The accidental terrorist - Tame Iti's story

Tame Iti's arrest last week added another chapter to a colourful life. Tony Wall explores the many faces of the Tuhoe warrior and asks whether he is more 'thespian than terrorist'.

From the road it resembles a farmer's implement shed, a ramshackle hut surrounded by car tyres and toetoe near the banks of the Whakatane River.

Inside: the remains of a boil-up, shopping bags full of personal documents, a mattress on a low-slung mezzanine, two fridges crammed with food.

Reading material includes the business section of the Sunday Star-Times and Mana magazine, and there is a desk with a computer monitor.

On the walls there are photos the Ruatoki Senior Maori Cultural Group circa 1991, and a framed black and white picture from the 70s of a group of Maori with impressive afros.

This is where Tame Iti stays when in Ruatoki. But when police came calling on Monday morning as part of their now notorious nationwide raids, Iti was not here. He was at his partner Maria Steens' small Lockwood flat in Whakatane.

The armed offenders squad were also in Whakatane where they played a recorded message ordering the occupants of the flat outside.

Iti was laid out on the ground and a gun pointed at his head.

Steens and her 17-year-old daughter, who would later wear a "Free Tame Iti" T-shirt to her stepfather's court appearances, emerged in their nighties.

Back in Ruatoki, officers spent the rest of the day removing items, including the computer's hard drive, from Iti's shed.

But was this a terrorist's lair, the local version of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's Montana cabin, or just a place where Iti went for some peace and quiet?

Iti has been charged with 11 counts of unlawful possession of firearms, including Molotov cocktails, a .22 Ruger, another .22 rifle and a military-style Saiga 7.62 rifle, and is now in Waikeria Prison while police decide whether to lay terrorism charges.

He is a complex character who moves with ease between different worlds, one day playing the fearsome Tuhoe warrior fighting colonial oppression, the next hanging out with Remuera millionaires. There's Tame Iti the activist, Tame Iti the artist and actor, Tame Iti the social worker and Tame Iti the family man.

His millionaire associates include art patron Jenny Gibbs (who this week distanced herself from the man: "I only dealt with him over the return of the McCahon and I've absolutely no comment to make on this latest thing).

He took the stage in Auckland, then Vienna, telling the Tuhoe story in The Tempest, a multi-media production that also featured projected images of Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui, who he met over lunch at the Corban Estate Arts Centre.

Last month he flew to Fiji for an audience with coup leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

His son, Toi, told National Radio last week his father was "just a 55-year-old man with diabetes" who would never dream of "blowing up innocent children at shopping malls it's not his style".

Sunday Star-Times columnist and Canterbury University academic Rawiri Taonui describes Iti in today's paper as: "A master of theatre, not a terrorist. He showed his bum to the Waitangi Tribunal, and has spat with great aplomb and even greater accuracy in the direction of a governor-general, a prime minister and the assembled Labour Maori MPs.

"He shotgunned a flag because he is a freedom fighter for rights, not a killer. He may have some Molotov cocktails but who would he throw them at? No Pakeha train passes by, and 737s fly too high.

"Iti co-hosts a boys' agony programme for emotionally distraught brothers once a week on Maori TV and then hangs about in Ponsonby cafes. He wears camouflage gear, but doesn't have the body type for special ops."

But one woman who refused to be named, but who has known Iti for years, says the activist is a "chameleon".

"He morphs and melds, having an innate cunning to provide the persona desired by his audience. Tame's performances are a diversionary tactic and we all see him as a likeable character that's the game."

In court, police will claim that Iti was one of the organisers of a network, including environmental and peace activists, who were trying to obtain weapons to launch some kind of action.

A Star-Times source, who has seen documents relating to the case against Iti, says it is clear police believed from their intercepted conversations, including dozens of almost childlike text messages, that the group was preparing for action.

Three months ago, Iti allegedly told associates he was cutting back his work at the Tuhoe Hauora health trust in Ruatoki (Iti ran weekly sessions for adults with drug and alcohol problems) because he was "ready to make war on New Zealand".

According to the police file, the source says, Iti went to an Auckland gun dealer and legally bought a quantity of standard ammunition, but then went back to the dealer, who is alleged to have underworld links, and asked about purchasing a grenade launcher.

"The dealer indicated, according to the police surveillance, that he would provide the grenade launcher, but there's nothing in the file to say if it was ever delivered or not," the source said.

Police also indicated they had photographs of Iti meeting with a key, unnamed individual near Whakatane.

The police file says Iti christened the group "Rama", the Maori word for enlightenment, and had also obtained a "green book IRA manual".

Steens, a social worker, scoffs at the suggestion her partner of 10 years is a terrorist.

"I wouldn't hang out with a man who's a terrorist. If those allegations are true, I don't know when he fits it all in," she said.

