Rua Tapunui Kenana (1869–1937) was a Māori prophet, faith healer and land rights activist.
Rua Tapunui Kenana (1869–1937) Māori prophet, faith healer and land rights activist. Early in the 20th century, Rua Kenana founded a religious community at the foot of Maungapohatu, a mountain sacred to Tuhoe in the heart of the Urewera region. By 1907 around 600 followers were living there with him. The building shown here was the focal point of that community. Called Hiona (Which means ZION), it was the community's meeting house and courthouse. It was built in 1908, it was circular, 13.5 metres in diameter and nine metres high. The decorative patterns of blue clubs and yellow diamonds were inspired by playing cards. The circular temple was demolished and replaced by a more conventional meeting house in about 1914. While Rua's ideas were worthy – the community operated on a cooperative basis and was based on non-violent principles – Maungapohatu was too remote, and bitter winters, bad housing, and a poor diet meant that by 1913 the community had reduced from more than 500 people to about 30 families. New Zealand government officials considered Rua to be a troublemaker, especially when, as a pacifist, he objected to Tuhoe participating in World War One. Acting on the excuse that alcohol was being sold illegally at Maungapohatu, Rua was summoned to appear in court. He refused because it was harvesting season, “I will come later” Rua said. Angered by his response, the police mounted an armed expedition, arriving at Maungapohatu on 2 April 1916. Rua was there to meet them, standing unarmed on his marae, when a shot was fired. Two Māori were killed, including Rua's son Toko, and while the police claimed the first shot came from Rua's camp, modern analysis of events on the day makes this seem unlikely. Rua was charged with treason and while he was found not guilty by the jury, Judge Frederick Chapman did find him guilty of resisting arrest and sentenced him to one year of hard labour, followed by further 18 months imprisonment. Eight of the jury members protested at the harshness of his sentence and successfully petitioned to have it reduced. Rua was released in April 1918 and returned to Maungapohatu. The community was in decline, however, and by the early 1930s, most people had left to find work elsewhere. Rua moved on to Matahi in eastern Bay of Plenty, and lived there until his death in 1937. Rua Kenana Hepetipa was of many Maori prophetic leaders who arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He called himself Te Mihaia Hou, the New Messiah, and, like the others, owed his power to the great skill with which he applied the scriptures to the day to day events in the lives of those who believed in him.
These early visions of Rua contained little appeal to European understanding, but his messianic dreams for his people incorporated other pragmatic and comprehensible schemes. By 1908 he had built for himself and his followers a new community at Maungapohatu, in the heart of the isolated Urewera bush country. (Some battles were fought between Maori and European in the Ureweras between 1869 and 1872, after the outlawed Te Turuki sought refuge with the Tuhoe. Their principal grievance was the recent loss of their low-lying lands across the mouth of the Waimana and Ruatoki valleys, which were taken in 1866 in the Bay of Plenty confiscations following the Land Wars in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions. The few European visitors who undertook the arduous inland journey to the settlement praised the enthusiasm of the faithful, whom Rua was directing towards the creation of a modernised and equitable life on ancestral Tuhoe lands.
These more recognizable goals made Rua into a person of note in the Whakatane district. Indeed he became a very familiar figure as he rode down from the mountains on his customary white horse with his disciples on large-scale shopping expeditions to the general stores at Waimana, Gisborne and Opotiki. Today he is not remembered with fear. Yet fear lay close beneath the surface of contemporary European commentaries and European children were hurried home from school when Rua rode by. Though a pacifist, he was a separatist leader of the last section of the Maori people who emerged from relative isolation into contact with European settlement- the Tuhoe of the Urewera country.
Rua was born in 1869 at Maungapohatu in the Urewera Country New Zealand. He was the posthumous son of Kenana Tumoana, who was killed at Makaretu in November 1868 while fighting for Te Kooti, and of Ngahiwi Te Rihi. Rua was a member of the Tamakaimoana hapu of the Tūhoe tribe and, although not a chief in his own right, was of high birth and could trace his descent from Potiki and Toroa of the Mataatua canoe.
In 1887 Rua left Maungapohatu to learn farming. He worked on sheep stations in the Gisborne and Bay of Plenty districts and was a member of a shearing gang on the East Coast. During this period he studied the Bible. In 1905 he returned to Maungapohatu where he set himself up as a prophet of the New Testament type. Here he formed his new self sufficient community at Maungapohatu which he called the “New Jerusalem with its eventual population of between 800-1000 followers.
