Tame Iti's defiance ingrained in Tuhoe history

I first met Tame Iti nearly 20 years ago. He is charismatic, quite intimidating, very bright and full of cynical contempt for the establishment.

No surprises there. He has proven to be a controversial figure over the years with his spitting towards the Governor-General at Waitangi and shooting the New Zealand flag.

He attended the Ngai Tahu signing of their deed of settlement in 1997 during his artist period. He painted a couple of abstract pieces, one of which was called Ngai Tahu Sells Out.

He then went through an external transformation when his was one of the first non-gang related tattooed visages encountered.

It was particularly distinguishable because of the high quality of work and the fine detail, although, no doubt, many found it an extension of his potential to intimidate.

Iti hails from Tuhoe who themselves are a bit of an enigma for most New Zealanders. They have a reputation as being from the bush and for maintaining levels of Maori language and customary knowledge that have long since disappeared from other areas.

There is also the appearance of a deeply ingrained sense of defiance. For those who understand what the tribe has endured since colonisation this is not surprising.

In 1866 Tuhoe lost 14,000 acres of land in an unjustified Crown confiscation. A few years later, when he was being pursued by Government forces, Te Kooti sought refuge with Tuhoe who agreed to hide him.

The military then unleashed their wrath upon the Tuhoe people. As a result their crops and buildings were destroyed and the only remaining arable land was also taken, including the access way to the coast and their fishing grounds.

Further land was forcibly sold at the turn of the century although Tuhoe were already impoverished and disenfranchised from the rest of New Zealand society.

So, in the early 20th century, when a new prophet emerged who advocated independence and a Tuhoe-centric view, it was not difficult for Rua Kenana to find followers.

But the authorities could not cope with such apparently seditious behaviour and ultimately attempted to arrest Kenana in what resulted in an armed confrontation.

Kenana's son was shot dead. Rua was arrested, charged with sedition but found not guilty. Despite the verdict he was sentenced to jail for resisting arrest and the Crown had successfully crushed the apparent threat.

Not surprisingly this series of devastating and demoralising events created an even greater sense of detachment for Tuhoe. But it is not only history that fuels the idea of Tuhoe independence.

It's also the physical environment in which they live. Anyone that has visited the traditional tribal estates of Tuhoe will know that much of it is geographically isolated and that the townships suffer from a lack of basic services and amenities.

Employment opportunities are few and far between and many live in conditions most of us would consider impoverished.

If any tribe can claim genuine grievances due to ruthless and inconsiderate treatment from the Crown, it is Tuhoe.

But the Treaty settlement process has offered the tribe the space to talk about new opportunities, repatriation of confiscated lands and the genuine possibility of self-governance.

Strong and focused leadership has taken a generally resistant population to a point where there is a very real chance that Tuhoe will reach agreement with the Crown.

The anti-terror raids at Ruatoki in 2007, when nearly 300 police recovered four guns and arrested a few terrorist suspects, seriously undermined the engagement, but still the leadership managed to recover and continue their mandate to negotiate.

The withdrawal of the Urewera National Park from Treaty negotiations in 2010 was a major blow as it is generally understood that there was already agreement in principle for the transfer of the park to Tuhoe. But still the iwi remained engaged.

The recent imprisonment of Tame Iti for his involvement in the Urewera training camps has seen the greatest threat to negotiations thus far. But perhaps even more damaging is the impact on the world view of the next generation of Tuhoe.

It is as if someone designed the series of events to reinforce a century-old message. A large force of armed police invade the Urewera and arrest an important charismatic and symbolic leader. He is charged with seditious offences but found not guilty by a jury.

As a result of an apparent retrial by the judge, Iti is given a sentence well out of proportion for the offence he was found guilty of.

In a 21st-century version of the Rua Kenana story the Tame Iti events have merely fuelled an old fire that may well have extinguished itself had the Crown more carefully considered their position.

But now a new generation of Tuhoe have had the message reinforced that they simply cannot trust the authorities.

The Press