Seven years since Te Urewera was officially recognised as a legal person, her people – Ngāi Tūhoe – are facing up to the wounds of colonisation and a Crown partnership haunted by the past. National correspondent Florence Kerr and visual journalist Lawrence Smith entered a world veiled by the mists of the ancient forest, and travelled the new path being forged for Māori and Crown relations.

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Manuka Apiata sits on his brown horse which is standing in a river up to the top of its legs. Apiata holds the reign in his left hand while his right hands clutches on a rifle. Busk covered hills and dark clouds are in the background.

Manuka Apiata says his connection to Te Urewera is spiritual.

Manuka Apiata says his connection to Te Urewera is spiritual.

For the love of Te Urewera


Deep in Te Urewera forest, Manuka Apiata cuts a striking figure against a starlit sky. He’s working fervently to prepare his horse for mahi in the bush with his crew. 

Dawn is yet to break and the full moon illuminates the white strands of Apiata’s hair as he weaves around the horse, securing saddlebags and tools to cleanse Te Urewera of pests such as possums. He whispers commands in his distinct Tūhoe dialect and the horse obliges. 

At 73, Apiata is as agile as a man half his age – animated by passion and a belief of being connected to the environment through whakapapa. His commitment gets him up at four every morning in service of his ancestor, Te Urewera, a culturally and legally protected feminine being of rivers, forests and mountains.

For Apiata and his Ngāi Tūhoe people, the deep connection to Te Urewera goes back to their creation story. They are said to be the descendants of Pōtiki-tiketike, a child of Te Maunga, the mountain man, and Hinepūkohurangi, the mist woman. They are Ngā Tamariki o te Kohu, the children of the mist.

Showing form the thighs upwards, Manuka Apiata stands at the river's edge looking directly to camera.  He holds onto the reign of his horse whose head appears to the left of the scene.

Manuka Apiata travels by horse into the ngahere (bush) daily for pest control.

Manuka Apiata travels by horse into the ngahere (bush) daily for pest control.

Te Urewera stretches from the Bay of Plenty into Hawke’s Bay. Waikaremoana, Ruatāhuna, Rūātoki and Waimana are known as her four corners. The iwi influence has extended to include Te Putere in the south, from Kaingaroa in the west to Ngātapa in the east. 

She is home to nearly all the North Island’s species of native birds, including the endangered north island brown kiwi, north island kōkako, kaka, and whio.

When the Te Urewera Act was passed into law seven years ago, it enshrined the former national park with all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person. Te Urewera was placed under the kaitiakitanga of her Tūhoe descendants, with support from the Department of Conservation (DOC). 

Emphasising the connection between Tūhoe and Te Urewera, the law preserves, as much as possible, the natural features of Te Urewera and her ecology, biodiversity, and heritage as a place for the public to use for recreation, learning and spiritual reflection. Acting as Te Urewera’s voice is a board made up of six Tūhoe representatives – including Apiata – and three Crown seats.

The groundbreaking change was followed in 2017 by a similar law making the Whanganui River a legal person – a world-first for a river.

The changes gave Tūhoe the mandate to control human activities within Te Urewera. They can place rāhui on certain areas to prohibit activities and the prohibition that must be adhered to by all. Teaching ancient forestry skills to their young iwi members within the bush no longer requires DOC permission and they can hunt, gather and forage without fear of prosecution. 

For Māori, reconnection to their whenua is all-encompassing. It involves the care and wellbeing of the land using mātauranga developed over centuries, specific to the environment they are connected to through whakapapa. 

After the law was passed, the changes were almost immediate. Centuries of indigenous Tūhoe knowledge of Te Urewera came to the forefront for her continued care. These holistic measures have challenged DOC. After 60 years of managing the land using Western methods, the department is now having to see through a new, indigenous lens. There have been difficulties adjusting.

shed looking to the right out of the window surrounded by possum skins and pelts.

Manuka Apiata sells the possum skins he collects while doing pest control on Te Urewera.

Manuka Apiata sells the possum skins he collects while doing pest control on Te Urewera.

As Apiata ties his horse to the wooden shed outside the kāuta, he says he is not a fan of the Crown. He has seen firsthand the devastation it has caused his people; he has heard the stories of his ancestors’ struggles from his old people. 

In the kāuta, he prepares breakfast before a full day of hard work, trekking up the mountains laying traps. It’s about trust, he says of the Crown, as he sparks up his gas stove – there is none. 

