NZ Drug FoundationMade possible by

‘The battle now is with ourselves’: Tūhoe declare war on drug dependence

In August, Ngāi Tūhoe invited experts and community leaders to come together in Rūātoki to declare war on drug dependence. Don Rowe was in attendance.

You know you’re on a marae by the laughter. Contagious, unreserved laughter, brought up from the belly. Laughter irrespective of circumstance. Laughter in the face of historic tragedy.

In the shadow of Te Urewera, Rūātoki’s Te Rewarewa Marae marae holds particular significance to Ngāi Tūhoe – in these mountains the prophet Rua Kenana was arrested on a charge of offering ‘moral resistance’ to constables who had tried to arrest him months earlier for the illicit sale of alcohol. Kenana was pardoned posthumously only last month, 90 years after his death. The community he founded at Maungapōhatu, the sacred mountain of Tūhoe, never recovered. Archaic, prohibitionist drug laws have continued to disrupt and disestablish tangata whenua ever since. And so, as Tūhoe inch ever closer to mana motuhake – self determination – we’re here for a hui.

“There’s a tangi today, we’re a little worried about the turnout,” I was told on arrival.

Ten minutes from Tāneatua, the marae sits on a flat plain between Te Urewera and the Whakatāne River. Te Tapuwae, the urupā at Otenuku marae to the south, homes the bodies of Tūhoe’s chiefs, but death is here too in the ANZAC memorial hall on site. Death is a part of life for Ngāi Tūhoe, as it is in all Māori culture. So is ‘Tūhoe time’ we were told.

“The powhiri will start a little late, OK? Tūhoe time. Kia ora.”

Photo: Hillena Parsons

As the manuhiri gathered outside, familiar faces cropped up. Tamati Coffey and his partner, campaigning for the Labour party in Waiariki; Denis O’Reilly, a Pākehā Black Power member and social activist; gold-toothed Rex Timu, president of the Hawkes Bay Mongrel Mob. More would arrive later in the day; then Māori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell to debate Richard Gillies from the Greens.

“I’m here because of meth, because of suicide… all our problems,” Timu told me after a a warm greeting. Timu has a claim lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal arguing racist government policy is the reason so many Māori are addicted to methamphetamine. After banning the use of P in his chapter he claimed user rates had dropped by 70%.

As the sun rose higher and hotter, the mist lifted above the mountains and dissipated from the fields surrounding the marae. The laughter disappeared too when the wavering karanga drifted across the marae ātea and out through the waharoa. Karanga is said to weave a connection between manuhiri and tangata whenua, joining them in shared purpose, cleansing a space for conversation and discussion. Tūhoe icon Tame Iti is tangata whenua here, and his feet created paths in the dew as he gave his whaikorero inside the wharenui.

After a hākari of tea and filled rolls to lift the tapu inside the historic ANZAC memorial hall, Tūhoe spokesman and leader Tamati Kruger spoke first.

“One of the diseases of colonisation is distrust,” he began. “Distrust of ourselves, distrust of our concepts, distrust of mana, of tapu, of Tūhoetanga.”

“But we need those values, because when we know what it means to be a good Tūhoe, then we can identify the opposite, the vices. We are now declaring war on dependence. Drugs are a dependency as much as the benefit is a dependency on the Crown. For 100 years we have been presented with solutions by the Crown and none of them have worked because it’s a broken system. We need to not just realise that but to create a new understanding because what is broken doesn’t work.”

As with many indigenous peoples, a history of mistreatment at the hands of the Crown has left Tūhoe particularly vulnerable to the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse. In the 19th century the Crown confiscated their most fertile land, a band which also provided the only access to the sea. What followed was more than 100 years of war, deprivation and injustice. Famine in the 1890s alone killed nearly a quarter of the population.  In 2013, Kruger as chief negotiator agreed to a historic Treaty settlement in the area of $170 million, which was brought into law in 2014. Tūhoe also received an apology from Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson, citing the Crown’s “unjust and excessive behaviour and the burden carried by generations of Tūhoe who suffer greatly and carry the pain of their ancestors.”

It was an important milestone in the quest for self-determination. But it was only the beginning of Tūhoe’s battle, as Tamati Kruger continued:

“I believe that we no longer have battles with the Crown, only skirmishes,” said Kruger. “We’ll probably have more skirmishes, and some wars here and there, but the big fight is over. However, it has been replaced by a more serious battle which is the battle with ourselves.”

“We’re dealing with at least two generations of Tūhoe who are dependent and addicted and loyal to the system. It is going to be the most tragic war that Tūhoe has ever engaged in. It will be a great cleanout. It will be a change of structure. There will be things that are unlearned and undone. There will be things that will be learned and restored. And so we will prepare ourselves for the battle that lies ahead.”

And Tūhoe have allies already, even if their motives are politically motivated. Tamati Coffey stuck around for nearly two hours longer than intended, another casualty of Tūhoe time, and addressed the hui as both a candidate and a Māori man.

“When I was born, it was illegal to be me. It was illegal to be gay. Now, in 2017, I’m married, and my partner is standing right over there. That signals to me it’s possible to shift our thinking. This gives me hope for drug reform, and if I’m in parliament, I will do everything I can to make it happen.”

