Tame Iti's place in the Maori revolution

Last updated 05:00 21/03/2012

The Crown may consider a retrial of the Urewera Four on charges of belonging to an organised criminal group.

Urewera surveillance footage

Tame Iti surrounded by media
FACING THE PRESS: Tame Iti surrounded by media outside the Auckland High Court where jury delivered its verdict in the Urewera Four trial.
TAME ITI: His behaviour is seen by some as theatrical antics to gain attention no longer needed. Iti is no revolutionary, it seems. Instead, say some Maori, he is something of an anachronism.
TAME ITI: His behaviour is seen by some as theatrical antics to gain attention no longer needed. Iti is no revolutionary, it seems. Instead, say some Maori, he is something of an anachronism.

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Thickset, face engraved with moko, fluent in Te Reo Maori. Tame Iti styles himself a Maori activist, a man battling for the soul of his nation. In court, he was likened to Nelson Mandela, a prophet who did not deserve to be misjudged in his own time.

The Crown, however, has a different view of him. Through a prolonged legal battle over the past five years, it has cast him as a dangerous proto-terrorist intent on infecting New Zealand with an armed struggle against the state.

Whatever the truth, being the lead actor at the heart of such political and judicial drama would have catapulted most people to the forefront of the ranks of the discontented and cemented Iti as a rallying point for the simmering discontent of Maori, ready to boil over.

Instead, Iti appears to occupy an ambivalent place in the view of wider Maoridom. Some say he is at most a marginal martyr, a bit player at the sides. His behaviour is seen as theatrical antics to gain attention that is no longer needed. Iti is no revolutionary, it seems. Instead, say some Maori, he is something of an anachronism.

They say the real revolutionaries of Maori aspirations are in suits, carrying law or business degrees, and storming the walls of Pakeha capitalism with no time for distracting sideshows.

Academic Rawiri Taonui is withering in his assessment of Iti and his Urewera comrades. "They were far more a risk to themselves than they were to the fabric of New Zealand society," he says.

"If I met them in the bush I'd give them a really wide berth, not because I was scared of them but because they're probably going to shoot their foot off and I'd have to fix it up." He points to similar behaviour among many hunting groups.

"Things like people filling up bottles with petrol and throwing them around  you see that in hunting circles." But others found it difficult to believe the Urewera Four were just playing games.

The jury was presented a barrage of evidence  beer bottles used as molotov cocktails, IRA manuals, ammunition and guns and texts talking about "killing white motherf...ers".

Two teenagers were blindfolded and searched at gunpoint when they visited the training camp for a health lesson.

The defence said the Crown's case took everything out of context.

But Taonui said the evidence had been sensationalised and insisted the Urewera training camps were just boys foolishly playing soldiers in the bush.

"They were just being silly, and that's not being helpful for race relations. There will be a perception we're all terrorists."

During the trial, Tuhoe claims spokesman Tamati Kruger said police surveillance cameras failed to give an accurate impression of what was going on in the Urewera Ranges.

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Tuhoe's land is scarred with history. The iwi's ancestors were pushed off the most fertile land in 1866.

Their land plundered and their prospects vanished, Kruger told the court he found it reasonable for those people to be in a "state of hatred".

This hurt is re-enacted when Tuhoe people come together.

"History is never past. It's with us." During the arrests of October 2007, Tuhoe felt once again they were being marched off their sacred land.

Since then, progress has been made to mend the rift, beginning with a symbolic Treaty of Waitangi agreement last year that restarted claim negotiations.

Professor Ranginui Walker agreed the training camps were just a show, much like when Iti once fired a shotgun at the New Zealand flag.

"What you see depicted in the media time and time again is the shooting of the flag. That's all theatre; that's all consistent with Maori culture.

"It looks spectacular on TV and Pakeha get intimidated by it because they don't understand it's theatre."

There is no point rising up against the state, which has all the fire power, he said. "It's crazy, no one in their right minds would contemplate that.

"The trouble with Pakeha is they don't have the same sense of history that Maori have. Maori have a different view of reality." For some Maori, history is repeating itself.


The trial of the Urewera Four coincided with the 35th anniversary of the occupation of Bastion Point in Auckland.

Joe Hawke led the occupation to protest against the Crown's decision to sell land confiscated from Ngati Whatua. Police and army forcibly evicted the occupiers after 506 days.

Hawke says he went to the opening day of the Urewera trial to impart his hope and courage to the accused.

"I'm in his [Iti's] corner because I know how the law of the country treats people like him because I've been treated the same way." Around 300 police invaded land sacred to the Tuhoe during the anti-terror raids in 2006.

Hawke says this showed little has changed from the armed eviction of Bastion Pt occupiers.

"Europeans never understood. They always termed everything Maori did as crazy, as lunatic, as loony-bins. That's the only theory they could put into their vocabulary that would give them an excuse to get the army in." He agreed with the academics that there was never a terrorism threat.

"They would never level a gun at another man, woman or child with the intention of putting a bullet through their brain. No way. It was their tribal way of acting out the past."

Hawke says Iti, who once lived with him as a teenager, was now seen as a martyr and if he was eventually imprisoned it would come as no surprise to Maori.

"We're used to the same old stuff, the old jargon of Britain's law."

Mana Party leader Hone Harawira also weighed in to the debate early on in the trial, branding the Crown's pursuit of the Urewera Four "deeply racist".

"The Crown can be a nasty piece of work when it goes after ordinary New Zealanders."

However, Harawira represents a new type of activist. He fights his cause from the Beehive, rather than the fields of Bastion Pt or the forests of the Ureweras.

Taonui said Maori lawyers, academics and politicians are forcing change within the establishment they once battled against.

"There are no terrorist camps and there's not going to be an armed invasion into Auckland; Maori gave up armed struggle back in the 1880s. The young, educated Maori who walk between Maori and Pakeha worlds are the revolutionaries of today."

- Fairfax Media

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