You know you’re there when you catch a glimpse of the red roof of the church against the aqua blue of the sea.

State Highway 35 snakes along ridges and down through gullies and you have to have your wits about you, even more so now with great chunks of the East Coast road missing. After Tolaga Bay you pass through Mangatuna and catch the first glimpse of Mt Hikurangi, the peak of Ngāti Pōrou and the legendary resting place – so Pōrou has it – of Maui’s waka. It was also the peak Ngāti Pōrou’s rangatira Te Kani Takirau referenced when he declined the offer of the Māori kingship. “My kingship comes from my long line of ancestors. My mountain Hikurangi is not one that moves, but one that remains steadfast.” He needed no other title.  

Then you start to descend SH35 again and the red roof and the blue sea come into view with Marotiri peak rising on the left. The glimpse is momentary. But this time the turquoise sea has a beige fringe along the coast. Something is not right.

The town is quiet. I park at the bottom of the small hill where Tuatini marae is perched and walk up a slight rise and through the gate to the urupa that fans out around the church. My great-grandparents, Cyrus and Wikitoria Tawhara, are buried almost directly in front. The headstones are nothing flash. Some dried lawn clippings obscure the old boy’s name, so I wipe it down. 1958 he passed, two years after losing his wife. There must have been close to 100 grandchildren. Their descendants would now number in the thousands. Only a couple are still here.

A couple of kids play near the wharenui, rolling down the hill and laughing. Over the rise a kuia is waiting for something. Then a line of cars from the other end of the bay files down the main road, across the bridge. Looks like a tangi. The kuia lets out a long mournful wail, calling them on as they bring the tupapaku home. If whānau come home permanently now it’s usually in a coffin.

Between when my koro was laid behind the church with our nanny and the latest arrival in the urupa, the small town of Tokomaru Bay has suffered a slow death. The whenua that they are laid to rest in has sustained generations but the soft grey-brown soil also makes the whole region prone to erosion.

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But the bay, and Te Tairāwhiti in general, hasn’t just been dying. It is being killed – economically, ecologically and the communities themselves. The decline has its roots in a series of decisions, big and small, some internal but most imposed by someone somewhere else, that go back to the 19th Century. Cyclone Gabrielle was yet one more event that will generate more decisions, some of which are already imposing more pain and ongoing trauma.

The ferocity of Cyclone Gabrielle and Cyclone Hale a few weeks before would have been damaging regardless of geography and history. But Tokomaru Bay’s history and geography, and that of the whole of Tairāwhiti, has compounded weather events. Human decisions have amplified nature’s destructive power and the land’s vulnerability. Those decisions, some of which are not only in the past but are now working through different channels, have the potential to further damage an already distressed environment and communities that have lived here for hundreds of years. Some of those policies will still be playing out for the next hundred years at least.

It wasn’t always this way.

I head up Mangahauini Valley in behind the bay, along SH35 towards Ruatorea and the rest of Tairawhiti. But again, something is not right. There are cattle yards that mark where my grandmother and her siblings grew up across the Mangahauini river. The road is freshly-laid metal but is it a new road? Because the tarseal version is down in the river, broken up and buried in silt and dead pine trees. The whole damn thing. I’m confused. Has the river taken over the road or did the road somehow shift?

A little further along on the other side of the river is a massive gouge running down towards the river, taking grey soil, fully-grown pine trees and everything in its path.

It looked worse a few weeks earlier when a whole tangle of fully-grown pines blocked up the river and threatened to unleash another deluge on the town after Gabrielle’s fury. It blocked in the town from the northern end while a bridge to the south was blown out by water and forestry debris, isolating it completely for over a month.

The remnants of State Highway 35 just north of Tokomaru Bay. Photo: Aaron Smale

A few hundred metres back down the valley Jack Chambers is parked in his lounge. His front lawn is sodden.

We’re tied by my Aunty Winnie, the firstborn and only child of his uncle and my grandmother Kumeroa. She went on to have 10 more, including my father.

Chambers grew up when Tokomaru Bay, and the East Coast, was still thriving.

