Operation 8: The Probability Space – Part 3

Ngai Tuhoe and their Firearms

Read the complete analysis of alleged Maori terrorism in the Urewera

Now I don’t speak for Ngai Tuhoe. They speak for themselves. In this commentary I’m speaking about them.


Part of the disconnect between what was actually happening in the Urewera in 2006 and 2007 and what the Police thought was happening was caused by a huge void in perceptions and understandings between city and country, between Maori and Pakeha, and especially between Ngai Tuhoe and the Police. As I have also frequently pointed out a large part of the disconnect was caused by the incompetence and unprofessionalism of the Police Intelligence process, including a failure to bring to that process expert Maori knowledge.

Indeed the Police involved in Operation 8, from the Commissioner downwards, deliberately excluded their senior Maori officers, the iwi liaison officers, and local cops.

It was especially important that the Intelligence analysis process should have proceeded through a thorough understanding of Ngai Tuhoe and their firearms.

City vs Country

For the most part the Police officers involved in Operation 8 were city based and in the analysis process they mostly did not involve country cops including those who best knew Ngai Tuhoe and Taame Iti. That was obvious from the evidence they presented.

I grew up in the country myself an hour or two south of the Urewera. Firearms were part of our everyday experience. Even as children we went hunting with the men, and as teenagers we went hunting on our own. Deer stalking, pig hunting, duck shooting, rabbit and possum shooting – we did it all. Almost every home out in the countryside in those days had at least one double barrelled shotgun, a .22 rifle and a war surplus .303 rifle. My cousin who as a teenager was a cut above the rest of us had .223 (5.56mm) and .308 (7.62mm) hunting rifles.

None of the firearms or their users were registered. And no-one was at all concerned when we wandered down the road or even into the shop with a rifle slung over the shoulder. Firearms were just part of life; tools just like the knives we all carried all of the time but are now illegal. I can’t remember any crime involving firearms or knives in our district.

Nowadays firearms are viewed only as weapons and are strictly regulated and controlled. It is illegal to wander around with one. It’s a city perspective.

But out in the country they are still tools rather than weapons. Country people still hunt, shoot and fish. Back in my hapu they still get out the shotguns and turn out for opening day of the duck shooting season on May 1st. Farmers still shoot rabbits, hares and possums and use their rifles to put down injured or fatally sick animals.

Now that is all controlled by licencing of firearms users. But I would think that out in the country there are shotguns and rifles that are still not legally owned. I would think that out in the Urewera there would be quite a few. My late brother lived, worked and hunted on the Lake Waikaremoana side of the Urewera and as far as I’m aware everyone over there was licenced but there are some stray firearms around. Nobody is bothered about it.

We country folk are just not freaked or spooked by firearms. City based cops are.

The Ngai Tuhoe Firing Party

At funerals for serving or former servicemen and women we farewell them with rifle volleys fired by a uniformed and well-drilled firing party. It is said to have originated in Europe when fighting stopped to allow the burial of the dead, then started again after the burial. The signal to go back to battle was the firing of three rifle volleys. Nowadays it’s just part of the ritual of the military funeral, and in some places the police funeral. A farewell befitting a warrior.

As far as I know Ngai Tuhoe is the only other group that fires the ritual farewell volley.

The first time you witness the Tuhoe volley it can be quite disconcerting if you are not expecting it. A group of shotgun and rifle toting men will just form up and fire off a ragged but impressive volley of shots, quite unlike the precision of the military firing party, but for exactly the same reason – a farewell to a fallen warrior.

And therein lies the key to understanding the relationship Ngai Tuhoe have with their firearms, a relationship that none of the rest of us have.

We must first understand that the Maori of bygone times, before becoming acquainted with European logic and reason and speech, spoke and acted symbolically and metaphorically. It was a form of communication based as much in movement and gesture as in speech, and in verbal imagery rather than direct speech. Although speech could be direct when appropriate. That’s pretty much the same as the rest of the old world before the Enlightenment.

That’s Ngai Tuhoe. Of all of us they remain the most symbolic and metaphorically inclined. The whole of their historic claim is couched in symbolic and metaphoric terms. That’s how they continue to think.

We all know that Ngai Tuhoe have always considered themselves a people apart, a people dispossessed, a people intent upon regaining their lands and having their mana recognised, and a people still engaged in active resistance to the Crown. A people still symbolically and metaphorically at war. A fallen Ngai Tuhoe is therefore, symbolically and metaphorically, a fallen warrior.

The Tuhoe volley is also an assertion of mana. Part of the rhetoric of the Ngai Tuhoe claim against the Crown has long focused on Te Mana Motuhake O Tuhoe, and the recognition of that mana by the Crown. In his TEDx 2015 Talk, reviewed here, Taame Iti talked at length about mana. New Zealand’s armed forces farewell their dead with the volley and so does Ngai Tuhoe. That is a statement of Tuhoe mana, an expression of mana equal to that of the Crown and its armed forces and fallen warriors. It is a statement that Ngai Tuhoe makes to itself and to the rest of us.

