Life at the flaxroots levels of a contemporary Ngāi Tūhoe community
Pounamu Jade Aikman
On October 15 2007, New Zealand awoke to a startling story of armed terror training camps in Te Urewera, in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. National media was festooned with images of Tame Iti as the alleged ringleader of the camps, and although paramilitary raids swept across the country, they overwhelmingly targeted the Ngāi Tūhoe people of the Ruatoki Valley. The enflamed rumours of terrorism divorced themselves from factual reality, and in their zealous pursuit of terrorists, the Police executed violent raids in front of children, parents, and elders alike. For weeks after the raids, newspaper and television reports sensationalised Ruatoki as an incubator of terrorism, reproducing images of black-clad weapon-wielding Armed Offenders Squad (AOS) officers raiding homes and searching vehicles. This amounted to nothing but prolonged show-trials of those accused, with then Solicitor General David Collins claiming that the evidence Police gathered during the raids was inadmissible.
That the raids concentrated upon Ngāi Tūhoe communities of Te Urewera was no accident. Tūhoe have long been vocal about Crown intrusion into their homelands, as demonstrated a century ago with the prophet Rua Kēnana. He strongly voiced opposition to the unfettered government alienation of Tūhoe land, and, during the First World War, actively discouraged Tūhoe from enlisting in the war effort. National media and the government painted Rua and his community at Maungapōhatu as a dangerous threat to society, sensationalising his stance into one of pro-German sympathy. Rumours circled amongst Pākehā New Zealand that Rua and Maungapōhatu were arming themselves, and even fabricated the suggestion that Rua himself owned a machine gun to this end. On April 2 1916, Maungapōhatu was violently raided by 57 heavily armed Police officers, who aggressively searched for the dissent and disloyalty that had been conjured up in the national consciousness. Theirs was an exercise in futility; when they arrived, Rua and his people were busily preparing a feast to host the arriving officers, and only responded in force when Police began ransacking the village. The leader of the expedition, then Commissioner of Police John Cullen, claimed victory over Rua and his manifesto, roping him together with other prisoners and parading them out of Maungapōhatu.
Immediate parallels were drawn between the 2007 raids and the 1916 assault on Maungapōhatu, both of which exhibited the state’s ability to deploy, without hesitation, its arsenal of force in responding to what it deems as threatening behaviour or activity. Although apologies have since been made about the nature of the 2007 raids, and, more recently, the 1916 invasion of Rua’s community, this violence has continued apace in the decade since the October 15 raids. Whānau in Ruatoki have been the subject of other heavily armed raids by the AOS, in 2012 and 2014 respectively, both of which targeted physically incorrect addresses. In 2012, the AOS stormed a small village at the head of the Ruatoki Valley, firing tear gas and bullets into the (wrong) home as they searched for the accused. The raid occurred in the morning as children awaited the school bus, who bore witness to the carnage that unfolded. In 2014, a whānau homestead was similarly raided when Police mistook the family truck for a suspect vehicle, rushing the home with dozens of AOS troopers and vehicles. Again, this was to no avail as they had acted upon bungled intelligence. The Police offered their apologies, but the lack of sincerity has meant these remain raw wounds among Tūhoe families.
These various examples are set amongst a lineage of stereotypes and imagery that depicts Tūhoe as a ‘savage’ and ‘backward’ people, which were manifest from the earliest encounters between Pākehā and Tūhoe in the early nineteenth century. The images circulated in 2007 likewise drew on this genealogy, promoting and reinforcing these distorted representations. To counter such prevailing patterns of misrepresentation, this project offers a photographic snapshot of life in contemporary Ruatoki society, providing insight into the life of two whānau upon their dairy farm in the upper reaches of the Ruatoki Valley. From following the whānau as Pāpā prepares the children for the school day, to discussing the challenges with Mum as the farm prepares to transition to fully organic in the coming years, Tatsiana Chypsanava’s photography depicts the passions, struggles, and day-to-day life of Ruatoki whānau in 2017. The myths of ‘terrorism’ or ‘armed rebellion’ were fuelled and sustained by colonial stereotyping, and the advent of photography and the visual image vigorously propelled these prejudices. By using those same tools, this project seeks to challenge and disrupt such mind-sets to render into dust these stereotypical portrayals. In this way, Chypsanava’s photographic essay presents a more intimate, human experience of life lived at the flaxroots levels of Ruatoki, a small thread in the vibrant tapestry that is the dynasty of Ngāi Tūhoe in the early twenty-first century.
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