Twelve years ago I was one of four teachers taking a group of 30 secondary school students on a five-day tramp through the heart of Tuhoe land in the Urewera National Park.
The tramp was from Ruatahuna to Ruatoki following the Whakatane River.
We arrived by bus late one afternoon and were met by a local Tuhoe family who had agreed to carry some of our bulkier food supplies on horseback and drop them off in the first couple of huts along the way.
It was after dark when we reached the first hut and we didn’t appreciate the rugged splendour of the area till we got moving the following morning.
Much of the land had been stripped of large trees in earlier times but now the unhurried but steady growth of native vegetation is slowly returning the land to its former glory. In 200 years it will be stunning.
Like any long tramp it was challenging and rewarding. The locals on horseback waded the river back and forth while we tramped along the side of gorges, across open scrubland and through densely-canopied forest. We bunked in huts, slept in tents and washed in the river. Every few minutes of every day brought new sights and new highlights.
The carrying of food on horseback was a mixed success. I remember a couple of huge plastic bags of oranges reduced to slush after a couple of days bouncing across the saddle of a pack horse in rugged country. More effective than a lemon squeezer.
We treated lots of blisters, smelled lots of interesting smells and tasted some dreadful food offerings from 14-year-olds experimenting in groups. We met plenty of hunters carrying pig and deer carcases out on horseback and were excited to find a glow-worm grotto just a few yards from the last hut.
The river itself shifts from gorge to gorge initially but on the last couple of days opens out onto a wide river flat as it nears the Bay of Plenty coast.
We were very lucky to have fine weather till the last morning when the rain and mist closed in. Tuhoe are called “children of the mist” for good reason.
We were worn out but exhilarated by the time we straggled to the road-end. A bus met us and drove us to a marae in Ruatoki where we’d arranged to stay. I’d known Tuhoe activist Tame Iti for many years and asked one of the locals if he was around. Yes and he lives just a couple of houses away over the fence I was told. And as luck would have it he was at home. I called him up and he came over.
Later when everyone was settling down for the night in the wharenui Tame talked to the kids about the history of the area; how Tuhoe has never ceded sovereignty over their land to anyone; how they had never signed the Treaty of Waitangi; how a great deal of their best land had been confiscated by the government. He talked about Rua Kenana and the settlement at Maungapohatu (the sacred mountain of Tuhoe) which was raided by 70 armed police during the First World War.
They killed two and arrested Rua for speaking out against the war. He’d argued against Maori fighting for a pakeha king and country while the same king had stripped land from Tuhoe just a few decades before. Tame explained what was involved with the most recent local issues. A forestry block here, some sacred burial sites there, building self belief in the young.
It was a rare privilege for these mainly pakeha teenagers to hear first hand from such a living legend of Tuhoe as Tame Iti.
It was the kind of history lesson we’d never had at school and I can’t help thinking New Zealand would be a very different country today if we’d learnt history from a Maori perspective alongside the pakeha perspective we were taught.
I don’t think most of us have anything but a superficial appreciation of the depth of hurt, anger and alienation felt so keenly by Maori in Tuhoe and elsewhere.
A Maori acquaintance said to me that Pakeha move ahead with their history behind them but Maori move ahead with their history in front of them. This was not meant to say Maori were always looking backwards but that when they move into the future their past is an integral part of who they are.
It was a privilege for us to be in the Ureweras but it was not a right. That right belongs to Tuhoe and we were their guests.
Anyone driving along roads in the area and finding signs declaring “Tuhoe Nation – Keep out!” should delight that the spirit of resistance of these New Zealanders is alive and strong.
And they should stop in respect and ask politely for permission to proceed.