Apiata’s papa kāinga is deep in the bosom of Te Urewera, shielded from the view of the Ōhinemataroa awa, behind fern fronds and native flora. There are no roads, no cellphone reception, and the only ways to get there are by horse or four-wheel-drive. Forget Google Maps – to find Apiata you have to know the lay of the land; how to read the currents of the river.

His papa kāinga is not connected to the grid; it runs off a few solar panels crudely erected in front of the wharemoe and adjacent to the ablution block. There is a long-drop dunny that Apiata erected, with no door. A few branches from the trees partially block the view, but at any given moment changing wind could give whoever’s seated on the throne eye-contact with passing men on horseback. 

The whare manaaki (house of hospitality) sits nestled deep in the bush. Made of aluminium it's painted an apricot colour. Smoke plumes wisp out of its chimney from the wood burner.

The kāuta (kitchen) called whare manaaki (house of hospitality) at Manuka Apiata’s home in the heart of Te Urewera.

The kāuta (kitchen) called whare manaaki (house of hospitality) at Manuka Apiata’s home in the heart of Te Urewera.

At the table, near the wood burner, Apiata scoops up a mouthful of porridge and between gulps admits he hasn’t read the legislation. Neither has he read the Kawa of Te Urewera, a handbook created by the Te Urewera Board that explains the new etiquette expected of visitors.

Before the settlement, DOC managed the land. Under the guardianship of Tūhoe, it is people who are managed – something Apiata already knew because the knowledge of how to behave in the forest was passed down to him from his kaumātua

Before the law change, his relationship with Te Urewera was monitored closely by the department. He felt heavily policed. 

“We would see visitors from outside be able to do things we couldn’t on our own whenua. It’s different now. We can get our rongoa, and our kai.”

Despite not being versed in the lines of the legislation or the Kawa handbook, Apiata is the living embodiment of both.

His relationship with Te Urewera began in the cradle and he and his wife, Tineti, have ensured it’s instilled within their eight children, as well as all of their 26 mokopuna. The whānau live on Te Urewera, the same land where Apiata’s kuia raised him.

English is his second language: he is more comfortable speaking in his native tongue. Hearing Apiata talk to his family in te reo is exquisite; it could be the dialect of his ancestors, untarnished by the education system.

Apiata never wanted to be appointed to the Te Urewera governing board, but accepted after pressure from his whānau. Flustered by being in a boardroom with booksmart people – including former prime minister Jim Bolger – he got shingles. He is a man of the bush not the boardroom, he reckons, but that is why his views are so highly regarded. It is his deep relationship and understanding of Te Urewera that makes his knowledge valuable.

Apiata has come to know every crevice and curve of the land. He knows the bird sounds he should hear at certain times of the year, the wildlife, the water species, new pests. Sound, sight and smell tell him when something is not right.

Apiata talks about Te Urewera in a way many talk about a revered elder. He doesn’t see his role as an owner of Te Urewera: he is a kaitiaki. Humans are seasonal beings, but the land is enduring.

Te Urewera nurtures with rongoā and kai for his whānau, and she is his sanctuary to escape to. Since the 1800s, Te Urewera hid many of his whanaunga from the clutches of the constabulary.

As long as we look after Te Urewera, she will look after us all. MANUKA APIATA
Dense, dark and light green bush with mist rising from the canopy.

The signs from Te Urewera


Eight dogs and two horses wait while Chino prepares outside a wooden shack..

The shack next door to the kāuta is where Chino Apiata and the crew keep their pest control equipment that they saddle their horses with.

The shack next door to the kāuta is where Chino Apiata and the crew keep their pest control equipment that they saddle their horses with.

Apiata finishes off the last of his porridge and takes a big slurp of tea. 

It’s almost 5am and the other four men in his team – including his two sons Billy and Chino – will assist Apiata on the maunga. While they prepare their horses, Apiata shares his concerns, what he’s observed in the ngahere

“The berries that the pigeons, pigs and deer eat. The animals are starving. The berries seem to have run out earlier. They are fruiting the same but not as much and some of them aren’t even fruiting. The berries feed the pigeons and the animals but they also feed the ones in the water too, like the tuna

“When there are heaps of the berries it falls into the water and the water carries them to the pools where the tuna and the trout are and they eat them..

“People might say it is the possums, but I don’t think so. We have less possums than before and the berries were always good. I always used to slip over on them because they were everywhere, that’s how plentiful it was.”

Apiata noticed the decline more than 10 years ago and says it has got worse. Other threats have also invaded his beloved maunga.  

“The smoke coming in from the towns has gotten worse. Te Urewera would recycle the air and clean it but I think it might be too much for her now. It’s a real carbon smell. It clings to the hills in winter. It’s not good,” he says. 