“When I grew up, there was something like 3000 people living in Tokomaru Bay because of the freezing works. The freezing works for a start employed something like 400 people. And then the wharf employed a number of people and it had a huge storeroom where they kept all the wool bales or any of the goods that are coming off the boats that would be distributed to the coast. So there was a lot of employment at that time.”

While there was plenty of employment, the range of jobs were narrow. From the start, the Crown had definite ideas about where it saw Māori capital and labour fitting into the national economic equation. It wanted Māori capital in the form of land for British settlers and Māori labour was always regarded as sitting at the bottom of the economy or, more often, not wanted at all.

These assumptions completely reshaped Māori society in the 19th Century with the consequences still playing out. The Land Wars flared up in Taranaki when one rangatira, Te Rangitake, wouldn’t recognise an individual sale to the Crown. That kicked off a resistance that spread throughout the country and culminated in Crown troops invading Taranaki and then Waikato. Sections of Ngāti Pōrou and other iwi rallied in support and sent groups of warriors to support Tainui. Among them was my tipuna Te Warihi Huriwai who was killed at the battle at Te Ranga near Tauranga.

The Paimarie religious/political movement found adherents on the East Coast which led to the Crown threatening Ngāti Pōrou with confiscation through the East Coast Land Titles Investigation Act 1866.

Government minister Donald McLean fuelled tensions within the iwi about the relationship with the Crown and provided arms to those who were leaning towards the Crown, which turned whānau against each other in armed conflict. The rift has never been entirely forgotten, which Sir Āpirana Ngata noted when farewelling C Company of the Māori Battalion in Gisborne in 1940: “Descendants of both factions are represented in the contingent leaving this morning and I do not know to whom the most honour is due, whether to those whose ancestors supported the Queen or to those who opposed her.” Those formally engaged with the Crown today on behalf of the iwi are still eyed with scepticism in some quarters.

Tokomaru Bay kaumātua Jack Chambers. Photo: Aaron Smale

The Crown’s solution to the resistance to land-selling was the imposition of the Native Land Court. Although Ngāti Pōrou retained significant tracts of its land thanks to the efforts of Sir Apirana Ngata and others, what was held onto was marginal and fragmented by individual titles, which made it difficult to raise capital, and develop. Significant blocks were also tied up in perpetual leases, including a stretch of the main drag along Tokomaru Bay which is locked up in a 999-year lease.

Some of the best land ended up in the hands of Pākehā farmers, who set about clearing it of native forest in order to establish the only land-use they knew, which was pastoral farming. This may have worked on the gently rolling plains of Waikato and Taranaki, but on the steep, soft hills of Tairāwhiti it quickly turned into a disaster as erosion became catastrophic.

The native schools that were established around the same time as the Native Land Court not only stripped the Māori language from children, but also implemented a policy of preparing them for low-skilled manual labour, particularly in agriculture. This policy didn’t end until the late 1960s and funnelled Māori into employment like shearing and freezing works.

This wasn’t regarded as a problem in the early 20th Century. The Māori population was still recovering from epidemics – Māori rates of mortality during the influenza epidemic were eight times that of Pākehā – and there were plenty of sheep.

But the tide eventually went out on sheep and from the 1930s onwards the Māori population surged to a point where there were limited options in their own territories.

Ngāti Pōrou are impossible to understand without the colossal leadership of Sir Āpirana Ngata. While certainly gifted, he was fortunate to be given a chance to exercise those gifts. Sent to Te Aute College, he and other students were encouraged by the principal John Thornton to attend university and Ngata became the first Māori university graduate. But this trend caused some disquiet in government circles and Thornton was pressured by the government through the Anglican church to desist sending Māori to higher education. He refused and eventually lost his job.

Among other achievements, Ngata worked his whole life to create an economy that could sustain people on their whēnua in the face of shifting government polices on Māori land and the struggle to raise capital for development. He’d also worked tirelessly with leaders like Sir Peter Buck, Maui Pomare and Te Puea to improve Māori health, thereby halting the population decline. The latter project was spectacularly successful. The former project would have mixed results. The rapid population increase outstripped the ability of the economy that Māori had been confined to by government policy to provide enough long-term employment.

