Tamariki at Te Umuroa marae on the outskirts of Ruatāhuna (Image: Alex Braae, edited by Tina Tiller)

We go our own way: Tūhoe youth set sights on their future

At a marae on the outskirts of Ruatāhuna in Te Urewera, representatives of the Crown listened to Tūhoe ranatahi speak of their dreams of self-sufficiency. Alex Braae was there. 

It was brutally cold up in the hills on July 2, a significant day for both the recent past and future for Tūhoe. Dozens of locals were wearing orange vests, preparing a hāngī, directing traffic around the entrance to Te Umuroa marae in Ruatāhuna, and wrapping hands around steaming cups of tea. 

Representatives of the Crown, including the chief executives of several government departments, arrived a bit before midday, when the wintry sun was at its strongest. They were there to recommit to a Service Management Plan (SMP) signed as part of a political compact a decade earlier. 

The Crown was there to listen as much as speak. After a pōwhiri and kaputī, the microphone was given to the future of the iwi. 

“We’ve been asking our kids to dream. We’ve been asking our ranatahi to dream. They still have the innocence. They still have the ability to see what can be,” said Te Ori Paki, the communications manager for Ngāi Tūhoe governing body Te Uru Taumatua. He was introducing what Tūhoe people and representatives of the Crown had gathered to listen to.

The history of Tūhoe since colonisation includes both harsh sanctions placed on the iwi, and struggles to reclaim mana motuhake. The leaders of the iwi have a vision of Tūhoe that is largely independent of the Crown, with both the land confiscations of a century ago and the police raids of a decade ago still fresh in the memory.

And the ranatahi from the four valleys of Te Urewera who spoke have taken that vision and run with it, thinking about what their home in Te Urewera could look and feel like. It extended beyond self-governance, into deep self-sufficiency, truly sustainable environmental management, and a recognition of Tūhoe culture being distinct not only from Aotearoa generally, but even within te ao Māori. 

“What does that mean to me? In 2050, te reo ō Tuhoe is the only language I hear around me,” said Whareparoa Titoki from Waimana. The Tūhoe dialect includes a dropping of the G from words like rangatahi and tikanga. Within Te Urewera, te reo is already very strong.

The pull of Te Urewera was also clearly strong for those who had either grown up in or returned to the whenua. In describing what 2050 looks like to her, Jaz Wagner said, “Home, Waikaremoana, will be more exciting than Australia, Wellington, you name it.” The vast majority of the population of Te Urewera is Tūhoe, but a majority of the iwi itself lives outside of the rohe. 

In an interview after the speeches, Erana Kihi from Rūātoki said “our biggest challenge as Tūhoe is reconnecting our disconnected.” She grew up in Hamilton, but her mother made sure the family returned regularly to the marae. It’s a lot harder for urban Tūhoe to stay connected, said Kihi, who told the story of one person who came from Auckland for a recent ranatahi gathering. 

The group of ranatahi speakers from Waimana (Alex Braae)

“She knows she’s from Tūhoe – born in Wellington, grew up in Hamilton, lives in Auckland. And she turned up and said, ‘I saw a pānui online, I registered, I’m trying to find out who I am’. That right there, that is our target audience – that’s the whānau we want to bring home,” said Kihi. 

“You’re born Tūhoe if your toto and your whakapapa says so. But like you would have heard, the values of what we hold dear and the measure of what is a good Tūhoe – you have to experience that by living at home.” 

What drives this vision of self-sufficiency? Speakers kept on coming back to Te Urewera itself, as a provider for what they needed to sustain themselves. And the ranatahi stressed the point that their dreams were for the people as a whole, not for themselves as individuals. 

The difference in mindset from the world outside of the inaccessible mountain range is hard to quantify, but speakers described a vision for different kinds of doctors, teachers, and structures for organising communities. It was deeply utopian, and relied heavily on Tūhoe going their own way. 

The Crown could play a limited role in that, said Kihi, under agreements signed around the delivery of social services. “But if they default on it [the agreements] we’re more than happy to continue on our path, because we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years – I think we can do it for a couple hundred more.” 

The Crown comes to Ruatāhuna 

Mana motuhake is at the heart of the SMP. It recognises in writing the aspiration for Tūhoe to hold the “maximum autonomy possible in the circumstances”, particularly in the provision of social services. 