“Another thing we are having problems with is the wasps, it’s really bad now, especially in the summer. I can hear their hum when I am by the willow trees. I have been hearing their humming for six years and says it’s getting worse. They do damage to the willow trees.

“In the summer when I go on top of the maunga I can see all the wasps, you can hear the humming. I reckon they are causing an imbalance in the ngahere. They are eating all our insects. The wasps could be the reason why the berries are not there?” 

Before the legislation change, all problems were managed at the discretion of DOC. Now, Apiata’s observations get reported to the board and its members look at indigenous and Western strategies to counteract problems.

Drinking the last of his tea, Apiata says the health of the ngahere reflects the wellbeing of the people. 

When the ngahere is good, the people are good. When the ngahere is not, the people are not. There is an imbalance. MANUKA APIATA

With that, Apiata is out the door. He hoists himself onto his horse and, as dawn breaks, the five men gallop away into the shroud of Hinepūkohurangi.  

As Apiata and his crew work to combat issues within the ngahere, human troubles outside it are brewing.


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On a stoney river bed, to the left of the scene, Chino sits on top of his brown horse with a stag's body draped around the bottom of the horse's neck .To the right of the scene, Billy sits upon his white horse holding the stag's head in his left hand where it hangs near his left leg. Three dogs hover on the stoney riverbed near the horses legs. The river meanders in the background with bush covered hills either side.

Chino and his brother Billy Apiata return with a stag after hunting in Te Urewera ngahere.

Chino and his brother Billy Apiata return with a stag after hunting in Te Urewera ngahere.

Power and partnerships


The return of Te Urewera to Ngāi Tūhoe guardianship has an emotional homecoming for her people. The people of Tūhoe describe their connection to Te Urewera.

The white Hilux ute creeps slowly across the Ōhinemataroa river bed in four-wheel-drive as the water rises within centimetres of the passenger window.

The sloshing of the truck as it zigzags across the swollen river alerts a team of horses, some with markings, as they graze near the river’s edge. After an inquisitive look, the horses return to graze – this isn’t an unusual sight for these free-roaming animals. The horses aren’t wild - they have a home – but they are free to explore. 

This is the journey from Apiata’s whare to Tāneatua. Forty minutes (and 23 horses) later, the ute glides onto asphalt. We have another 10 minutes on Rūātoki Valley Rd ahead of us. 

On the road, a faded white line stretches across the bitumen with the word ‘Confiscation’ painted above it. 

Inside a car looking through the front windscreen at the white lines of a straight road surrounded by bush covered hills.

To get to the Apiata residence you must take Rūātoki Valley Rd from Tāneatua.

To get to the Apiata residence you must take Rūātoki Valley Rd from Tāneatua.

Driving over the line ventures into the land confiscated by the Crown in the 19th century. The difference in lifestyle between each side is stark. On one side of the line there are modest houses that could do with a lick of paint; the other side shows wealth, manicured lawns, flower gardens and expansive houses with no peeling paint.

More than a reminder of the burden Tūhoe people carry from those thefts, the line shows their utter defiance of, and survival against the Crown’s actions. 

The history of Tūhoe post-1840 makes for horrific reading: the tribe experienced some of the worst atrocities at the hands of the Government, all in sight of or on Te Urewera, a significant place of spiritual wellness and sustenance that was taken and turned into a National Park in 1954. Those atrocities included the Crown’s brutal scorched earth policy of 1869, which saw the homes and crops of the Tūhoe people burned in Te Urewera as the Crown sought the fugitive Te Kooti. Many who survived that would later die of starvation. 

At the iwi authority headquarters in Tāneatua, Te Uru Taumatua chairperson and the tribe’s lead negotiator, Tāmati Kruger enters the boardroom followed closely by a trolley of refreshments - manaakitanga is big in Tūhoe nation.

Detail of lush green trees and ferns on a steep hillside.

Tāmati Kruger sits in a green armchair, hands clasped together in front with his elbows resting on the arm rests. He wars a large baggy, blue jumper and black track pants and looks to the left of the scene. The backdrop consists of a concrete breeze block wall.

Te Uru Taumata chairperson Tāmati Kruger says despite problems post-settlement Tūhoe, continue to strive toward mana motuhake (self-autonomy).

Te Uru Taumata chairperson Tāmati Kruger says despite problems post-settlement Tūhoe, continue to strive toward mana motuhake (self-autonomy).

Short in stature and dressed in track pants and an oversized blue woollen jumper, Kruger appears unassuming. But he is the wolf of Tūhoe: territorial, and merciless when provoked. His verbal prowess could elevate the weakest man to new heights or tear down the strongest. He can match and override the energy he is greeted with.

