Tamati Kruger

Tamati Kruger

A lot had happened since I last talked to Tāmati Kruger in 2013. Then, Tūhoe’s settlement had not yet been reached with the Crown. Te Urewera was still a national park. The legislation that enshrined Te Urewera as a legal person — owned by no one, owning itself — still lay in the future. So did Te Kawa, the document that lays out how Tūhoe will act as kaitiaki for Te Urewera.

In 2013, when I was working on a book on Tūhoe, Tāmati and I talked on the deck of Tūhoe’s administrative building in Taneatua — a plain, single-storey set of offices.

Five years later, we sat in the boardroom of New Zealand’s first living building, the stunning Te Kura Whare complex. Tāmati looked much the same, wearing one of his trademark thick woollen jumpers, as if he might need at any moment to head away into the bush, or watch one of his children play sport.

Tāmati’s down-to-earth style was something that appealed to me when I first met him. I admired the fact that, as a young man, pondering his life choices, he decided to live with his wife and two daughters for a time at Ōhāua, a kāinga well off the beaten track — no road, no power of the electrical kind, just the power of ancestry and mana.

I had visited Ōhāua — ridden there on horseback with Ruatāhuna kaumātua Rongonui Tahi — and seen the rough slab hut the Krugers lived in. The hut where Tāmati delivered his son.

He lived there, he said, to “scrape away the artificial things that had built up around my life, to authenticate myself.”

Out of that process came a pathway that led to him becoming Tūhoe’s chief negotiator with the Crown, and now chair of the iwi authority Te Uru Taumatua.

I started our 2018 conversation by asking about national and international reaction to Te Urewera’s landmark legal personhood legislation and Te Kawa, its governance plan.


Tāmati: Since the publication of Te Kawa we have been stunned by the response nationally and internationally to what we’re doing here. Senior managers in DOC have stated that Te Kawa is the trail that New Zealand conservation must follow, and that governments internationally must also follow.

Our chief executive Kirsti Luke just came back from a United Nations dialogue involving various South American countries, and she was flabbergasted to find that what we are doing here was presented by the UN as the answer. I think what impressed them was that New Zealand law affirms that ownership of Te Urewera has been deleted, and they see this as proof of a real shift in the relationship between humanity and nature.

At that meeting, there was also a recognition that the long fight by some indigenous peoples against multinationals over extraction of minerals, logging rainforests, etcetera, means that Te Kawa can be seen more as a legal sword than a resolution of the relationship with nature.

Some indigenous people have been in this struggle for so long, and seen their land pillaged so severely, that they are looking for a sword.

Kennedy: How do we resolve this? The juggernaut of human greed is so powerful that it sometimes seems it can only be adequately resisted by the legal sword, the conservation fortress, the protected area where the human footprint is minimal. Historically, that fortress mentality included the removal of the indigenous people — as happened in Te Urewera.

How do we resolve the relationship between humans and nature and not at the same time open the door to unrestrained exploitation of nature?

What we’ve done with Te Kawa is undermined and declared war on certain beliefs that human beings have adopted, such as that land is no longer Mother Earth, it’s property.

That has coincided with a realisation by many people that there can be no Plan B for nature because we don’t have a Planet B, and that the only way out of the current environmental crisis is to change ourselves and our relationship with the land. That idea has been getting traction.

I also think many New Zealanders have seen the contradiction of promoting our place to the world while at the same time knowing that we’re not doing very well with our place.

When we wrote Te Kawa, we knew that there is a lot that Tūhoe themselves have to unlearn and relearn.

This comes across in our housing strategy as well. For example, we refuse to address homelessness and housing issues by building square boxes. Our strategy is to build sustainable villages, which resets the view that we’re not a business, we are people that need the companionship and sociability that comes from a village. We are responsible to each other and to the earth for what we do and what we consume and what we use.

This year we’re building or rebuilding six villages, including renewing wastewater systems and energy sources. Whānau is part of the design process. We’re asking them how they see their village in 40 to 50 years’ time. Where are the gardens going to be? Where will the roads be? Where will the school be? What amenities don’t they need in their household because they can share with others?

Generations to come will understand that their lifestyle has come via their hapū and iwi, not from the Crown.

Te Uru Taumatua

Te Uru Taumatua

This sounds very much like it’s happening under the banner of mana motuhake. Are there other expressions of mana motuhake that you’re working on?

Everything’s an expression of mana motuhake. Nothing can be an exception to that.

Some years ago, for an art exhibition called Te Urewera Conversations, you wrote: “Each and every day all of nature hear and echo the messages of Papatūānuku to Ranginui, but only some of mankind have come to understand that our silence is our part in these Te Urewera conversations.” What did you mean by that?

What do you think?

My guess is that humans are talkative creatures with agendas and solutions, and always thinking we have to have the last word. You seem to be saying something like what the Tao says: “The wise can act by just being, and teach without speaking. Things come to them, because they let them go. They create by not trying to possess.” That’s the sense I get: of reversing what is the normal human approach.

