At the Grave of Te Mānihera, Tokaanu

By | 15 May 2023

Dawn light catches steam mist
rising through tree and bush, floating
over front lawns, vacant lots.

We wait for the ski rental place to open.
The korimako and tui make morning song.
By sailing ship, by foot

Te Mānihera, you journeyed far
before strangers placed your bones
in this church yard

under an engraved marble slab —
‘martyred in the service of Christ’.
Walking in your black suit

burning with the Holy Spirit
Kereopa at your side,
you stopped at every village, Taupō

to Turangi, reciting the Beatitudes,
keeping faith, heavy of heart, fearing death.
On Route 41, cars and trucks whoosh

up to Taumarunui, the Western Bay.
Year to year I’ve shot through here
not knowing the sins of this land.

A stagecoach appears. You step out,
teeth missing,
dried blood on your face.

We hongi, share breath.
You smell of forest, warm earth.
I feel the bones in your suit jacket.

When they axed you down,
nothing was resolved.
But, in time, ways of thinking changed.

On this crisp morning, ancestors stand
with us, life and death embrace.
We scoff meat pies, slurp coffee.

These journeys and leaps
of faith, of language, of world view
take us further than ships can sail

faster than cars flash
down the Desert Road.
Beyond the red roof

and cream walls of this wooden church,
Mount Pihanga rises, cloaked in green.
The moment fills with peace.

Te Mānihera, you believed in miracles,
saw what’s precious.
Holding you in mind

I see differently
Tokaanu, these roads,
a day skiing Whakapapa.

* Te Mānihera, a Māori Christian missionary, and a would-be peacemaker, was a chief of the Maruwharanui tribe
of Taranaki in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand. In his final journey, Te Mānihera, accompanied by Kereopa, went
to make peace with the Tuwharetoa tribe of southern Lake Taupō. But the Tuwharetoa leaders wanted vengeance for
deaths of their people in Taranaki. On entering Turangi on 12th March 1847, Te Mānihera and Kereopa were ambushed.
Kereopa died instantly from a musket wound; a wound to Te Mānihera was non-fatal. Surrounded by those who would
shortly kill him with an axe, Te Mānihera sang his own death song (or waiata poroporoaki). Moved by the song, the
Tuwharetoa chief requested Te Mānihera sing it again so they could memorise it before finishing him off. Weeks after
the killings, the people of Tuwharetoa felt remorse, converted to Christianity, and established a teaching program
that evolved into a Christian summer camp near Tokaanu. The summer camp program survived more than a
hundred years.

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