None of this amounts to actual warfare or revolution. But it is a quiet revolution and a symbolic continuation of its war with the Crown.

Here is how Taame Iti described the custom to the court during his flag shooting trial in 2006:

“Iti said in evidence yesterday that firing the gun was in accordance with Tuhoe custom and conveyed the tribe’s strong feelings about Crown confiscation of its land in the 1860s.

“Iti told the court that the Maori Battalion veteran, Moai Tihi, was one of the “high priests” who groomed him in the custom, saying that it had been around since Tuhoe was introduced to guns.

“Iti said under the tutelage of Mr Tihi and others, he had become well known for firing guns in displays of the custom and had done so at the tangi of Sir John Turei, which was attended by Prime Minister Helen Clark and Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright.

“The wearing of firearms on a marae [is] to invoke and to stir the emotions of people, of the home people,” he told the court. Iti said safety was always observed in such rituals … “

Sir John Turei’s Tangihanga 2003

Sir John Joseph Te Ahikaiata Turei died in January 2003. He was a veteran of the Maori Battalion and in later life became an advisor to Government agencies including NZ Police. As Taame stated above Prime Minister Helen Clark and Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright attended his tangihanga. Taame fired the traditional volley.

The incident was reported two years later but not the whole story.

What is not known is that Helen Clark was seriously challenged by Taame Iti before they were allowed to go onto the marae.

Helen Clark arrived at the marae accompanied by her two bodyguards from the Police diplomatic protection squad. Carrying his shotgun Taame moved out to them and noticed the bulges under the bodyguards’ jackets, indicating that they were armed. He went back onto the marae and spoke to the local police and to the Police iwi liaison officers, telling them that the bodyguards had to leave their weapons behind or Helen Clark had to leave her bodyguards behind. He said that he was the only one who was entitled to bear arms on the marae, not them.

It was of course a gross breach of kawa to try to take firearms onto the marae. And in tikanga terms an invitation to battle. The outcome was that Ngai Tuhoe asserted its mana and the bodyguards were left behind.

In 1998 Helen Clark, then leader of the opposition, was humbled and reduced to tears at Waitangi when Titewhai Harawira prevented her from speaking on the marae. In 2003 she was humbled again, this time as Prime Minister and by Taame Iti. One wonders whether both she and Commissioner Broad might have had this incident in the back of their minds subliminally influencing them when they decided to launch the paramilitary operation against Taame Iti and against Ruatoki on 15th October 2007.

She did clearly overreact in 2004 when she legislated to extinguish any Maori claim to the seabed and foreshore before any claim had actually been tested in the courts. That resulted in the formation of the Maori Party and in the eventual loss of parliamentary seats. It also resulted in much Maori antagonism and distrust towards Helen Clark and towards the Labour Party; the rending of a decades long compact between Maori and the Labour Party.

Helen Clark also made it clear to Ngai Tuhoe negotiators in the period before 2007 that she would not be going any way towards meeting their claim for the return of the Urewera. They were probably not amused.

Shooting the Flag 2005

Taame Iti staged a huge re-enactment to welcome the Waitangi Tribunal to Ngai Tuhoe on 16th January 2005. A minor part of the whole thing was when Taame used a shotgun to shoot a flag on the marae. It was reported that he had shot the NZ flag and that upset many people. However he said that he had just shot the Union Jack in the corner of the flag. I can vouch for that as I was earlier asked if I could find a Union Jack. I couldn’t. The whole thing was widely reported in the media.

After agitation in Parliament Taame was eventually arrested and charged on 3rd February 2005. MP Stephen Franks took most of the credit for the agitation. Minister of Police George Hawkins seemed out of his depth and it is not known if it was actually Helen Clark who instigated the arrest. Nothing ever happened without her knowledge and agreement so she was probably involved.

The local Police commander claimed to have been solely involved in deciding to press charges.

He went to trial in June 2006 and was convicted and fined. He appealed and the conviction was overturned on 4th April 2007.

Operation 8 was launched, so the Police said, in December 2005. However, based on the evidence tabled by the Police, it didn’t really focus on Taame Iti until June 2006, about the same time that he went to trial for shooting the flag. It may have been coincidence.

The Intelligence operation and this court action were running in parallel but the court case does not seem to have been considered in the investigation, or mentioned in evidence.

Te Hue Rangi’s Tangihanga 2007

Te Hue Rangi died early in 2007. He was a leader, kaumatua and learned man of Ngai Tuhoe. He also went to school with Taame Iti. He was one of the leaders of the wananga that the Police discovered in the Urewera in 2006 and 2007 although he was not involved in the bit with the firearms.

In January 2005 after the fiery Tuhoe welcome to the Waitangi Tribunal he was quoted in the Rotorua Daily Post:

“Tuhoe claimant Te Hue Rangi said the aggressiveness was not an act of violence towards tribunal members but a display of anger about grievances of the past.

“It’s pent-up anger that has been there for more than 100 years,” he said. “This was an enactment not an act of violence.