That’s it. In our time and space we tend to think that nature needs us, that nature is helpless, that we will save nature. And we sit down and plan how we’re going to do it. We impose our view based on the belief that nature is ours. That nature is asking us for answers.

My argument is that we don’t need land management plans, we need people management plans. People bring the problems and the impacts.

You mean change the Resource Management Act to the People Management Act?

That’s right! I’m suggesting the best thing any of us can do is be silent and listen to nature. Nature has ways of fixing itself up, and we’re not participating in that. We’re not listening to nature as nature grapples with how it will deal with our impact. There is this view that nature is a helpless damsel. That reinforces the idea of property. We own it and it depends on us. No, it’s the other way around.

There are things in nature we should be reading as signs, but instead we read them as consequences. They are actually nature’s talk to you and me, telling us something.

And the only way we would pick up on that conversation between Ranginui and Papatūānuku — which at this time of climate change is a very pertinent metaphor — is for some silence.

The other month I was sitting down with some local Tūhoe people and the conversation went like this. One of them said: “I’ve just come back from Te Urewera and there are no berries on the ground. There should be berries. This is June. There should be berries on the ground. And when I was at such and such a location I could smell the fires from the homes in Rūātoki. There’s been a wind change.”

Those kinds of things. Signs that nature is providing for us. Those that love the land and see it as the parent, notice these things. They inform us as Tūhoe people, telling us what we must consider and what we may do.

I love the fact that in Te Kawa you made this statement: “Nature enjoys people for their aspiration and endeavour and friendship.” This, for me, has been one of the great revelations and awakenings: to the sentient world, to the earth that responds to us. So much of the talk now is: “What can nature do for you?” It’s all so anthropocentric. How do we get past that, to the goal of reciprocity that is embedded in Te Kawa?

I think my duty is to help bring back a sense of responsibility in Tūhoe for that time and space that they have settled in and occupied, which is Te Urewera. What we’re saying to Tūhoe people, now and future generations, is: “You were born with responsibilities, not with rights.”

That’s what these terms mana whenua and tangata whenua mean. They have nothing to do with ownership, with saying: “I was here first.”

Mana whenua has to do with acknowledging that the land has mana, and fulfilling your obligations and your kinship relationship with the land. That’s what it is — not an ownership or property relationship.

It’s you saying: “I think I kind of look like the land, and my language and my poetry and my literature and my cuisine and how I live comes from that. I am an expression of the land, and without it I will become blank. The further away I am from the land in my kinship, in my caring and my connection, the smaller I will become, until I am nothing. So I must keep that connection.”

I was asked once to address some people, and I said: I see a time in Aotearoa when there are no Europeans or New Zealanders living here, only tangata whenua. A time when all of us, regardless of heritage, come to understand that, in Aotearoa, we are all tangata whenua.

And that means that we are of this land, that this land has made us who we are. We have let this land create us in its image, and together we are proud of who we are and where we come from.

In such a world, we don’t need a Treaty or policy or laws to tell us what we must do. Kinship is our motivation, our kinship connection with the land. The Tūhoe view is that other people can love Te Urewera as much as Tūhoe people do. That, as human beings, if we come to believe and adopt as our tradition that we come from nature, that nature creates us in its image, then that can become our identity.

The other side of this is that to deny people access and kinship to the places that form them is the cruellest thing that you can do to another human being. To say to people who have lived here for 700 years: “This is now owned by the Crown” — that their culture and understanding is irrelevant and provides nothing — that is immense cruelty.

Over the last 200 years, Tūhoe has lost a lot. In the post-settlement world for Tūhoe, the first thing we have to do is honestly assess the damage and the brokenness and agree amongst ourselves what can be salvaged and what is irrecoverable.

The best that I can do in my time is help measure where we are against where we should be, who we are against who we should be, and confront the terror of that distance.

It must be disheartening to contemplate that distance.

It is. It’s not just an economic distance, it’s also a moral distance. You are dispirited by how much you’ve lost and how much you’ve changed. You know what you should be, but can you get back to that?

And my answer is yes, we can, if we think in terms of generations. If I was to measure our chances in the current generation, the answer is no, we can’t do it. I have to look to two or three generations of Tūhoe to reconstitute our kinship with the land. And I have to fight ownership.

Ownership is the great virus, isn’t it? It infiltrates our thinking.

It is. It does. It shows itself in attitudes like: “I have to have more than you. That’s how I prove I am a better person.” And on the other side of that is the beneficiary syndrome. Let someone else take care of it. I pay my taxes, so it’s the government’s job.

In the colonising experience of New Zealand, the loss of responsibility has done more damage than the loss of land.

I still remember the words of Justice Williams in the Wai 262 report, that without the opportunity to practise kaitiakitanga, Māori are lost.