An elusive man who has declined multiple interviews, he now sits relaxed in an armchair with a smile, though his eyes say something different. He is ready for a verbal exchange; a skill he has perfected fighting for justice.

Kruger doesn’t need to give this interview, neither is he fussed about it. He makes it clear the only people he is answerable to are Tūhoe; no one else is a priority. We got him on a day he felt charitable. 

With Tūhoe, Kruger describes himself as the chairperson of a 2000-year-old organisation. 

Kruger led the negotiation with the Crown that saw Te Urewera returned to iwi guardianship. His expertise has been sought nationally and globally by indigenous nations seeking the return of stolen spiritual homelands.

Te Urewera is spiritually significant for the people of Tūhoe but for the Crown it is evidence of dirty deeds, he says.

A roadside corrugated sign with hand-painted lettering saying "TUHOE DID NOT SIGN the TREATY!" It is attached either side to two long branches which have been staked into the ground. A fence is in front and paddock in the middle distance with darker green hills in the background with blue skies and small, puffy clouds in the distance.

Despite not signing the Treaty of Waitangi, Tūhoe suffered the Crown’s wrath soon after. SUPPLIED

Despite not signing the Treaty of Waitangi, Tūhoe suffered the Crown’s wrath soon after. SUPPLIED

It should never have been a National Park in the first place because it’s a crime scene, stolen property. TĀMATI KRUGER

Kruger says their purpose was clear from the beginning: reconnecting the 40,000 people who identify as Tūhoe back to their whenua, ngahere, and whakapapa through their inherited connection to Te Urewera. Ninety per cent of Tūhoe people do not live within their ancestral land – and Tūhoe leadership wants them back. 

The relationship between the Crown and Tūhoe remains strained. Tikanga and Western ideologies are colliding and the two are trying to find common ground. 

Even as the Crown ramps up efforts to honour the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi by forming equal partnerships with Māori in areas such as health, long-held issues from both sides remain unaddressed. How do you learn to trust each other and form meaningful relationships after everything that has happened? 

Tūhoe didn’t sign the Treaty but suffered the Crown’s wrath that followed. Land was confiscated, innocent people were detained or killed – actions that were justified by the Crown through dubious legislation and enforcement – and they were unfairly targeted by police, 2007’s anti-terror raids the most recent example. 

The return of Te Urewera to Tūhoe guardianship is the beginning of a new era for the tribe. But with success comes fresh problems for Te Uru Taumatua – issues that are causing division and dissent within the iwi.

Several hapū have protested about Kruger’s handling of Tūhoe affairs, including policies to stop hapū accessing funds from Government agencies for things such as marae improvements.

Unapologetic, Kruger says Tūhoe have the resources to fix their own issues but need to take ownership rather than asking for outside help. Revitalising mana motuhake means being self-reliant, he says.

“There will be fearfulness around a new order, a new Tūhoe world where they may not see a steady picture of their new role. They will feel insecure, and they will resist and protest. That’s where we are now as Tūhoe people, we are right in the middle of that chaos. A chaos we should never, ever avoid. We should work our way through that. It's divisive, it’s loud, but it's part of the necessity of change.”

Pursuing mana motuhake is not easy after 180 years of Crown influence through colonisation, he says.

Close-up detail of a toi (art) wall panel which shows a koru design in the shape of three purple and black coloured hearts, two of which are upright at the top and one up-side-down below in the middle, forming one whole shape. Purple diagonal patterns and dots surround the shape.


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Kruger looks out of place in the boardroom. Like Apiata, he is not your average high-level iwi negotiator – he has lived in the bush without power and still looks like he could depart to go hunting at a moment’s notice. Then he speaks and it all makes sense. He knows his land and the dreams of his ancestors, dreams he is determined to bring to life today. 

He has spent more than 25 years in iwi politics, earning the support of his people who wanted him as their chief negotiator. The role was made easier when his people said in no uncertain terms: come home with Te Urewera, or not at all. It allowed him the freedom to decline the Crown as negotiations continued for three years. 

Kruger says there’s a culture in New Zealand that national parks are owned by everyone and can’t possibly be given away. Conservation estates were out of bounds for all iwi settlements.

“So that’s what the government’s problem was, the perception that they were giving away something owned by New Zealanders to a group of Tūhoe Māori who look like terrorists. That just is not a good look politically.

“So my problem was to understand what John Key’s problem was. John Key’s problem was ownership ... So through the negotiations, we convinced them that nobody would own it, the land would own itself.”

