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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April 1, 1937)

The Wisdom of the Maori

page 41

The Wisdom of the Maori

The Prophet of the Rocky Mountain.

The late Rua Kenana, or Ruatapu-nui, the spiritual leader of many hundreds of people of the Urewera and related tribes was one of those strongly individual characters who give a touch of dramatic colour to a commonplace world. He was an uncommonly keen-witted man, a shrewd judge of his fellowmen, and an actor of high degree. But it must not be concluded hastily that he was a charlatan, like so many other faith-healers and popular preachers of many lands. He posed grandly, he startled the common folk, but it was all part of a purpose. He was first of all a patriotic champion of Maori racial independence, like Te Whiti of Taranaki. When I first made Rua's acquaintance, nearly thirty years ago, I was disposed to regard him as a rather cunning fellow who traded on the people's superstitious veneration and readiness to follow a theatrical figure with a mysterious and adventurous background. But his later history induced me to revise that mental attitude. I came to like the longhaired prophet for his courage, his strong clan feeling—aroha ki te iwi— and his admirable spirit of rebellion against the conventions.

Te Kooti's Successor.

When Te Kooti died at Wainui, on the shore of Ohiwa Harbour, in 1893, a certain prophecy that he had uttered shortly before his end was circulated throughout the Ringatu or Wairua Tapu communities. I heard it from a Maori of his flock five years afterwards. The dying leader announced that in twice seven years a man would arise in the mountains of the Urewera country who would succeed him as the spiritual head of the people. “We shall await his coming,” said my travelling mate, as we rode along the mountain track from Ruatahuna to Te Whaiti. He was a man of the Urewera, and he had implicit faith that the prophecy would be fulfilled. And it so befell that in 1907 we heard that a new prophet had come to light at Maungapohatu, and Rua Kenana was his name. Thus was Te Kooti's forecast verified—just twice seven years had passed.

A Child of the Wilds.

I had a certain sympathy for him when he came into conflict with the law and had his son and one of his tribesmen shot dead. He was the product of his wonderful and lawless environment, the grim old holy mountain that had watched over him from his birth, and the dim and gloomy highlands of his warrior fathers. Indeed, he grew in a fighting spirit from his earliest days, for his people, led by Te Kooti, were at war with the Government when he was born. His father Kenana (Canaan) was killed in the engagement at Makaretu, inland from Gisborne, at the end of 1868; and Rua was born shortly afterwards.

Against all this strange posing and religious theatricals of Rua's heyday in his mountain home, and his over-generous plurality of wives, must be set his good work after his tussle with the Law, and his imprisonment. He was an unofficial recruiting agent for the Government, and a gentle hint from him sent many a young stalwart to the camps. He urged his people to become farmers, and he set the example of industry himself on his land at Matahi, in the Waimana Valley, where he died.

A Name of Dark magic.

With the passing of years and the accretion of mana and tradition about the prophet, there grew a certain respectful fear of Ruatapu among his Urewera people, especially among those who lived up in the mountains. Highlands foster strange beliefs and faith in the occult. He was credited with the uncanny power of makulu; in local belief he could cause the death of anyone who offended him, simply by wishing or praying one to death.

His name was a terror to naughty children at Maungapohatu. “I'll tell Rua” was a threat that enforced better behaviour.

When Rua went into Maungapohatu for the summer months—he spent the winter in the warmer climate at Matahi, down in the Waimana Valley —the quiet mountain settlement took on an air of stir and industry. Rua saw to it that everyone was usefully employed, and cleanliness was one of his commandments. Everyone must wash, and must keep the home clean. Frequent bathing in the creek was a pleasure of the people in the warm outer lands; it was not always so congenial in the valleys among the lofty ranges, where the rivers came rushing in cold as ice from the mountain canyons.

Shopping for the Harem.

Rua the much-married was kind to his wives, but he deprived them of one of the principal joys of feminine life. He did all the family shopping himself, on his periodical visits to town—Taneatua, Whakatane and elsewhere—and the ladies (varying in number from seven to ten) patiently awaited his return. Rua knew best. He selected the clothes and hats, and brought them home for distribution. Then the wives and children gathered in the front of his house, and Rua, sitting on the verandah, with the air of a benevolent patriarch, handed out the contents of the packages from the town. A gown for Rangi, a chemise for Patu, a piece of print for Polly or Betty, to make up into a dress, a fine felt hat or red blouse for another, something for everyone, including the children of all sorts and sizes.

Rua was prolific in his prophecies, but some of them were very bad shots. He hit the mark now and again with predictions that confirmed the popular belief that he was a man to whom divine revelations came. The popular belief in his own supernatural character was sadly impaired when he did not rise again, as had been prophesied, three days after his death.