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‘One of the great scandals’

It's over a century since Prime Minister Richard Seddon ensured legal status for Tuhoe's territory. Yet in 2010, author Judith Binney points out, ownership of the Urewera has still not been settled.

For seven days in 1894 Premier Richard Seddon traversed the Urewera, meeting the people of Tuhoe. From Ruatoki in the north to Waikaremoana in the south, he listened to what they had to say. The message, at hui after hui, was unequivocal: stop taking our land and leave us to govern ourselves. Chunks of Tuhoe country had already been carved off, either by state confiscation or the machinations of Pakeha property law. Seddon, newly in office, seemingly sympathetic, appeared to offer hope that no more would be taken. "I am glad you have come," a speaker at the final hui told him, "for it gives you an opportunity of seeing our position here, and the grievances we labour under."

We know nothing more of that speaker save that his name was Te Kowhai and that he spoke at Te Kuha, south of Lake Waikaremoana, on April 9, 1894. We do know, however, thanks to Judith Binney's exhaustive research, that Te Kowhai spoke for all Tuhoe when he also told Seddon: "It is only since I came under your wing and became your child that I knew what it was to suffer."

Seddon left the Urewera that afternoon, never to return, although he remained Premier for another 12 years. In 1896 he did ensure the passage through Parliament of the Urewera District Native Reserve Act, which defined the boundaries of Tuhoe territory (te rohe potae) and enshrined in law a promise of self-government given 25 years before. The betrayal of that promise forms the heart of Encircled Lands, Binney's benchmark book that tells in unprecedented detail the story of Te Urewera from 1820 to 1921 and describes, in terms of the impact of European colonisation, what it was like to come under the Pakeha's wing, and what it was to suffer.

Binney, a Pakeha herself - Australian-born, in fact - is no stranger to the ­Urewera. She first went there on a tramping holiday in 1975, knowing virtually nothing of its history, and found at Maunga­pohatu, in the deep heart of Tuhoe country, a "place that infuses my imagination perhaps more than any other". It was at Maungapohatu that the prophet Rua Kenana was seized by police in 1916; unaware of that 60 years later, Binney remembers now, "We came in on the track that the police originally came in on."

There was no one around in what had once been a thriving pa. The place seemed deserted, lifeless. Battered old houses, a barn that might do for the night. Then an old man appeared. For Binney, it began then. The "awareness that there was something about this place" started her on a journey of scholarship, friendship, understanding and commitment that hasn't finished yet. In the 1980s she wrote Mihaia: The Prophet Rua Kenana and His Community at Maungapohatu and Nga Morehu, the stories of eight women who followed the Ringatu faith of Te Kooti - who, although not Tuhoe, had a profound influence on the iwi's fortunes. That led to the majestic Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, which won the Montana Book of the Year award in 1996.

"So everything grows," says Binney. "It builds on where you've been before: someone's planted an idea and either told you a story which you didn't understand at the time you were told, or only partly understood, or you go and you find there is a document in the library that you didn't know existed or nobody else knew existed - and so it builds. It really is that kind of staying on, even when you think you've finished. I thought Te Kooti might be the last thing I did."

Hardly. Thanks not least to a Royal Society fellowship, she has spent most of the past decade on Encircled Lands, an epic book that stands both as historiography of the highest order (the research into the political malpractice and legal chicanery involved in the alienation of Tuhoe land is staggering) and as a sustained indictment of the damage one race can do to another when it sets its mind to it.

And not just one race, either: Maori politicians Sir James Carroll (Ngati Kahungunu) and Sir Apirana Ngata (Ngati Porou) do not come out of this book looking good: between 1907 and 1910, Binney writes, they "set in motion the policies that tore open the Rohe Potae of the ­Urewera".

Ahead of Carroll and Ngata let's, for once, put Tamaikoha, Te Makarini, Te Whenuanui and Numia Te Ruakariata - to name a few. Their names will be new to most New Zealanders, but after reading Encircled Lands one feels they ought to be as familiar as those of, say, Seddon, McLean, Massey and Stout. Binney says she's in awe of them, those men "whose voices I first heard speaking unexpectedly to me across the pages of the early Native Land Court records".

We have their photographs: weather­beaten and grizzled, they gaze at us with a terrible sadness out of the pages of Encircled Lands. Yet the pictures that really tell the story are the maps: year by year, they show the lands of Tuhoe being nipped, tucked, hacked, sliced and shrunk. Some of it was taken as punishment for the murder of the missionary Carl Volkner (Binney calls this a "crude form of cost-recovery") and some in retribution for the alleged crime of sheltering Te Kooti. But from 1871 onwards most of it was obtained by sharp dealing and legal blackmail.

One particularly insidious way was to get a piece of desirable Tuhoe land surveyed, regardless of local wishes, then charge the cost of the survey to the locals, who were then obliged to sell or lease the land in order to pay a debt - on which interest was also accruing - that they had never voluntarily incurred in the first place.

