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A place for returning: injustice, legacy and reconciliation at Parihaka

Taranaki will tomorrow witness a formal reconciliation and settlement with the Crown. And like so much Māori history, it is about mana surviving, despite the odds, writes historian Danny Keenan.

The Parihaka community in Taranaki will tomorrow meet with Crown officials, including the minister of treaty settlements, Chris Finlayson, to hear an apology, and to receive a reconciliation package of $9 million.

The events of Parihaka in the late 19th century provide “a damning indictment of a government so freed of constitutional constraints as to be able to ignore with impunity the rule of law, make war on its own people, and turn its back on the principles on which the government of the country had been agreed,” stated the Waitangi  Tribunal in 1996. “For decades, the shameful history lay largely buried in obscurity.”

That shameful history is one of a pacifist community raided and sacked by the Armed Constabulary in 1881, of the imprisonment without trial of its leaders, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, is now conventionally accepted.

Bringing that to light has been a long and exhaustive process. Even before the reconciliation negotiations, including the Taranaki Whānui  WAI 143 claim at the Waitangi Tribunal, which got under way in 1989, there was the Sim Royal Commission of 1928. And in between, one inquiry after another, as the events surrounding the Parihaka invasion of 1881 were subjected to judicial inquiry.

Engravings, John Ward, 1883. Feature image: painting by George Clarendon Beale, c 1881

Along that path, many issues arose. One concerns the appalling behaviour of the troops during the occupation of the village. Were “war crimes” committed at Parihaka, as many are claiming today?

Perhaps, but we do need to be careful with our language. I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about “war crimes” in relation to Parihaka. It is such a morally freighted term, bringing to mind recent events like Rwanda in the 1990s, or Srebrenica in 1995, which can seriously distort how we view what happened at Parihaka.

The Waitangi Tribunal Report Te Kaupapa Tuatahi of 1996 used the word “holocaust” in relation to the Raupatu in Taranaki, but this set off such a firestorm – even PM Helen Clark got drawn in, as did Tariana Turia MP – that we lost sight of Parihaka itself.

With the claims now being settled, and with economic and cultural regeneration now to the fore, what should we remember about the events of Parihaka?

I take my cue on this issue from the kaumātua, who have lived and experienced Parihaka all their lives, and who are trying to look ahead, to remember the past in the context of a positive present and exciting future.

During the invasion, the soldiers did destroy property and cultivations, stole personal items and did misappropriate livestock. Some soldiers are also said to have mistreated the women. Testimony was given by Parihaka people to this effect in 1928, to the Sim Royal Commission which met at Waitara.

Such is known, say kaumātua. Many children were later born of the troops, and these children were cared for. Some were given names to recall those events. But in time, these children and families were apparently no longer remembered – no one would say who they were.

Parihaka was, and remains, a huge moral victory for Taranaki Māori, though of course that was – and is – of little consolation to those families who lost so much.

I remember kaumātua reminding me years ago that, when Māori frame their past, they do so with important cultural markers in place, such as whakapapa. In fact, whakapapa provides the organising structure of all Māori knowledge, including knowledge of the past, or history. And the organising theme is mana. Māori history then is about mana surviving, despite the odds.

In the light of this, then, Parihaka was important: in the context of hurt, dispossession and grievous loss, Taranaki Māori were able to maintain and assert their mana, which was never lost, and of course is much in evidence today.

The reconciliation matters because it enables recovery.

The process has enabled Taranaki Māori to recover some of the material, economic and cultural losses incurred from the 19th century through to quite recently. This has further enabled Māori to embark upon economic development, social enhancement and communal regeneration, building upon those cultural elements that were never lost.

How will this process be viewed in 20 years? We sometimes look back to the Sim Commission hearings of the late 1920s. The testimony given then by Parihaka Māori is priceless today, as will be records of the Waitangi Tribunal, when viewed in 20 years time.

There now exists a comprehensive archive for Māori in the future to read and study. Some of the finer points haven’t aged that well, like the monies on offer (which seem meagre today), but overall I think the record, and the hard work of Parihaka Māori recently to achieve what they have, will stand the test of time

And what of the legacy of Parihaka?

Rangikotuku Rukuwai, kaumātua of Parihaka, sums this up really well: “I have lived my whole life around Parihaka.” Descendant of Te Tohu and Te Whiti, he knows where he is from, and he hopes that sentiment will pass onto his family, that they too will know where their ancestry lies.

“Parihaka has a future, especially with so many of the younger people coming back,” he says. Many things were lost and destroyed, and people were forced to leave their homes. Now, the young ones were returning.

Parihaka is then a place for returning, following the hurts, dispossession and egregious loss, attesting to the power of the place and to the ideas which were there, at the very beginning, in the mid 1860s.

But it is also of course about Te Whiti and Tohu. The young ones, says Rangikotuku, are returning to the teachings of Te Whiti O Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, which stressed peace to everyone.

“Te Whiti and Tohu taught peace and unity – they wanted all of the people to live together, side by side.” That, says Rangikotuku, was their legacy.

Dr Danny Keenan (Ngāti Te Whiti, Te Ātiawa) is the author of Te Whiti O Rongomai and The Resistance of Parihaka (Huia Publishers)


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