Speaker Denis O’Reilly, a self-described ‘resultant’ and Black Power life member knows a thing or two about the machinations of parliament, having rubbed shoulders with prime minister Rob Muldoon at the height of his power. He argued that what matters in these conversations isn’t the legal status or current societal attitude towards drugs, but what communities do about them in terms of outreach, support and rehabilitation programs.

“If you remember, the good Lord turned water into wine  – the guy was a drug manufacturer,” he joked. “So don’t worry about legality. We’re talking about harm reduction.”

Nikapuru Takuta. Photo: Hillena Parsons

And for members of the community panel, representatives of the organisations on the ground and in the trenches, reform starts with a system that’s compassionate rather than punitive.

“Healing starts with the hapū, because nobody can talk to your family like you can,” affirmed Nikapuru Takuta of Tūhoe Hauora. “Because we love our babies, eh? We love them.”

Tūhoe Hauora is a Tūhoe-operated health service provider, which provides four-day tikanga programs to bring Tūhoe back into the fold, often after referral from the Department of Corrections. Through relearning their Tūhoetanga they reclaim their identity – a critical component in the war on addiction. And in that way, they are grounded in connection and love.

“It’s about the power of aroha,” Whitiaira Timutimu, Māori response advisor and police representative concurred.

But as the rain rolled in after lunch the temperature dropped and it got dark inside the hall. These talking points, the same themes, over and over. It’s no longer about convincing an audience, rather disseminating the message.

“We’ve gotta radicalise the way we think,” Tame Iti told me over a cup of fish chowder. “The things that have been implemented by government policies are not working. They’re too dogmatic in their approach. So first and foremost we have to radicalise ourselves, and radicalise our realities. There are many aspects of Tūhoetanga which can help to make this work. It’s a belief, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a 24/7 thing. This isn’t a Tūhoe festival, it’s not a three-day thing. You breathe in, you breathe out, you’re Tūhoe. It’s more than lip service.

“There are many addictions, it’s not just alcohol. Our children get addicted, my kids can see the yellow arches before I can. The symbolism is very strong, he sees that and he’s thinking about the chips and the little toy and the burger. We need to use that symbolism. Tūhoe needs to make people think of a home, a job, a future.”

That symbol is Te Urewera, now it’s own legal entity under the governance of Ngāi Tūhoe. The mountains and rivers and lakes that make up Te Urewera are Tūhoe’s Jerusalem. As Kennedy Warne, founding editor of New Zealand Geographic, was told by one local, “The Egyptians had their pyramids. The Mayans had their temples. We have Te Urewera.” The Tūhoe ancestor Potiki-Tiketike was born of the mountains and the mist, and Tūhoe claim descendancy in a very literal sense. And as tangata whenua, their fortunes are tied directly to the mountains.

Tame Iti. Photo: Hillena Parsons

“You energise here,” Tame said. “It’s the positivity. It’s home, and it’s where the heart is. Every time we welcome the manuhiri we’re in the space of Tūmatauenga. The rituals, the voice of the women, are for you to be able to walk into the space. Then our hands reach out to each other. This identity, Tūhoetanga, is like an armour.”

Because Tūhoe are the iwi closest to autonomy, inching ever closer to total, legislated mana motuhake, they are in a unique position to attempt new models of healthcare. Programs like Tūhoe Hauora, grassroots initiatives grounded in Tūhoetanga, directly combat the social problems that open a community to drug-related harms and may provide the best model forward for Māori the country over. Iti believes in leading from the front.  

“I’m not here to tell other iwi what to do,” he said. “We just need to set an example. We need to be the beacon that people can see. But the government needs to remove the booby traps, the landmines, because we become victims of that. It’s been happening for 170 years. There needs to be a change in attitude.”

But the response from the one sitting MP in attendance, Māori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell, was more one of frustration, and consternation. After 12 years in parliament under both Labour and National governments, he has an intimate understanding of the realities of political action. And after all that time, the problems are far from being in remission – they’re escalating, particularly in regards to P.  

“What I see is destruction left, right and centre,” he said. “It’s getting bigger and worse and harder to break, and I’m struggling to say what we should do.”

There was one person present who did know what to do. Parehuia Mafi of E Tu Whanau stood up during a Q and A, the final speaker and the only wahine in the room to challenge the politicians directly. She spoke of losing her brother to drugs at just 22, of how she’d worked for change, of how nothing had changed. Of how it could change, but only from the ground up.

“What gives us sharp elbows is our mana motuhake,” she said. “What gives us leverage is our inalienable connection to our people. You politicians have to know we’re coming for you. And you will listen so that there are no more lives lost.”

And with that, the hui came to end. But as Tamati Kruger had made clear, the real battle is truly just beginning and it will be in their hearts and in their rohe that it is won or lost. But as history has shown us, Ngāi Tūhoe are used to facing down the odds, no matter how long it takes, or who stands on the other side.


The NZ Drug Foundation advocates for drug law to meet the challenges of the 21st century. See our roadmap to move they country forward: Whakawātea te Huarahi – A model drug law to 2020 and beyond is available online.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.