Once it was established that biodiversity would be fostered and the maunga would still be accessible to the public, the next step was writing the legislation.

“In Western culture, legislation is the highest order that they've got.

Head and shoulders portrait image of Te Uru Taumata chairperson Tāmati Kruger.
Of course, anyone who knows their history would know that legislation is a weapon that can be a tool, and it can be a tool that can be a weapon. TĀMATI KRUGER

To ensure their voices were in the legislation, Tūhoe insisted on helping to write it, using their own words.

Post-settlement, many have failed to understand the Tūhoe relationship with Te Urewera, leading many to speculate about the revenue the tribe is making from her. Kruger has also fielded comments about Tūhoe being the “brown” DOC.  

“When people say: ‘Well, how many jobs have been created?’ I then say, we did not fight to have Te Urewera back so you could have jobs. That was never, ever part of our identity. The problem here was the disconnection ... So over 180 years very few of us now know the ngahere, very few of us can live there now or understand how it works and how we are attached and whakapapa to it. So that’s our problem: connection, not jobs.

“I am a kinship organisation. What I do is make sure that the connection, the cultural, emotional, spiritual connection between people that make us who we are as Tūhoe is strong. And everything that is Tūhoe comes from that place.

Our language, our cuisine, our literature, our poetry, our dreams, our names, everything about being Tūhoe comes from there. TĀMATI KRUGER

“It was never ever about nice, clean open tracks and nice swing bridges and comfortable huts. That's your stuff. Not my stuff. So, a better measurement is to come here and say, how are you getting on with that connection thing?”

That connection is strong for Apiata, instilled in him by his kuia who, like Kruger, described Te Urewera  as the starting point for Tūhoe.

Born in Gisborne, while his mother was working in the shearing sheds, Apiata was collected as a newborn by his uncle and taken back to Tūhoe to be raised by his kuia.

“She was the most loving woman who loved her whenua and gave us that same love,” Apiata says. 

“Me and my wife have taught our kids our way of life in the ngahere. They know how to hunt and feed their whānau, they know when not to as well. You only take what you need, nothing more. That’s what my kuia taught me. She saw Te Urewera as a person, so you give back as much as you take.” 

Manuka Apiata prepares his horse for mahi (work) in the ngahere (bush).

Manuka Apiata prepares his horse for mahi (work) in the ngahere (bush).

Former National Party MP Chris Finlayson was the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations who oversaw the historic deal. Speaking from his Auckland law office, he says he wanted to  right past wrongs against Tūhoe.

He expected backlash after his announcement, but it never came. 

“I will never forget the reaction of the press gallery, which was overwhelmingly positive.  

“Even Winston Peters, who was always critical of anything I did, said he hoped Tūhoe get a good deal here. Everyone knew they’d been treated very badly, even within Parliament, and it went down very well. But the primary reason it went very well is because of the efforts of Tāmati and Kirsti Luke (Te Uru Taumata chief executive) talking to people and explaining that the world wasn't going to end and it would be an opportunity to right a wrong.” 

Finlayson says it was gratifying on a personal level to see justice prevail for Tūhoe, after being locked out of their lands for more than a century and deceived by the Crown on many occasions.

Blue sky is reflected in the still waters on the right side of a river. Dense bush on the other side is also reflected in the water to the left.

Empty promises


It was not the first time Tūhoe had engaged with the Crown to protect Te Urewera.

In 1896, after prolonged discussions with the Crown, the Urewera Native Reserve Act was passed. The Act would stop the Crown surveying land in Te Urewera and exclude the Native Land Court. Titles would instead be investigated by a Tūhoe-dominated Urewera Commission.

The Urewera Commission would award hapū-based land titles, and the hapū would elect a block committee to administer their land. Sales were not permitted. Tūhoe local government would administer and govern the Urewera Reserve. The 1896 law also promised schools and other services for Tūhoe, and protection of the forests and animals of Te Urewera.

That was what was supposed to happen. But the Crown ignored the Act for 25 years and later repealed it. Later, without consultation, Te Urewera was turned into a National Park. 

“And of course, no one can go near a National Park because it’s so sacred and blah, blah, blah,” Finlayson says. 

But the very people who belong to the land, through countless generations, were totally locked out, and so it was just totally unfair. FORMER NATIONAL PARTY MP CHRIS FINLAYSON

Back in the ngahere, Apiata says he is glad the law has changed and his rights under Tūhoe lore are now recognised in Crown law. But he sighs as he lifts the A4 folder of paperwork he has to read before his next Te Urewera Board hui. 