In showing up to recommit, there appeared to be an implicit acknowledgement from the Crown of wrongs committed in the past, and a need to do better in the future. The Māori Law Review described the “innocuous, even boring-sounding” document as a potential “watershed moment” in Crown-iwi relations. 

From the Tūhoe side, the aim is to progressively reduce dependence on the government, in favour of community-led approaches instead. And there’s an element of necessity from the Crown side, in that there’s very little government presence in Te Urewera – a pair of small police stations, but no Ministry for Social Development offices or hospitals. If something does happen, Whakatāne or Rotorua can be a long way away. 

MSD chief executive Debbie Power speaking at Te Umuroa marae (Alex Braae)

MSD chief executive Debbie Power dispensed with her notes in a speech responding to the ranatahi. She was “a bit apprehensive about coming here today… because I felt the weight of the responsibility”. 

Following on from her was Glynis Sandland, a senior executive at the embattled Oranga Tamariki. She spoke about coming from a family in which she was told not to speak te reo, because the generation before had been beaten for it. She said seeing what Tūhoe are trying to do inspired her. 

Her speech described a partnership beginning from a meeting of Te Uru Taumatua and the Oranga Tamariki Whakatāne office. Since 2019, the partnership had taken a much more practical direction, Sandland said. 

“What this means in real terms is inviting Tūhoe kaimahi to work alongside us, for Tūhoe to challenge us, to question our intent and our processes,” said Sandland. That included the increasing use of Tūhoe whānau, rather than state care facilities, for children, in line with the expectations of the iwi. 

“This is a natural thing. We think that it’s not, but it’s a natural thing that people be able to call on their own to make things work. And at times, we need to get out of the way to make that happen.” She described this as one of the organisation’s greatest challenges. 

Drug and alcohol treatment is another area that Tūhoe are increasingly taking on for themselves. In an interview after a hāngī dinner for the gathering, Te Uru Taumatua chair Tāmati Kruger said what works in Te Urewera might not necessarily work in the cities.

Te Uru Taumatua chair Tāmati Kruger (Image supplied)

“Communities like Ruatāhuna, everybody knows everyone’s business, right? So if you’re a P addict, you can’t keep that secret for long,” said Kruger. That changes the methods that can be used. “We confront each other in order to find a way through to mending it.” 

“If somebody is committing crime, usually you have people who confront those issues, and people won’t keep quiet. I don’t know if that’s an advantage or disadvantage, but in the city you enjoy anonymity. Here you don’t.” 

A ‘normal’ iwi? 

At the end of the presentations, Kruger got up to speak. He may or may not have been joking, but he said he told the ranatahi to act like Tūhoe is a “normal” iwi in front of the guests – only to be reminded by the ranatahi that isn’t how Tūhoe really see themselves. 

The SMP has been held up as a potential model for other iwi to follow. Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi told Newshub “Tuhoe is probably an example of how they have been able to negotiate within the system to come up with their own sovereign solutions to their problems.”

Tūhoe tamariki at the pōwhiri at Te Umuroa marae (Image supplied, Erana Kihi)

Kruger himself wouldn’t be drawn on that question. “I don’t know – I don’t have any relationship with any other iwi, I’m not part of any circuit where I sit down with any iwi leaders or chairs.” 

It underlined the point that kept coming up throughout the hui – these were Tūhoe approaches, for the Tūhoe rohe, rather than necessarily being a map for the whole country to follow. 

The types of projects currently being pursued by Tūhoe underline this. Rather than social housing, they want to build eco-villages around marae, aimed at housing multi-generational families rather than necessarily just nuclear families. They’re also pioneering research into natural road surfaces, to avoid having to put tarseal on the largely unsealed section of State Highway 38 that runs through Te Urewera. 

These initiatives were welcomed by MBIE chief executive Carolyn Tremain, who said “we acknowledge that your view of economic development may differ at times from ours, but we look forward to exploring those differences, and seek a deeper understanding so we can find common ground”. 

It isn’t unusual for young people to look to the future and imagine how it could be better. But for the Tūhoe ranatahi, there was a clarity of vision and demand to be involved. As Torere-nui-a-rua Te Pou put it, “we want to be living this in 2050. We don’t want to be still talking about this, we want it to be part of our daily life.” 

Nobody knows what the world will look like in 30 years. But it seems clear Tūhoe will still be where they have been for centuries, in the heart of Te Urewera.

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