“We wanted the Crown and the tribunal to actually see the results of what has happened. I believe the stories that have been passed down for generations are true and many Tuhoe want [tribunal members] to feel just how our ancestors felt when our lands were taken.

“The written history by historians today does not reflect the truth of what happened during the land wars.”

“Once the land was taken the area was operated on “the scorched earth policy” that denied Maori their connection with the land and basic tools for survival, said Mr Rangi.

“The result of the policy was that our ancestors had no houses to live in, no food to eat and no clothes to wear,” he said. “Our people were slaughtered, not only men but women and children.”

“Tuhoe would never forget the grievances they believe were inflicted on them by the Crown, said Mr Rangi.

“We will ensure generations to come will know the truth. It is remembered in chants, in songs and it’s in these songs that we learn how our ancestors lived before the land was stolen from them,” he said.

The tribe was now looking for the return of their land or compensation for the grievances they claim they experienced at the hands of the Crown.

“We cannot let this event just melt away and not remember. We are a people that still remembers the atrocities that happened. Our ancestors never ceded the land. We will not give up the struggle for the return of our land or money,” he said. 

Te Hue Rangi and most others of his generation were as much Tuhoe activists as any of those arrested by the Police in October 2007.

At Te Hue’s tangihanga that took place while Police had the Urewera under surveillance there was a thirty-strong firing party armed with shotguns and rifles. Some of those rifles were the same ones the Police were convinced were to be used for terrorist activity. It was not however a well-armed and trained war party. Rangi Kemara anticipated that many of them would not have any ammunition for the volleys because it had happened before. So he stopped off at Whakatane and bought a few rounds and a few shells. The resulting volleys I’m told were quite impressive; a warrior’s farewell and a major event.

Police were present but this gathering of the shotguns and rifles and firing of volleys was not reported in the Operation 8 evidence. The Northern Special Intelligence Group from Auckland were so narrowly focused on the monthly wananga that they missed everything else that was happening and didn’t ever get to comprehend the broader context. And they didn’t consult with local police and with Police iwi liaison officers who were well aware of the total context.

On the one hand Auckland based detectives were covertly tracking firearms and their users, and on the other hand local police and Police iwi liaison officers, totally unconcerned, were watching them being fired. Well hello.

There were other tangihanga during the Operation 8 investigation where exactly the same thing was happening.

Ironically the Operation 8 evidence books produced for the trial in 2012 did contain some photos of armed “terrorists” who were by the time of the trial just armed “criminals”. The photos were seized from Taame Iti’s fridge during the lockdown of his house on 15th October 2007. But they were actually photos of the firing party at Te Hue Rangi’s tangihanga. Yep. That one. When other police officers were present and watching. Hello again.

Owhakatoro Marae August 2007

On 2nd August 2007 the then Leader of the Opposition John Key, accompanied by two National Party MPs Tau Henare and Georgina Te Heu Heu, visited Te Urewera. The Police diplomatic protection squad conducted a security assessment and advised that it was safe to visit. That was despite what Police Intelligence thought they knew about terrorists training in the Urewera, and despite what they believed about Taame Iti.  John Key went without Police bodyguards. He was met on Owhakatoro Marae by Taame Iti (without his shotgun).

Owhakatoro Marae is deep in the mountains in the Ruatoki rohe. It is difficult to reach and has no mobile phone coverage. Given the Operation 8 Intelligence analysis at the time, just two months before they launched their counter-terrorist operation, it couldn’t possibly have been considered safe. Could it? Surely a remote location like that could easily have been an ideal safe haven for even more armed terrorists that had not been detected by Operation 8?

Or was it then as it was two months later at the time of the armed paramilitary operation, and as Commissioner Hloward Broad later publiclhy admitted, that they had no evidence that any terrorist activity was immanent.

The Paramilitary Operation 2007

On 14th October 2007 Prime Minister Helen Clark authorised the operation that locked down Ruatoki. Early the next morning Police Commissioner Howard Broad launched it.

Looking Back 2015

It is a matter of public record that Taame is thoroughly immersed in the Ngai Tuhoe firearms custom. Knowing that, and being aware of all of the above, I recently put it to him that in the back of his mind during the 2006 and 2007 wananga when firearms were being used he was actually standing on his ladder.

This refers to the time he stood on a ladder at a hui with the Crown to raise himself to the same level as the main Crown representative, Minister Doug Graham; kanohi ki te kanohi, eye to eye. It was an expression of Ngai Tuhoe mana and an expression of his own mana vis-à-vis the Crown; an expression of equal mana.

So I put it to him that in the back of his mind during the 2006 and 2007 wananga he was still standing on his ladder; meaning that he was symbolically asserting Ngai Tuhoe mana and autonomy; their right to bear arms on Ngai Tuhoe lands.

My question took him by surprise. After his mouth closed again and the sparkle returned to his eyes he nodded his head and said, “Yes!”.

Unconsciously for certain, and probably consciously, he was standing on his ladder. He never really gets off it. And that has nothing to do with his being a shortarse.

Links: The Operation 8 Series