Yes. Without responsibility, what you have is a slogan and a motto that has no substance. We then become ventriloquists. The proposals I’m putting forward are not sweet and easy and comfortable. I am asking Tūhoe to confront some ghoulish history, and I am asking future generations of Tūhoe to change things, because some of the ways we live now are an affront to what we believe and what our traditions are.

That has created some disruption and turmoil. There are people who hate what I’m doing because it’s exposing something that goes against the brand that they want the world to see.

In one talk you gave you made a distinction between justice and redress. You said the settlement process delivers redress, but that justice is something you can only deliver to yourself. Can you elaborate?

I’m uncertain where the expectation came from that going into negotiations with the Crown would deliver justice for all of the wrongs that have been done. That Tūhoe would walk out of that process with the sense that things had been fixed, that their burden had fallen away, that there would be a new dawn and a new life.

Iwi should never have that expectation. History shows that the Crown specialises in injustice. It arises from the fact that the Crown has a faulty memory. It can’t remember what it promises.

My view is that justice, like peace, is a gift people give each other. It is not produced by the machinery of government and settlements.

Would you say that what you get from redress is a change of circumstances in which to work towards justice?

Yes. The situation changes, but it’s up to us to make it work. Post settlement, iwi have a choice: move forward towards justice or retreat and make money.

When an iwi leader says at an AGM: “This year I made $10 million more than last year,” that’s seen as a success. It means they have met the criteria of modern society. They’re a “good Māori.”

That’s not how I see my job. My job is to help build a community that is connected to each other and to their place, who know who they are and where they are.

A lot of younger Tūhoe get this, but not everyone. So when we do things like trialling an alternative to bitumen for Te Urewera’s roads, some Tūhoe ask: “Why are we spending money on that? Why aren’t we just building houses and hiring more GPs?”

Yes, we can do those things, but the future health of Tūhoe is more than just a certain number of GPs for a certain number of Tūhoe. It’s Tūhoe people knowing what wellbeing is. Yes, we need more GPs to take care of the backlog of health problems, but we also need to be active on climate change, which will affect everyone’s future health.

So we’re going to try to make this roading material out of wood sap. We’re going to build sustainable villages. We’re going to look beyond hydroelectric power sources.

This is about our humanity, the humanity that is in our very name, Tūhoe. Our name is our virtue, and this place, Te Urewera, is our honour. Acting with virtue towards this place is a way of taking responsibility for our part of the planet.

That’s why we are now on to our third living building. We’re saying to Tūhoe: “This is our standard. This cares for nature. This expresses our tradition and our beliefs. Do you really want to haggle over the cost of it? What cost is your tradition and your beliefs?”

So we’ve got a hub in Ruatāhuna built on this principle, and we’re now going to do villages. It will affect how Tūhoe people feel about themselves, their connection to each other, to nature.

This is what being an iwi means. An iwi is not a business, an iwi is a kinship organisation with governance duties. It exalts collectivism. It seeks consensus. Many iwi have lost that focus. They are businesses, because the Treaty settlement process has asked them to be businesses. “Here’s your hundred million dollars. Good luck.”

Somebody asked me recently what I thought about the diversion of some of the Whanganui River headwaters for hydro-power generation. I said somebody had twisted the head of the river so it no longer looks at its body but across to Taupō to feed power production. That’s wrong, isn’t it?

Te Urewera is the same. Someone camouflaged a stolen property as a national park. We’ve put that right, and now we’re saying to Tūhoe people: “You are responsible for that now. You don’t need to own it to be responsible for it. You’re responsible for it because everything you say you are and wish to be comes from that place.”

In fact, couldn’t you argue that not having a title deed to Te Urewera is better than having it? Because a property title feeds the ownership virus.

During our negotiations the Crown put up Uluṟu as a joint governance model for us to consider. So I sent some Tūhoe there, and the local people told us: “Do not do it this way.”

Then the Crown suggested the Nunavut model. So I sent some other Tūhoe there, and those people said the same thing: “Don’t do it this way.”

When the Crown ran out of models, it was our turn to speak. And out of that came Te Kawa.

In the long run, quarantining the ownership virus may prove a more effective strategy. And not just for indigenous people. I recall a comment from a talk you gave, when you said that when Pākehā start thinking like Tūhoe — recognising the mauri in nature, coming to a relationship with the earth instead of ownership of the earth — that down that way, glory waits.

Yes. I believe that.


Tāmati Kruger was born in Rūātoki in 1955, and is affiliated to Te Urewera, Ngāti Koura, Ngāti Rongo Hapū. He was educated at Rūātoki Māori District High School, Tuhikaramea, and graduated from Victoria University with a BA (Hons) in Māori Studies, Political Science, and Anthropology.

See also: Tāmati Kruger: We are not who we should be as Tūhoe people.


© E-Tangata, 2018

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