Just as the Māori population was recovering, many of the younger generation would leave the shores of Aotearoa to fight for a Crown that still regarded them as second-class citizens. Two of my grandmother’s brothers, Uncle Syd and Pat, were among them. Fortunately they returned, but it still cost them.

Members of the kapa haka group Te Hokowhitu a Tū prepare for a dress rehearsal in 2013. The group started in Tokomaru Bay in the 1930s to support Sir Āpirana Ngata’s recruitment of men for C Company of the 28th Māori Battalion. File photo: Aaron Smale

Sir Āpirana Ngata’s logic in recruiting a Māori Battalion made of tribal units was to prove to Pākehā New Zealand that they were worthy of equal citizenship. They were also following the example of a generation earlier that had filled the ranks of the Pioneer Māori Battalion in WWI which served on the Western Front. Ngāti Pōrou paid a heavy price for that conflict too, and the beautifully carved church in Tikitiki, where my great grandfather grew up, is a memorial to that sacrifice.

C Company, which was made up of Ngāti Pōrou, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, and other East Coast iwi suffered heavy casualties. This at a time when the Māori population was only just making a recovery. It’s arguable whether the Crown held up their end of the bargain.

Ngata’s recruitment blitz on the East Coast was supported by a wāhine from Tokomaru Bay, Tuini Ngāwai, and her protege Ngoi Pēwhairangi. They formed the kapa haka group Te Hokowhitu a Tū to help raise funds for the battalion, and the group is the oldest continuous kapa haka group to this day. Pēwhairangi went on to compose two breakthrough Māori compositions, E Ipo (sung by Prince Tui Teka) and Poi E, which was taken to the top of the charts by Dalvanius and the Pātea Māori Club. Pēwhairangi also developed the Māori language learning method Ātārangi. She was also influential with figures as diverse as historian Michael King and politician Parekura Horomia. 

Te Hokowhitu’s waiata weave together Ngāti Pōrou’s history from Paikea’s landing to the shearing sheds of the East Coast and the exploits of C Company.

A whole generation of young Māori men joined the Maori Battalion

The young men of C Company came back changed and to a world that had changed. Many left as callow youth with a streak of mischief and came back hardened men who carried the trauma of not just losing mates, but cousins and uncles and brothers.

Ngata recognised, perhaps too late, that the men who returned could not be sustained on the land-holdings that were left. He told them when they reassembled in Gisborne that “the gate is open” implying there weren’t enough farms to absorb their labour and that the grass might be greener somewhere else. His tireless efforts to keep his people on their land started to unravel in the decade he died.

But before they scattered they were taken back to the marae strung along the Coast. Many hadn’t had time to grieve their losses and broke down when they saw photos of their cousins and uncles and brothers lined up in front of whānau who wouldn’t see their loved ones have children and grow old. The trauma and grief echoed down generations as the ghosts of war were often stifled with alcohol and unleashed in violence.

The pressure of large families and limited employment would also fray families and disperse them as opportunities beckoned elsewhere.

Jack Chambers’ father and uncle were in the 28th and he remembers a key turning point was the closing of the freezing works that had provided work for decades.

“The works suddenly closed in 1952, and that’s when the proverbial hit the fan in Toko. That began the urban drift from here, because there’s no other work around. There was a huge empty out of Tokomaru Bay of people living here. That made a big impact when the urban drift came along and it wasn’t too long before there was only about 500 people here. And today I’d say there’s only about less than 200 grownups in Toko. The only jobs around here is the forestry.”

Chambers says forestry started to take over and the sheep industry declined.

“From the early 1970s to the 80s, forestry was introduced to our area. They grabbed farms and, to me, they sucked in our young people.

“They were told they could be forest rangers and all the good jobs in the forest. But that never eventuated. Pines are harvested when they’re 25 years upwards. So these poor young fullas were just planting, planting and planting and there was no future in that. Once they got sick of that, they left. But it was too late. The forestry had got what they wanted. They wanted pine trees on our land.”

NEXT: Decades of damage: Ocean bears brunt of Tairāwhiti erosion

*Made with the help of the Public Interest Journalism Fund*

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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