It’s this part of being on the board he hates the most. He would much rather that Jim Bolger jumped on a horse and came to his bush boardroom, so he can show him where the issues are.

He comes back to the berry problem: its effects on wildlife hurt the people of Tūhoe who use Te Urewera for food.

“When I was young I used to shoot pigeons for my nannies. I would always go hunting for them from about May because the berries were plentiful and I always came back with more than enough,” he says. 

“Usually the berries are in fruit from about January, the fruit are green then, and then about May the pigeons are singing because the fruits are about ready. The miro, the hīnau, the tawa were always loaded on the trees ... right through July and sometimes August. The Kererū eats all three of them.  

I wrote in my book last week that I haven’t heard a pigeon. I get still when I am out in the ngahere to listen to them and I can’t hear them. MANUKA APIATA

Apiata says he gets excited when he sees signs of a wild boar in the bush, another thing that was once a common sight that is now a rarity. 

“It’s good to see a pig sign, because I can't find one now in our area,” he said. 

“It’s the food. The tawa berry, when the tawa is here, is when the pigs come. It’s not there, neither is the hīnau berry. I only caught three pigs in the last four to six months. We can try and put more pigs out here but to me it is a waste of time when there’s no kai. 

“I want a scientist to come out and have a look, they may be able to tell us why this is happening.”

Billy and Chino Apiata ride their horses up a track through the bush with the dogs trailing behind them.

Billy and Chino Apiata and the hunting dogs return home after a successful stag hunt.

Billy and Chino Apiata and the hunting dogs return home after a successful stag hunt.

A blueprint for shared authority


The Tuhoe settlement was signed in 2013, followed by the Te Urewera Act in 2014. Post-settlement, Tūhoe said they felt resistance from DOC, which administered the Act for the Crown. 

Kruger said the cracks started forming from the beginning. 

“DOC were furious because basically, someone had sold their baby.

It’s one of the first instances where the Crown is sharing power – not coerced into it, but voluntarily sharing power. TĀMATI KRUGER

“To the extent that it’s actually giving up power. So it’s not a 50-50 share, it will probably end up being a 80-20 share in Tūhoe’s favour.

“There was alarm, resistance, suspicion by DOC. So that’s what we’ve been doing over the last seven years, abating that as much as we can and we’re tired of it, because basically, it’s not our job.”

Following the settlement, critics challenged whether Tūhoe could really manage the area. 

“We’ve been preparing for 200 years. Indigenous people who have suffered from colonisation, loss, grief, and terror ... don’t sit around waiting for divine intervention.

“We have never, ever accepted the confiscation and the theft of our land. We have never, ever seen it as a National Park. When DOC was here DOC behaved and acted like the owner of the land and they ignored us,” Kruger says.

“They advertised Te Urewera as a place to come and fish for trout, tramp, and listen to birds and look at trees. They forgot to mention there were Māori living here, they forgot to mention that. So we have always known that our commitment and our mission here was our reconnection with the land. The Crown mistook that for owning. Owning is a Western concept, right? Indigenous people don’t have a concept called ownership.”

A wide-angle vista of the river which meanders through a stoney valley surrounded by hills. The sky is blue with some wispy, pink coloured clouds to the right. The sun shines on the hills in the distance.

The deep connection to Te Urewera goes back to the creation story of Ngāi Tūhoe.

The deep connection to Te Urewera goes back to the creation story of Ngāi Tūhoe.

As the chief advisor to the director-general of DOC, Mervyn English has worked closely with Tūhoe for the past four years. He admits it’s not all been smooth sailing. Despite this, pest control and biodiversity work on the mountain has been maintained by Tūhoe. 

English says the biggest concern for Te Urewera is the relationship between Tūhoe and the Crown.

“You just don’t change 180 years in the seven years. Tūhoe has an intergenerational timeframe and DOC is adapting to that and it hasn’t been an easy adaption. I think that that will give good outcomes for both Tūhoe and Te Urewera.”

The work has forced those who have no spiritual connection to the land to dig deeper - it’s soul work, English says, something he has never had to do in his career. 

It has involved reckoning with the Crown’s history with Tūhoe and learning to use a Māori lens to view the whenua. It’s changed how the department operates, but is still a work in progress, he says. 

“After most settlements are done, it’s really only the beginning of the discovery of what the parties intended, or thought was going to happen. 

“All these expectations are built up and then you come to practise those on the ground and that becomes a different kind of situation, you have to work through the practicality of a whole lot of things.

