Tāmati Kruger speaks to Rod Oram about Tūhoe’s response to Covid-19 in the Te Urewera mountains, and how the iwi is looking to a much stronger New Zealand society that’s aware of its obligations to be a far wiser caretaker of our natural resources
Ngāi Tūhoe is coming through the Covid-19 crisis with a much stronger sense of mana motuhake, says Tāmati Kruger, chair of the iwi who are guardians of the Te Urewera mountains and land to the north in the eastern Bay of Plenty.
“It is the capacity to be self-reliant, to provide care and support to each other. That proves the value and the worth of the iwi because essentially an iwi is a kinship organisation. Without hesitation I say to you, this crisis has been the best opportunity to exhibit the power of mana motuhake, the relevance of it.”
As the crisis loomed, “we had made a very early decision that we were not going to be recipients of somebody’s decisions and actions. Rather, we would contribute and be part of the team making decisions and taking responsibility. The reason was we’ve been through serious climate events, floods and earthquakes and we have not liked receiving somebody else’s decisions that have been wrong.”
The decision carried a big risk, though. “We were very aware we were chancing complete failure. Was the infrastructure in place? Was there the will to collaborate and cooperate? Would people volunteer time and take risks? You are talking about tribal people who for nearly two centuries have been relieved of the will and inclination to lead things out.”
The iwi’s leadership put the challenge to Tūhoe’s four tribal communities at Waikaremoana, Ruatāhuna, Ruatoki and Waimana Valley. “They’ve operated as collectives for around 70 to 80 years. They are the hub of the infrastructure, the way Tūhoe people operate on the ground. They are the face of Tūhoe,” Kruger says.
“They immediately said: ‘We must take responsibility. We must show strong leadership, we must demonstrate care for our communities and support the national effort to get rid of Covid-19’.”
Next, the iwi “sorted out roles, functions and duties, what capacity we had, and who needed induction and training,” Kruger says. It also quickly established its crisis response relationship with the civil defence, local councils, the police, ministries of health and social development and Te Arawhiti, the Office for Māori Crown Relations. “We argued we would be the best infrastructure to reach families and that was accepted.”
The communities, working with the iwi’s staff, some of whom had government permission to travel to them a couple of days a week, assessed needs and organised help for their residents. They focused particularly on the likes of the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with special health needs.
A particular worry for some people was being cut off from phone, wifi and electricity or having insufficient money for food and medical help. “We ascertained what was the capacity for support from within the family, from within the extended family, from the community, from the tribe, and only failing all of that would we reach out to the national network that was being developed,” Kruger says.
“One of the wonderful responses from our people was they included non-Tūhoe, non-Māori people within their communities as part of the community. They wanted to make sure everyone was safe and healthy.”
The iwi also extended help beyond the 5000 or so people living in its tribal area to Tūhoe living beyond. “We believe there are at least 40,000 Tūhoe people, with the biggest communities in Rotorua followed by Auckland and then Wellington.”
In the tribal communities, “the call for containing the virus was quickly understood by people,” Kruger says. Bubbles, though, were sometimes two or three nearby homes of an extended family. “That’s the powerfulness of kinship relationships. It’s the natural human need to be part of a collective, part of a family. It could easily be mistaken by other people as a disrespect for what our civic leaders are saying. But I don’t sense it was.”
Setting up roadside checkpoints, “in collaboration with and always taking advice from the police,” was one way to reinforce the messages about containment. “When we got that right, the road users were very, very civil and very, very understanding. We quickly got over that hump of some drivers getting a little bit aggravated by what they saw as unnecessary stoppages.”
Two of the social issues of concern for the iwi during the lockdown were domestic violence and funerals. “We had to prepare ourselves for the possibility of a spike in domestic upset and domestic violence. We had to think about how we would respond in an effective way,” Kruger says. On funerals, “I was very, very glad to find that Tūhoe people understood the measures for quick burials and the discipline around who may attend. With the funerals we’ve had, there was calm acceptance of those rules.”
Care of Te Urewera was another great responsibility for the iwi requiring some special responses during the lockdown. Under the iwi’s 2012 settlement with the Crown, the former National Park, which includes Lake Waikaremoana, was granted legal personhood and the iwi became its guardian. In 2017, Ngāi Tūhoe took over its management from the Department of Conservation.
While lockdown meant no visitors and no staff were allowed there, in common with DoC’s shutdown around the country, the iwi was mindful the lockdown coincided with the deer hunting season. Some 2000 hunters are usually in Te Urewera at that time. The iwi rejected calls from some hunters to allow them to gather food under Level 3. It put a big effort to get the message out to hunting permit holders to stay away until Level 2 was reached. When it was, the iwi reopened Te Urewera to all activities under physical distancing and hygiene requirements, and published a guide to them.
“In this crisis, we now know the value of water, the value of space. We now understand our love of walking along the beach, along the river and in the bush, and of listening to nature. We now understand one of the cruellest things that we can do to each other is to separate someone from those places that enriched the soul and the spirit. In isolation we feel the depth of our connection with nature.
“I hope many people understand that means being tangata whenua – a person from the land, a person of the land – because we get so much from it.
“We are already thinking of a post-Covid Te Urewera world; and we want to talk with others around a post-Covid New Zealand outlook. We think that we have some very doable projects that would bring gains for New Zealand as much as for Tūhoe people.”
The iwi is already an international leader under the demanding “living building” standard for its Te Kura Whare tribal headquarters in Tāneatua; and for Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana, its visitors centre at the lake.
“We are so eager to engage in these conversations, to contribute to the rebuilding of a very, very much stronger New Zealand society, a society that is now acutely aware of its relationship with nature and its obligations to be a far wiser caretaker of our natural resources.
“This will help in our quest for identity, for our culture, for our principles, for our values.”