Te Kooti Arikirangi the founder of the Ringatu religion had predicted before he died that he would have successor. Rua's statement that he was the successor to Te Kooti was first announced through an experience that he underwent on Maungapohatu, the sacred mountain of Tuhoe. The oral narratives tell how Rua and his first wife, Pinepine Te Rika, were directed to climb the mountain by a supernatural apparition, later revealed to be the archangel Gabriel. There they were shown a hidden diamond, the guardian-stone of the land, whose bright light was shielded by Te Kooti's shawl. Rua, in his turn, covered it again to protect it. In some versions of the narrative Rua met both Whaitiri, the ancestress of Tuhoe, and Christ on the mountain. Rua would soon claim to be the Maori brother of Christ.
The first of three periods of settlement at Maungapohatu, Rua arrived at this isolated outpost as the winter set in. Those who were there can still remember the harshness of that first year: the potato crop failed and there were no pigs to be had. Tatu, one of the Riwaiti, had to go back to Te Whaiti to collect 6 sows to start their own breeding colony. At least fifty people died that winter: most of them children, from the inadequacy of the houses, an outbreak of typhoid which came from the valley camps, and a measles epidemic which devastated the community. Sometimes there was nothing to eat but huhu, and the coarse toi leaves, normally used only for clothing. But from this inauspicious beginning, the community struggled on to a first summer of great plenty. Two groups had come together to build ‘te pa tapu o te atua’, the sacred pā of the Lord.: the Tuhoe, about half the entire tribe, and the Whakatohea, who through confiscation were almost landless. To signify the union between these two Mataatua tribes, Rua constructed the house of the Lord, Hiruharama Hou, built with two gables. One side was for Tuhoe and the other for Whakatohea.
Rua claimed to be the new Christ – the son of Jehovah –and said that no one who joined him would die. He called himself Te Mihaia Hou, the New Messiah. Rua owed his power to the great skill with which he applied the scriptures to the day today events in the lives of those who believed in him. His prophetic sayings (hga kupu whakari) gave meaning to a harsh existence, and offered hope to the future. He attempted to create a new system of land ownership and land usage. He organised a strong communal basis in all the settlements he founded, but also emphasized the concept of family ownwership of property. He cast aside all traditional Māori tapu practices, but replaced them with new forms specifically associated with the faith in himself as the Promised Messiah. His followers vested their lands in Rua and he had these surveyed and sold back to them. The settlement was administered by the prophet's own parliament. He also formed a Māori mining company to exploit the mineral resources of the Urewera.
At the prophet's command 5 miles of forest were cleared and a prosperous farming community grew up under his leadership. Rua acted as his people's banker and took tithes of all they earned; but in return he gave them a prosperity they had never before known.
Rua built a curious two-storied circular temple of worship at Maungapohatu, this was called the Hiona (Zion) and also became his parliament from where the community affairs were administered. This circular meeting house, built in 1908, was decorated with a design of blue clubs and yellow diamonds, and stood within the inner sanctum of the pa. This was Rua's “Council Chamber and Court House” – also known as “Rua's Temple”. Rua thought it was modeled on the Jerusalem Temple (even though his chamber was not to be a place of worship), but the actual model was the present day Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a Muslim holy site and one of the most sacred of Islamic shrines. Hiona” was the most remarkable Maori building ever built. Its unique cylinder shape would make it one of a kind He grew his hair long and affected a bushy beard in the patriarchal tradition fashioned on the Jewish Nazirite. As his reading of the Bible appeared to prescribe seven wives, Rua kept to this number and immediately replaced any who died or ran away. In all he had 12 wives and over 70 children.
From the King-ite tradition he inherited the idea that Maori possessed a separate nationality, and this, together with the success of his community, aroused the jealousy of local chiefs and incurred the Government's enmity. Through his personal vision his messianic religion promised the return of Māori lands and mana to Māori, and the end of their subjection to pākehā rule. He wanted to remove the Tuhoe people totally from European influence and induced many to sell all their stock and farming interests.
By 1908 Rua's struggle for power had brought the Tuhoe to the brink of civil war and the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward intervened to curb the prophet's influence. The Government had organised a meeting in March 1908 at Ruatoki of all the Tuhoe tribes in an attempt to sort out the political differences between the two main Tuhoe factions, that of Rua Kenana and Numai Kereru, chief of the Ngatirongo and the main opponent among the Tuhoe of Rua's Christian-Judaic religious movement. Because conflict was expected the New Zealand Prime Minister had decided to informally visit both parties before the conference. At a dramatic encounter with Sir Joseph Ward right on the Whakatane beach front on 23 March 1908, Rua and Joseph Ward exchanged words. Rua flanked by some of his wives and supporters while seated on a chair that had been borrowed from the pub, acknowledged Joseph Ward approaching. Ward addressed both parties publicly asking them to assist to help reconcile the differences in the forthcoming meeting at Ruatoki. To Rua's followers Ward said that he could not accept all that Rua had asked for. In particular, his request for his supporters to be placed on the European electoral role (presumably because they were outnumbered in the Eastern Māori electorate) was unacceptable, for Maori have “special representation of their own”. At to Rua's request to have a special Māori government, he said, “I told Rua...that in New Zealand King Edward is king, and is represented here by his government or king....there can’t be two suns shining in the sky at the same time.” Rua replied to Ward, "Yes, there is only one sun in the heavens, but it shines on one side- the pakeha side- and it darkens on the other.”