"Look at the map on the eastern side," says Binney. "You see how much they took from the surveys there - all down the eastern side of the Urewera. The land had never been permitted to be surveyed by its owners; not one of the owners had given permission for that survey; and yet the Government went through with it. Now that to me is one of the great scandals."

Tamaikoha said: "I look upon this survey as a murder."

In 1908 Ngata told Tuhoe they had to pay the cost (£7000) of setting up the Urewera Commission, even though the original legislation had expressly stated they would not be charged.

So it goes on: a relentless tale of liens and leaseholds, registration and regulation, subtraction and subdivision - what Binney calls the "bureaucratic labyrinths" in which Tuhoe were trapped. The state's strategy was brutally simple: divide and buy. Surveyor-General Percy Smith acknowledged there were no such things as defined hapu boundaries and that "nearly the whole area is subject to overlapping claims", yet successive governments persisted in separating out and individualising the ownership of land, the quicker to make it saleable.

Many of those sales were illegal, but the Native Land Amendment and Native Land Claims Adjustment Act of 1916 took care of that oversight by retrospectively validating all purchases of individual shares. Five years later, Native Affairs Minister Gordon Coates was cheerfully able to boast of the "extinction of existing titles and the substitution of another form of title which knows no more of ancestral rights to particular portions of the land".

Got that sorted, then. And what helped the Pakeha cause immeasurably was the demonisation of Tuhoe as what Binney calls "the Other" - either untamed savages threatening to come down from their mountain fastnesses and slaughter all in their path, or fairy-like "children of the mist" hopelessly incapable of coping with modern life. Neither image was true. Encircled Lands shows a constant commerce between Tuhoe and the "outside world"; they seem at times to have written more letters than the Bloomsbury set. "They had an astonishing number of meetings," says Binney. Even Rua went back and forth to Wellington to lobby and to plead.

E hoa. Listen, friend. Many of the letters written by Tuhoe chiefs to politicians and administrators begin with this simple exhortation. It might well have been the first words of Encircled Lands, which invites the reader from the outset to hear what it has to say and draw conclusions from the evidence presented.

Reviewing it in the Sunday Star-Times earlier this year, fellow historian Matthew Wright called it history "driven by a purpose", as if that were a fault; it comes perilously close, in his view, to reducing a complex pattern of events to the simplistic formula "Settler bad, indigenous good".

Binney bridles at that. "I would dis­agree totally with him on that," she says, "because I'm trying to give the viewpoints of the people who were involved ... They've all got several agendas, and I think I try to show that as clearly as ­possible."

Nonetheless, she has done her job so well that at the end of 615 pages of Tuhoe being harried and hounded and ridden roughshod over it would be a rare reader who came away thinking, well, there was right on both sides and who am I to judge? The cumulative effect is that of a powerfully argued case for the prosecution.

"My purpose in writing is to tell a history that has remained largely unknown," writes Binney, and in making the unknown known she has written Tuhoe back into Pakeha history anyway, and done it with scrupulous accuracy. If it comes across that Tuhoe were hard done by, then, she says, that's because "I've done a lot of work, particularly in archives, and there's so much material coming from archives. That Land Court record stuff is quite difficult to read and to interpret, and I've worked very hard to make sure I'm getting it as right as I can."

Last year, in gratitude, Tuhoe bestowed on her the name of Tomoirangi o Te Aroha, which means "a little cloud of rain from heaven".

Was she surprised, all the same, by the (painstakingly footnoted) levels of manipulation and even deceit practised by Ngata and Carroll?

"Yes, it gets close to deceit," she says. "I had a reader for the book who was very worried about this, and I went through it all again thinking very carefully about what I was saying." She doesn't deny they tried to do good for Maori but says that coming from two big tribes that stood against Tuhoe, they "decided to make Tuhoe one they could pick on and get land out of".

Binney is speaking to me on the phone from Menorca, Spain, where she has been recuperating from a dreadful accident just before last Christmas, when she was hit by a truck in Princes St, Auckland. "I'm now pretty well back completely together," she says, and judging by the vigour with which she takes the current government to task, that'd be right. We're talking here about the Prime Minister's recent refusal to hand over control of Te Urewera National Park to Tuhoe.

"The National Party is going to have to face this," says Binney, "because I really think he has done something which he hasn't fully understood." There are plenty of precedents around the world for regional self-control, she says, citing Catalonia and Galicia in Spain: "You can do it and it works."

"I think the least we could do is to sit down and work out an authority structure that gives Tuhoe a controlling voice over the Urewera National Park. And I think he's quite wrong that it's going to set a precedent for anyone else, because it's not. They're the only tribe that's ever had an act of Parliament which acknow­ledges this."

As he lay dying, Te Kooti said, "The canoe for you to paddle after me is the Law. Only the Law can correct the Law." Was he onto something there?

"It is the way to go," says Binney. "The law can correct the law. It was done in 1896 and it can be done again."