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Photographs of a prophet

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Photographs of a prophet

Images by Auckland Weekly News staff photographers George Bourne and Arthur Ninnis Breckon provide a visual record of the Tūhoe prophet, Rua Kēnana Hepetipa.

Self-governance and self-sufficiency

Rua Kēnana standing in front of the temple, 1908.

Photo by George Bourne for Auckland Weekly News.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-C5879.

Rua Kēnana Hepetipa (Ngāi Tūhoe) considered himself the spiritual successor to Te Kooti, founder of the Ringatū faith. Many followers believed Rua would instigate the return of land taken from Tūhoe by the Crown.

Ngāi Tūhoe did not sign the Treaty of Waitangi. Despite this, the Crown confiscated Tūhoe land in 1865; war broke out and the iwi were eventually forced out of Te Urewera. An act of Parliament in 1896 providing Tūhoe with self-governance over an area of Te Urerewa was not honoured.

Rua Kēnana was determined to set up a self-governing settlement, and in 1907 he founded a Ringatū community in Te Urewera. Located at Maungapōhatu, the sacred mountain of Tūhoe, more than 500 people joined Rua in the development of the co-operative farm. The community's first winter was bitterly cold and many people died before they had a chance to establish gardens and build shelter. However, by 1908 the settlement was thriving.

Rua's 12 disciples travelled throughout the district, teaching the scriptures and the words of the prophet Rua. They wore their hair long and were bound by strict rules of tapu.

Documenting Maungapōhatu

The Ringatū temple at Maungapōhatu.

Photo by George Bourne for Auckland Weekly News.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-1976-6-28.

George Bourne travelled to Te Urewera in 1908 to photograph Maungapōhatu for the Auckland Weekly News. The success of Rua's self-governing settlement sparked curiosity among readers of the newspaper, many of whom viewed Māori as lazy and itinerant.

George Bourne's photographs of Maungapōhatu depict a small settlement, surrounded by rugged bush. He photographed some of the people who lived there - including his guide and members of Rua's family.

Photos of Maungapōhatu show a dirt road lined with wooden buildings. Some structures are simply wooden frames draped with canvas, others have been cladded with rough sawn timber. A tower and two-storied building containing a bank and an office can also be seen.

The largest building was a circular-shaped Ringatū temple for worship and meetings. The two-storied building was painted with yellow diamonds and blue clubs. 

Rua Kēnana's Ringatū temple was a two-storied circular building.

Photo by George Bourne for Auckland Weekly News. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-C6221.

A tumultuous relationship

The flag pole at Maungapōhatu flying four large flags - Rua's flag, the New Zealand flag, the Union Jack and a flag with the letters TET AHIPO visible.

Photo by George Bourne for Auckland Weekly News.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-1976-6-24.

Rua and his followers aimed to be self-sufficient - they grew their own food, distilled their own liquor and even had their own bank. This self-sufficiency included governance. Initially Rua worked with the Crown, with the intention that his work opening up Urerewa land for sale would be rewarded with a degree of independence for his settlement. He sold Tūhoe land with the intent to further develop Maungapōhatu.

But the Crown were reluctant to stand back - particularly when it came to the sale of liquor in the region. Rua reportedly tried to control the illegal trading by applying for a liquor license, but he was turned down. Despite a meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Ward, Rua was arrested in 1911 for ignoring liquor licensing laws. He served several months in prison before returning to Maungapōhatu.

During the First World War, Rua was strongly opposed to Tūhoe men fighting for Britain. His vocal support of Germany gave the Crown further reason to arrest him.

Reporting the arrest

Arthur Ninnis Breckon was with the armed police party who travelled to Maungapōhatu to arrest Rua in April 1916. His photographs of the journey to Urewera and of Rua and his son standing in handcuffs were published in the Auckland Weekly News.

Three constables duck behind a tree trunk during the operation to arrest the Māori prophet Rua Kēnana at Maungapōhatu.

Photo by Arthur Ninnis Breckon for Auckland Weekly News. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-B5554.

Rua and six of his followers were arrested after a short gun battle on 2 April. They were taken to Rotorua where Rua's hair and beard were shorn - a disrespectful act considering the long hair worn by Ringatū disciples.

His initial charge was related to illicitly selling alcohol at Maungapōhatu, but this was changed to treason when he arrived in Auckland. He was found not guilty by a jury but the judge sentenced him for 'morally' resisting arrest.

Rua was imprisoned for two years. He returned to Maungapōhatu where he continued to lead the community until his death in 1937.

Cite this article

Dix, Kelly. Photographs of a prophet. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 29 March 2016. Updated: 1 April 2016.

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