Rua had become a political embarrassment and there arose the need by the Government to make an example of this man widely seen as an agitator, hoping a crackdown would discourage other Māori activists. The mainstream Anglican church encouraged the Government to suppress Rua Kenana. In 1907, the church passed a motion that supported "the recent action of the Government in the direction of the suppression of tohungism (traditional Māori healing), and trusts that it may be possible for the Church to make more aggressive action among the tribes which are specifically affected by this evil". Authorities saw Rua Kenana as a disruptive influence and targeted him with the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, which banned traditional Māori healers from using herbs and other healing methods which were part of their traditional medicine. The Tohunga Suppression Act was designed to neutralise powerful traditional Māori leaders and tailor-made as a political weapon specifically against Rua Kenana and his movement of dessenting Maori.
As a result of a number of trumped up charges in 1910 Rua was fined for sly grogging and, in 1915, served a short gaol sentence for a similar offence. Rather ironic given that he was not an avid drinker and neither did he smoke. On his release he resumed his alleged sly grogging.
Rua insisted that his people boycott military service pertaining it was immoral to fight for a pakeha King and Country given the injustice meted out on Maori under the British crown. Rua said, I have 1400 men here and I am not going to let any of them enlist or go to war. You have no king now. The King of England he is no good. He is beat. The Germans will win. Any money I have I will give to the Germans. The English are no good. They have two laws. One for the Maori and one for the Pakeha. When the Germans win I am going to be king here. I will be king of the Maori and of the Pakeha. This was taken by the establishment as sedition and finally gave the Government and Rua's detractors the incentive to intervene against Kenana and the Maungapohatu community, which they did in a violent manner.
On 2 April 1916 a large, (70 officers) heavily armed police party arrived at Maungapohatu to arrest him for sedition. Because Rua's village was so remote, the police had to take a lot of equipment and camp on the way. They moved like a small army with wagons and pack- horses. So as not to alert the Maungapohatu village of their intention to spring an attack they did not wear their police uniforms till just before the raid. They were convinced that when they reached Maungapohatu there would be an ambush. In fact there was no violent resistance from Rua. There are conflicting versions of what took place. Rua refused to submit to arrest, and his supporters fought a brisk half-hour gun battle with the police. In this exchange his son and a Maori bodyguard were killed and two Maori were wounded. Four constables were also wounded. After a battle ensued for half an hour Rua was arrested and transported to Rotorua, his hair and beard removed. From Rotorua, with 6 other Maori prisoners including Whatu, Rua was transferred to Auckland and sent directly to Mount Eden prison. Rua was held, at first, on a nine months sentence, imposed for the 1915 charges and now increased by his default of fines. After a trial on sedition which lasted 47 days, New Zealands longest till 1977, he was found not guilty of sedition but conveniently sentenced to one year's imprisonment for resisting the police.
When he returned to the Urewera, Rua found his mana unimpaired. The settlement at Maungapohatu, however, was broken, divided and the lands overgrown and much of the community having relocated. The Presbyterian Mission under Rev. John Laughton had moved into Maungapohatu and was teaching Presbyterian Christianity and pākehā value systems. This shocked Rua, as he had banned pākehā schools from the original community. The costs of defence at the various trials had ruined the community financially as it had to sell stock and land to meet the debt. The community was even ordered to pay the costs of the entire police operations and raid at Maungapohatu. Even though the supreme court had found Rua's arrest illegal and a legal petition had been drafted to Parliament on May 1, 1917 on behalf of the Maungapohatu people calling for a full public inquiry into the events of 2 April 1916, and the behaviour of the police there and later intimidating witnesses, no compensation was ever offered to Maungapohatu.
Eventually Rua moved downstream to Matahi, a community he had founded on the Waimana River in the eastern Bay of Plenty in 1910, where he lived until his death on 20 February 1937. He was survived by five wives, nine sons, and 13 daughters. Belief in his divinity did not long survive him, however, because he failed to fulfill his promise to rise from the dead. Little now remains to show the glories of Maungapohatu, and his church (Te Wairua Tapu) boasts few followers. The Urewera Country is peaceful, a startling contrast to what it was in the stirring days of the Prophet Rua.