DOC has to be very careful that it’s not looking at the forest through Eurocentric eyes. DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF DOC MERVYN ENGLISH

“So DOC, for example, will do a lot of single species work. We work with Kakapo and Takahe whereas Tūhoe will have a much more holistic approach to looking at the land.

“A few months ago I had one of the Tūhoe bush crew saying, ‘This is happening, we don’t know why, I wish we could talk to your scientists.’ And I said, ‘Well, we could organise that,’ but another Tūhoe person said, ‘All they will do is give us a Eurocentric view.’ So that’s a really good illustration of the ambiguity, where DOC has to find its way through.”

The nuts and bolts of the partnership involve DOC providing operational support and $2.2 million in annual funding for Te Urewera’s maintenance. 

“There’s a very fine balance here between supporting Tūhoe in any way that we can, but also giving them the space to find their own way,” he says. 

A few years back, the relationship nearly broke down, English says. They recovered, but issues of power-sharing and trust always hover in the background.

“Given the Crown’s past history with them they’re very sensitive to whether we’re trying to take over again or not. So it has actually worked better since the staff there have been predominantly Tūhoe people.”

Blue sky and wispy fog rolls over the top of a densely bush-covered hill. The top half of the hill is in full, bright sunlight; the bottom is in deep shade.

The Te Urewera Act preserves the natural features of Te Urewera and her ecology, biodiversity, and heritage.

The Te Urewera Act preserves the natural features of Te Urewera and her ecology, biodiversity, and heritage.

English says going into this partnership there was no blueprint for DOC to work off. He formed support networks outside DOC to help him understand Te Ao Māori

Despite setbacks, he believes the legislation is one of the most exciting laws that has been passed and he expects more iwi across the nation to follow suit, with the experiences of Tūhoe and the Crown helping shape future partnerships

“I think one of the very fundamental things is to always be humble about what you think you know. Because whether you’re Māori or Pākehā working in these situations, you cannot know everything and you never will.”

While government departments tend to be “transactional”, iwi are seeking a genuine, committed relationship, he says. 

“The words in a settlement and apologies have a great deal more meaning and emotion around them for iwi then they do for people from the Crown. So I can talk to Tūhoe and they will still talk about the words of the apology. They will still talk about the importance of the Crown, restoring its honor.” 

Otago Law Professor Jacinta Ruru, who specialises in Māori environmental law, says the Te Urewera law paved the way for other landmasses in Aotearoa New Zealand to be recognised as their own person - something the public should support.

“The sky is not gonna fall in if we recognise a Māori understanding of the place. Our ability as the general public to still go and visit Te Urewera has not changed, we can still do all that. We didn’t lose anything,” Ruru says.

We gained an enormous amount in that generosity of Tūhoe to share their worldview with us. OTAGO LAW PROFESSOR JACINTA RURU

“And for the Crown to be humble enough to enter into and accept this compromise is recognition that the Crown doesn't have all the answers on how to care for the place and by partnering with Māori we can gain so much more as a country. So I hope that all of us as New Zealanders now, when we go visit Tūhoe, we walk through that forest and around the lake, that we have a much more enhanced, richer experience than we had in the past.

“There will be conflict, and there’ll be different (opinions), for example, between the Western-trained scientists and the mātauranga trained scientists. There will be conflict around what is best for the place, but I think there are better mechanisms in place to be able to negotiate that respectfully.”

Finlayson says no one was under the illusion the settlement phase would be easy. 

“The New Jerusalem doesn’t come in five minutes. But the Crown, through its agencies, has to recognise that the landscape has changed, that Parliament wanted the landscape to change and they have to act in a way that gives effect to Parliament’s intentions.”

There is no going back. There will be no change in the status quo, so get on or get lost, really. FORMER NATIONAL PARTY MP CHRIS FINLAYSON
Close-up of a colourful wall panel with tukutuku patterns and the words "Tuhoe" painted in blue on a a sign.


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Head and shoulder portrait of Tineti with her tukutuku weaving panel behind her and the word "Tuhoe" abover her head. She wears a black and white mottled jumper, a light brown woollen headband and green pounamu stone drop earrings

Tineti Apiata says Tūhoe do not see themselves as owners of Te Urewera, they are her guardians.

Tineti Apiata says Tūhoe do not see themselves as owners of Te Urewera, they are her guardians.

Return to guardianship


Back at the Apiata residence, deep in the heart of Te Urewera, they are getting on with it. 

With the men in the bush, Tineti prepares wholesome kai for their return with her daughter Kimiora Apiata and mokopuna Manu Apiata, the 11-year-old daughter of their youngest son, Billy. 

