhoe people is nothing if one of undying perseverance lasting more than a century in the face of blatant injustice. As we have seen here in Mauritius and elsewhere, it is no mean task to stand up to the might of the colonial masters

“The struggle of the Tuhoe people is nothing if one of undying perseverance lasting more than a century (118 years to be precise!) in the face of blatant injustice. As we have seen here in Mauritius and elsewhere, it is no mean task to stand up to the might of the colonial masters. But under the charismatic leadership of Tamati Kruger in the latter part of the 20th century, Tuhoe’s tenacity paid off with the passing of the Tuhoe Claims Settlement Act 2014. In recognition of the injustice done to them, The Act granted the tribe financial, commercial and cultural redress valued at $170m, a historical account and Crown apology and, unheard of in any other colonized territory, governance of Te Urewera land — the land of their forefathers, their traditional homeland!”


The mere mention of New Zealand conjures up images of vast sprawling swathes of green farming land dotted with white bleating sheep, gushing rivers and foaming waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and woody forests peopled with cuddly opossums; and of course the All-Blacks performing the famous Maori Hakka on the world’s rugby fields. All of it coupled with a gentle liberal-minded administration ministering the happy fate of its people that include the Pakeha (white) and the indigenous non-white Maori populations.

But what the eye does not see is the sleeping giant underground — a slumbering angry mass of boiling lava that can erupt anytime without notice and cause unimaginable mayhem and destruction. However that anger is not only confined to the seething magma. The Tuhoe have had cause to be very angry with the treatment meted out to them — along with other indigenous Maori groups — by the English settlers.

Who are Tuhoe?

Ngai Tuhoe — also know as the children of the mist on account of the misty land that they occupy — are a Maori tribe of NZ whose traditional homeland is Te Urewara National Park, a densely forested region in North Island. They live mostly in the mountain valleys of Ahikereru and Ruatahuna. And like many indigenous peoples around the world, they hold tenaciously to their ancestral values and traditions in a fast globalising world.

Today the total Tuhoe population is estimated to be +40k of which 30% still live in the National Park. Throughout history the Tuhoe have maintained a strong attachment to their Maori identity, with the result that today, in spite of invasive European and Internet influence, up to a record 60% can speak the Maori language.

British Empire. In 1769 Captain James Cook “discovered” New Zealand and set about mapping the country. Throughout the rest of the 18th century the island state received regular visits by explorers, sailors, missionaries and traders. In a move designed to turn New Zealand into a part of the British Empire, the Treaty of Waitangi 1840 was signed between the British and various Maori chiefs, ironically conferring British citizenship to the Maoris in their own land. I say ironically because normally it is the immigrant who adopts the local nationality, right?!

Anyway the 1800s and early 1900s witnessed extensive British settlement throughout the country. Wars leading to the defeat of many a Maori tribe coupled with the imposition of British economic and legal systems resulted in New Zealand land passing from Maori to British ownership. Thus dispossessed of their land, Maori impoverishment became inevitable.

As can be expected there was general Maori resistance to assimilation in the British Empire, but the tenacity of the Tuhoe marked them apart from the rest. Thus in 1896 Parliament was obliged to pass the Urewera District Native Reserve Act. The Act enshrined Tuhoe absolute rights over a 2.650 sq.km reserve which would be controlled not by the Native Land Court — that was used to coerce Maori dispossession — but by a Tuhoe-controlled Commission. Perhaps most importantly the Act allowed for Tuhoe self-government with Tuhoe values, traditions and customs.

But as often as not throughout the history of European colonization worldwide, White Man “spake with forked tongues.” Whilst the intention of the 1896 Act was honourable, the action did not quite match the words. There was much procrastinating by the New Zealand government with the result that it took 13years to even elect a committee to govern the reserve. Furthermore in total disregard of its own policies, the government began buying up Tuhoe land that it was deemed to protect. The killer blow to Tuhoe aspirations came in 1921 with the revocation pure and simple of the 1896 Act. 

The Long March

Thus began the long march by Tuhoe to reclaim their rightful due.

Up to 1865 the Children of the Mist had lived isolated in their mountain homeland. The cataclysmic change in their life began in 1865 when an Anglican priest by the name of Carl Volkner was killed by members of the Whakatohea tribe. But it was the Tuhoe who got wrongly accused of the murder and, ceasing the opportunity, the Pakeha government confiscated 181k hectares of their land. This was followed by the further confiscation of 5.7k hectares on the northern border which, apart from being Tuhoe’s only access to the coast and rich source of kaimoana (seafood) in the sea, comprised most of their fertile land. With only difficult marshy land left at their disposal, the scene was firmly set for famine in the future. Thus between 1896 and 1901, a massive 23% of Tuhoe perished.

In a move aimed at discouraging the tribe from following Te Kooti (a Maori leader fighting for native rights), “a scorched earth policy campaign was levelled against Tuhoe. People were imprisoned and killed, their cultivations and homes destroyed, and stock killed or run off. Through starvation, deprivation and atrocities at the hands of the government’s Maori forces, Tuhoe submitted to the Crown,” notes Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand.

Waitangi Tribunal. Even after the annulment of the 1896 Act, Tuhoe continued to fight for their rights. By the 1970s their struggle had gained in intensity, resulting in yet stronger protests, some of it quite violent. With tensions thus mounting, the New Zealand government established the Waitangi Tribunal — a permanent commission of enquiry under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975.

In essence the Tribunal was charged with investigating and making recommendations on all Maori claims relating to actions and/or omissions on the part of the Crown dating back to1840 (and ending in 2008), the year of the Waitangi Treaty which was a barely disguised way for Pakeha to gain control over Maori land. As Patricia Burns notes, “An immediate result of the Treaty was that Queen Victoria’s government gained the sole right to purchase land.”* However Tuhoe did not sign the Treaty! Hence their continued protest and legitimate claim for over a century.

Justice. The struggle of the Tuhoe people is nothing if one of undying perseverance lasting more than a century (118 years to be precise!) in the face of blatant injustice. As we have seen here in Mauritius and elsewhere, it is no mean task to stand up to the might of the colonial masters.

But under the charismatic leadership of Tamati Kruger in the latter part of the 20th century, Tuhoe’s tenacity paid off with the passing of the Tuhoe Claims Settlement Act 2014. In recognition of the injustice done to them, The Act granted the tribe financial, commercial and cultural redress valued at $170m, a historical account and Crown apology and, unheard of in any other colonized territory, governance of Te Urewera land — the land of their forefathers, their traditional homeland!

Lessons

Through their century-long struggle, the Tuhoe have proved that road to Justice may indeed be long, but the passage of time in no way diminishes the essence of what is just.

There may be lessons for Mauritius here in respect of our own claim over the Chagos. When I was at primary school in the 1950s, our Geography lessons taught us that Mauritius was a British colony and that Rodrigues, Agalega and the Chagos Archipelago (the first time my classmates and I had heard of this difficult, unpronounceable word!) were dependencies of Mauritius. Hence, in spite of what our ex-colonial masters may aver, our claim is legitimate.

For having had the audacity and the courage to take on the British, the nation owes SAJ much gratitude — especially given his advanced age and no doubt health issues associated with his old age. But being the last of the Mohicans, it had to be him, didn’t it?

 

* Patricia Burns, ‘Fatal Success: A History of the New Zealand Company’ (1989)

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