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Overdue pardon for Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana

Opinion Piece

The signing by the Crown of an agreement to grant the Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana a statutory pardon is a long overdue response to one of the worst injustices of a troubled period in race relations in this country.

While small in scale when measured against some other Crown actions, including a number closer to home, what happened at Maungapohatu a century ago was at least their equal for the lasting harm it did.

Rua was born in Te Urewera in 1869 and at the age of 25 declared himself to be a descendant of Te Kooti Arikirangi, giving himself the title of Te Mihaia Hou, the new Messiah.

He and his followers set up their community at the foot of Maungapohatu, the sacred mountain of Ngai Tuhoe, and established themselves there despite hardships.

Rua was often unjustly mocked for the community’s central building, a beehive-shaped structure decorated with, among other things, playing cards, but which had special significance for his followers — who adopted the name Iharaira or Israelites.

Rua was involved in a dispute with authorities over the selling of alcohol, which saw him charged with “sly grogging”. But there was nothing in his actions to justify the events of April, 1916 when three contingents of armed police converged on the peaceful settlement. That group included a party of eight armed police from Gisborne, at least one of whom in later life expressed regret for what happened.

Ignoring Rua’s request for a meeting, the main contingent of 57 men rode into the marae. Who fired first is disputed, but two Maori including Rua’s son Toko Rua were killed, while three Maori and four police were wounded.

The Waitangi Tribunal report described the incident as “an unjustified invasion, carried out with excessive force” — a ruling in keeping with others relating to the Tuhoe people and their alienation from their land.

Earlier tribunal rulings led to a 2012 settlement which effectively passed control of Te Urewera National Park back to Ngai Tuhoe. The latest signing carries the remediation of a black day in New Zealand history a step further.