Asked why Iti would be associating with environmental activists, she said: "I guess he's as passionate as the rest of us in terms of environmental issues. Tame's friends are so broad he doesn't just hang out with Maori activists, he hangs out with all sorts of people Maori and Pakeha."

Steens said she and Iti were part of the Te Mana Motuhake o Tuhoe movement fighting for the tribe's self determination. "It's a collective thing, it's not just Tame."

Another member of the movement, Henare Heremia, said Iti had a reputation for taking young people who had gone off the rails, or been "nurse maided and corrupted" by their mothers, and putting them back on track.

"To me he's a judge and executioner in one because he knows the families and knows the youth in Tuhoe. He becomes the executioner he kicks them up the arse and makes them work, hard labour and all that. That's what all these camps were about taking them up there into the ngahere (bush) and scaring the shit out of them and moulding them back into a warrior."

One of those boys was George Baker, who went on to bash Liam Ashley to death in the back of a prison van last year. Child, Youth and Family placed Baker into Iti's care when he was about 12 or 13, against his mother's wishes. She said Baker was sacred of Iti and ran away several times.

Iti's supporters claim that he has the full backing of all his "whanau" in the Ruatoki valley, but the Star-Times spoke to people who are sick of him.

"I don't think he's a danger in that sense," one woman said. "But he's one of these idiots who fires his rifle off. He only has to slip... all the maraes have clamped down on him he's not to bring his guns on to the marae any more, they've had enough."

Another man said: "It's about time they (police) sorted him out."

Perhaps understandably, they refused to give their names.

Among Iti's Auckland contacts is millionaire car dealer John Murphy. Murphy supports the Maori sovereignty movement and flew a tino rangatiratanga flag from his Remuera house in February.

Murphy travelled with Iti to Fiji to meet Bainimarama last month.

Murphy is understood to be under investigation as part of the current operation.

He is a friend of Jamie Lockett, one of those arrested last week as part of the police raids, and is believed to have introduced Lockett and Iti.

The Star-Times had a bizarre conversation with Murphy last week.

Murphy: "The police are listening to our conversation at the moment. But we've got members of our group, our foot soldiers, as young as 12, that are quite verse with the forest. They go to the likes of Kings Prep on the northern slopes of Remuera, they're very well spoken and they're very, very nice young men, and they go under the code of PT."

SST: "What does that stand for?"

Murphy: "Just remember PT."

Further attempts to draw Murphy on his involvement with Iti were unsuccessful.

It is clear from interviews Iti has given over the years that he is fully aware that law enforcement authorities are monitoring his activities. Just this month while talking to Radio Live about his trip to Fiji: "I'm always aware that my phone is being tapped by the SIS."

And he told Waatea urban Maori radio that his reputation had made world travel difficult.

"I'm kinda blacklisted in some countries around the world too. Australia, I've been flying in and out of Australia for nearly 40 years. Now I can't just fly into Australia any more, because they have visas. If they're not paranoid about Islamics or Arabs, they get paranoid about people like you and I."

Tame Iti clearly understands the value of the arts as a political platform. He once exhibited bags of dirt from the Tuhoe confiscation lines. In The Tempest, he told audiences his earliest political protest was at a picture theatre asked to stand for "God Save the Queen", he replied, "F–- off."

Tempest was directed by Samoan choreographer, Lemi Ponifasio. Last week, the 40-year-old head of the Mau (which means "revolution" in Samoan) dance troupe called Iti an "intelligent and very wise leader of his community" an energetic and resourceful person who doesn't drink or smoke and barely sleeps.

Ponifasio says he was invited to the Urewera camps: "He thought I could be an interesting role model.

"I haven't been there. Yet."

He doesn't believe they were military-style training grounds. "It's young men who get together. It's like wananga (learning centres). It's just that."

Ponifasio says The Tempest gave Iti a "powerful platform".

"People have paid to shut up for 90 minutes and watch Tame say what he wants to say. It's a good strategy."

Iti is like a prophet says Ponifasio. "He's trying to lead people to a new place, where people might never want to go to."

Who should be afraid of Tame Iti? Ponifasio laughs. "Ignorant people. Obviously."

Heremia, Iti's Tuhoe activist colleague, said Iti was as much an actor as an activist.

"He's just a movie star, like all Tuhoe, we love playing up to the media and the TV cameras."

Yet there is no necessary contradiction between Iti's adventures in the sometimes superficial world of theatre and his utterly serious political concerns. The arts and politics are not uncommon bedfellows: Ronald Reagan was a movie star; former Czech president Vaclav Havel was a playwright; Stalin was an acclaimed romantic poet; even Saddam Hussein knocked out a few novels.

"There have been times here where I've had to step in and caution people," Heremia says. "(Tame Iti) is just one man, but if you take that mask off, he's got a whole bloody (Tuhoe) nation behind him."

  • Additional reporting by Kim Knight