Restoring Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana's legacy

Rua Kēnana was one of the most enigmatic Māori leaders of the 20th century, building a thriving community in the remote hills of Te Urewera.

But his legacy and community was destroyed after a bloody police invasion in 1916.

Now, more than 100 years after the bloodshed, the Rua Kēnana Pardon Bill is before Parliament and the Crown will officially apologise for the traumas of the past.

The story of Rua Kēnana

Rua Kēnana was born in 1869, and by the age of 38 had created a self-sufficient kainga at the foot of Maungapōhatu.

He was a man well ahead of his time, building his peaceful community on three core values: kotahitanga, environmental wellness and whakapono.

Married to 12 wives, Rua was the leader of a thriving village, home to around 1000 people.

Rua Kēnana
Rua Kēnana. Photo credit: The Hui

Wayne Boynton recalls the stories his kuia would share about life in Maungapōhatu. 

"Nanny would talk about her father in a way that he had the vision to bring his people out of the poverty and hard life they'd been having." 

Whānau weren't required to pay taxes at Maungapōhatu - they lived off the land - and Rua was against Tūhoe men enlisting in World War I.

But the early 1900s would bring changes that would challenge the way of life for his community.

"Surveyors were coming into Maungapōhatu - koro and his followers at Maungapōhatu, they didn't really want that to happen.

"The next thing would be the confiscation, or the soldiers come in and take it by force."

Police invasion

The Crown decided Rua's influence needed to be stamped out, and in 1916 around 70 police descended upon the tiny settlement.

"Our koro, our tīpuna koroua and his two sons were out there to welcome the visitors like we always do the manuhiri," Boynton says.

Instead they were greeted by gunfire, police firing first and unleashing their full force on the remote village. 

Two men were killed in the battle - including Rua Kēnana's son Toko Rua and Te Maipi Te Whiu.

The wāhine would also be terrorised.

 "A lot of other things happened to our womenfolk as well - mahi tūkino ki wā mātou wāhine (the violation of our women)."

Rua Kēnana
Rua Kēnana. Photo credit: The Hui

But it was Rua Kēnana who was charged with several crimes and was taken to Auckland to stand trial, where he was convicted of resisting arrest.

At the time, his was the longest court case in Aotearoa's history. Rua and his followers would have to pay for both the lengthy legal costs and the police expedition to Maungapōhatu.

Boynton says Rua carried the burden of the arrest. 

"Not only debt but spiritually, emotionally, mentally and of course physically."

On his return to Maungapōhatu, most of his followers had left - and the prosperous community he had built was broken.

Before his death in 1937, he lived out his final years at Tuapou Marae in Matahi.

The trauma of the past

In 2017 history was made, and an agreement with the Crown was signed finally recognising the wrongful arrest of the Tūhoe prophet.

The Government accepted that police actions in 1916 were and continue to be a source of deep pain, causing economic, social and spiritual damage to many of the whanau here. 

Now that Bill is before Parliament, and during its first reading Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta broke down in tears.

For Atamira Tumara-Nuku, it was a poignant moment. 

"I couldn't even explain the feeling that I was feeling at the time, and I didn't expect to feel that way."

Atamira Tumara-Nuku
Atamira Tumara-Nuku. Photo credit: The Hui

The 30 year-old is leading the fight to restore the mana of Rua Kēnana. 

Her grandmother Kiri Tuia Tumarae-Teka was a driving force in seeking justice for the blood spilt at Maungapōhatu .

When Atamira was just 14 years old she gave evidence in front of the Waitangi Tribunal at Maungapōhatu. She spoke of the impacts of the invasion on the families of Maungapōhatu.

"The things that happened to our kuia - the hurt and the pain and the suffering that was caused not just to them 100 years ago.

"But how it was handed down to us, and the stigma associated with it."

Kiri Tuia passed away last year and sadly won't see the pardon passed into law. But Atamira is proud to carry on her nanny's legacy.

"She'll be at rest at peace knowing that we've gotten to this point."

However, she doesn't want her children to inherit the trauma she's inherited.

"I know it's all a blessing, but it's also a burden."

Ngawaiata Turnbull is completing her doctorate studies focusing on the Iharaira faith that Rua Kēnana followed. The whakapono or faith that Rua practised originally brought the people of Maungapōhatu together.

This movement came in the midst of land confiscations, increasing depression, poverty and sickness. 

"He was able to shine a light for people and gather them here as a refuge place." 

Ngawaiata Turnbull
Ngawaiata Turnbull. Photo credit: The Hui

But the Iharaira faith and its followers dwindled following Rua's arrest.

"A huge part of being Iharaira is being connected to Maungapōhatu and so through the years, it's been hard to stay connected."

The revitalisation of Maungapōhatu

The descendants of Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana are preparing Te Mapou Marae in Maungapōhatu for the official celebrations in the lead-up to his pardon later this month.

Ngawaiata Turnbull says she can't believe it's almost time for the pardon to become a reality.

"On that day, we are expecting to have the Governor-General present. And so Iharaira, Tamakaimoana, Tūhoe will be here in force."

Earlier this month the whanau made the journey to the corridors of power at Parliament - the very place where the campaign to bring Rua Kēnana down was actioned. Atamira spoke not only on her behalf, but for her ancestors too.

"Being here in person - kanohi kitea and being able to try to connect the ministers with who we are and what we feel in our manawa and the mauri of what has been handed down to us."

The final reading of the Bill is just the first part of the journey to exonerate Rua Kēnana.

Atamira has one challenge for the crown moving forward.

"My challenge is that this statutory pardon for my tipuna koroua is not just left on a piece of paper, on a shelf somewhere. But it's actually meaningful, real and restorative to our people."

The Hui