The First Station of the Cross: Rangiriri

3pm, 20 November 1863. General Cameron orders the gunboats Curacoa and Pioneer to begin the two hour bombardment of the Rangiriri Pa lying between Lake Kopuera and the Waikato River.

1,400 colonial troops wait. Five hundred warriors endure.

At 5pm, 600 troops storm the pā. The engagement into the evening leaves the British with 110 dead and wounded, and a similar number of warriors dead and wounded. As night fell, the British retire to camp, with occasional skirmishes in the night. King Tāwhiao, Wiremu Tamihana and nearly 200 warriors escape under cover of darkness.

At 5am on 21 November, the remaining warriors raise a white flag to negotiate terms. Cameron takes the opportunity to take armed troops into the redoubt and capture the remaining 183 warriors with his duplicity.

I attended the magnificent 150th commemorations of the battle of Rangiriri today. Amidst the peruperu of our ope taua, the roar of traffic on State Highway One mere metres from the pā site, squally showers and breathtaking scenery, we all gathered to listen to speeches from tāngata whenua and the armed forces exhorting us to remember and pass on the lessons of Rangiriri.

Of those speeches, that of our kaumātua Morehu Ngatoko stuck in my mind for his comment that what begun for the Kingitanga and its supporters, including Ngāti Ranginui, there at Rangiriri, ended in Tauranga Moana. This was still ringing in my ears when Rahui Papa so succinctly pointed out that this had not been a civil war, but one sovereign nation unjustly attacking another.

So how can I learn a lesson that I’d even want to carry forward today as a descendent of Pirirākau, a lesson that has come out of being stripped of land, of loved ones, of an economic foundation, of basic necessities, of sovereignty, of mana? In reflecting on this unpalatable exhortation, it occurred that perhaps I can find a lesson in Rangiriri if I see it as the beginning of our Via Dolorosa, our Way of Sorrows, our Stations of the Cross.

The Stations of the Cross are, of course, seven or 14 stations that invite the faithful to focus on Christ’s journey to the cross, and onwards to resurrection and ascension. They are there in a attempt to reconcile the apparent failure of the mission of Jesus of Nazareth on Golgotha with the mystical triumph of the Messiah. No easy task, and one I won’t explore here.

But the concept is helpful. I need a way to reconcile the brave failure and humiliating degradation of my ancestors in their war against the Crown with my pride in my hapū, my marae, my whānau, my language, my identity. I need to understand how the experience of the 19th century has actually enhanced our mana as Pirirākau.

Our Via Dolorosa looks something like this: Rangiriri. Paterangi. Orakau. Pukehinahina. Te Ranga. Irihanga. Whakamarama. A journey from 1863 to 1867, from a war fought for whanaungatanga in the Waikato against Cameron and his British troops to a war fought in our very homes in the bush above my marae against our cousins in Te Arawa led by Gilbert Mair.

Perhaps the lesson of our Via Dolorosa is something along the lines of: We fought. We lost. We died. We returned. We endured. We remain a sovereign people.

Today, as Pirirākau, a hapū of Ngāti Ranginui, we live a reality where we have experienced significant raupatu and all the social, health and economic disparities that go with it. Our settlement is a farce and an insult, and none of us truly expect to see any benefits from the pitiful offering we have received, as it is frittered away by people with grand plans and no connections to our marae.

Today, as Pirirākau, a sovereign nation, we live in a reality where we are proud of our identity. Proud of our ancestors, their struggles and triumphs. Proud of our reo, our tikanga, our kawa. Proud to still exist, and to still proclaim we are unsurrendered. Proud of our connection to the Kingitanga. Proud as we whakapohane the Crown.

I have often tried to explain to Pākehā in learning environments that Māori always live in two worlds; we have to be bi-cultural. Having been to Rangiriri, I am reminded that living in two worlds also describes the thin place between te ao kōhatu and te ao hurihuri. I am not just here in modern day New Zealand. I am two images interposed, a citizen of New Zealand, and a warrior of Aotearoa. Today, I am a blurred image of our two ancestors who fought at Rangiriri and the many who fought all the way to Whakamarama. I am a poor vessel for the great mana their actions and conduct accrued.

As such, I hear the words of Rewi Maniapoto afresh today: Ka whawhai tonu mātou. Ake! Ake! Ake!

And likewise, I hear 1 Corinthians 15.55 anew: O death, where is your sting? O death, where is your victory?