Wearing a mid-brown coat and a cream coloured woollen headband, Kimiora Apiata stands in the bush holding her daughter in her arms. Tairi-a-wa wears a mustard-coloured sweatshirt with a hoodie, white leggings and stripy socks. Both look directly to camera.

Manuka’s daughter Kimiora Apiata is teaching her children about their responsibility as guardians of Te Urewera, including her youngest daughter Tairi-a-wai.

Manuka’s daughter Kimiora Apiata is teaching her children about their responsibility as guardians of Te Urewera, including her youngest daughter Tairi-a-wai.

Manu stands side on in the foreground facing right but looking towards the camera smiling. She wears a black and white finely patterned coat. Behind her in the background is the orange-coloured whare manaaki (house of hospitality) which sits in dappled light.

Manu Apiata, 11, the daughter of Billy Apiata, is proficient in the ancient art of rongoā Māori and knows the medicinal uses of various plants and trees within Te Urewera.

Manu Apiata, 11, the daughter of Billy Apiata, is proficient in the ancient art of rongoā Māori and knows the medicinal uses of various plants and trees within Te Urewera.

Tineti is preparing a treat of fry bread. As she kneads the dough she tells the story of her connection to Te Urewera.

“My grandmother raised me on this land and I was connected to the whenua straight away – that’s Tūhoetana (Tūhoe practices and beliefs), you can’t be Tūhoe without that connection,” she says. 

“Within her embrace, nothing outside existed. You were living here and in here was everything – Te Urewera, the river and the mountains. Everything. On the outside was the Pākehā realm. I never felt safe there, I never felt like I belonged. In here I am part of everything.

Tineti sits cross-legged in the wharemoe (sleeping quarters) with her tukutuku weaving panels behind her on the wall. A window behind her on the wall frames her head. On the four panels of glass are lead-light scenes of yellow kowhai and blue-green tui.
While we are the guardians that protect her (Te Urewera) from outside influences she fuels us both spiritually and provides for her people. TINETI APIATA

As she cuts the dough into pieces to deep fry in the large pot of boiling oil, the hooves of the horses carrying Tineti’s precious cargo – her whānau – can be heard in the distance. The smell of bacon bone boil-up with fat dough-boys permeates the air. 

The men tie up their horses, kick their boots off and allow their noses to lead them to the pots. Conversation turns to visitors of Te Urewera. Do they want them here? 

Billy laughs as he tears his eyes from the boil-up pot. 

“We do want them to visit this place, and walk through the ngahere and see the sights but I think they are scared of us. Like, I actually think they think we are gonna pop them off and chuck them in here,” he says, as he nods towards the pot.

The 2007 anti-terror raids and resulting media coverage gave the public a misconception of Tūhoe. 

“I’m not really into eating Pākehā, eh,” he laughs. 

“We want people to connect to our whenua but we just ask you to care for her too. If you see rubbish pick it up, if you can treat her with respect we want you to visit. Haere mai.” 

Close-up three-quarter portrait of Chino Apiata.

Chino Apiata credits his mother and father for instilling in him the skills he uses in the bush.

Chino Apiata credits his mother and father for instilling in him the skills he uses in the bush.

Manu is outside with one of her pups – the pair are learning to hunt. The child is versed in the medicinal properties of the native flora in the area. She knows what leaves to brew for an upset stomach and what leaves will relieve aches and pains. 

Manu has only known her connection to Te Urewera through her whānau without interference from outside influences. Although she carries the mamae of her ancestors, her connection has been a positive experience, particularly the time she gets to spend learning about it with her koro and nanny.  

She is the future of Tūhoe, and if she is anything to go by it will be a beautiful reset to a painful past. 

As the iwi grapples with internal struggles and the new era of its relationship with the Crown, the people of Tūhoe are set on flourishing through mana motuhake. It’s about undoing past traumas and redefining themselves. 

Resting in his sofa, Apiata returns to his comments from the morning about the problems he’s noticed in the ngahere. 

“There is an imbalance, but nature has a way of sorting itself out.”

A dark background with the head and torso of Manu in the foreground. She looks up and to the left as the light shines on her face and some green fern fronds hang over her shoulder to the top and right.
Detail of one of Tineti's colourful tukutuku wall panels with a hand-written sign, saying "Children of the Mist".
A dark background with the head and torso of Manu in the foreground. She looks up and to the left as the light shines on her face and some green fern fronds hang over her shoulder to the top and right.

WORDS Florence Kerr
VISUALS Lawrence Smith
DESIGN Kathryn George
EDITORS Patrick Crewdson and Carmen Parahi

Ngā mihi whakawhetai ki te whānau Apiata

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