Tame Iti was born 47 years ago. He has whakapapa links with Te Arawa, Ngati Wairere and Ngati Haua - the Kingmakers of Waikato but dearly feels at most at home in Tuhoe. It is said that when he was about a month old he arrived in Ruatoki in a disused mail box which was placed on the table of the wharekai at Mahurehure. His whangai parents, Hukarere and Te Peku Purewa, an elderly couple who had raised Tame's father and 14 children of their own, took him home. All told, they raised 26 whangai children. Tame himself is a social worker dealing with substance abuse and domestic violence issues in his home valley he's lucky that his partner Karen and his whanau are so supportive of him, says longtime associate Tamati Kruger "his home is like a bloody Marae. I mean, the man needs a licence just to operate his carpark. It must be the most active Marae in Tuhoe."
Each Sunday he would accompany Te Purewa on a kai gathering expedition, and at the foot of Taiarahia, the sacred mountain of Ruatoki, they would stop to spear eels. On these occasions, Te Purewa would point to the land occupied by the Pakeha families and talk about injustices and grievances that, decades later, continue to haunt Tame. "Dad called them whanako - stolen lands. He didn't talk about raupatu or confiscation. They were lands stolen by the Pakeha last century" says Tame. He speaks quietly but resolutely, often changing to Maori to emphasis a point."On another day he said to me, 'see that lake over there, that's where my young brother was shot by a Pakeha". When asked why or how that had happened he replied, 'there was no reason, the Pakeha was trying to intimidate him and ending up shooting him dead'."
The Pakeha neighbour was never arrested or taken to court, but a little while later he was found dead - hanging from a tree. For those in the know, Tame lti is no Hone come lately He's been involved in Maori protest for much of his life, prepared, according to Tamati Kruger, to risk the wrath of his elders and "walk his talk". Tame was just a nipper when he staged his first show of defiance. "The principal of the school here in Ruatoki told us that we had to speak English. I didn't want to do that. To me if you didn't speak Maori, you weren't a Maori." The punishment for defiance was to join a squad which picked up horse dung. Given the popularity of horse traffic in Ruatoki it was a substantial punishment.At 15 he left the security of Ruatoki and headed for Christchurch and a strange, new world outside the valley. Increasingly, he became drawn into political struggle against the system. It was a crucial stage in Tame's life, providing him with the political ideology that would lead to more than two decades of direct anti-authority action. He joined in the "No Maori, no tour" protest, read about communism and went to China in the early 1970s, followed the American Black Panther movement, and helped set up the Maori Liberation Front, before moving north to Auckland where he met up with Syd and Hana Jackson and others who would eventually become key members of Nga Tamatoa.
Over the years Tame has been the brains behind some exceedingly novel protest action. In the 197Os he and some mates decided that Maori were such strangers in this land that they needed to set up an embassy Borrowing a small tent from his birth father in Huntly, he made his way south. In Wellington he pitched his tent beneath Dick Seddon's statue in Parliament ground, lectured the lunchtime passersby until, feeling bit tuckered out, he stretched out his bedroll, zipped up the tent and had a snooze. A couple of hours later he was politely woken by an elderly policeman. Explaining that he was Tame Iti, the new Maori ambassador, he then wangled his way into the office of the then Maori Affairs Minister, Duncan McIntyre -some say to present his credentials. The episode ended in TV cameras, handcuffs and the "ambassador" being subjected to Her Majesty's hospitality for the night.
His embassy theme has been resurrected with the setting up of the Tuhoe Embassy in the middle of the Taneatua township. Tame is serious about his mission to build a "Tuhoe Nation".
The embassy, a caravan with a makeshift awning, is staffed by some of the iwi's rangatahi. Late last year Tame (the Tuhoe Ambassador) issued eviction notices to Pakeha landowners on Maori land in the area. Reactions were mixed. says Tame: "one farmer said that before Tuhoe ever got hold of his farm he would flatten everything with his bulldozer others studied the paper carefully and said, 'do you have the support of your people in this?' and so on.
"The purpose of the notices was to let them know this is Tuhoe territory" he continues. "I don't expect them to move out next week. When we regain our sovereignty they're welcome to stay. They can come to our Marae and talk to us and we will shelter and feed them. But once we regain our sovereignty then they need to know that they will be living under Tuhoe rules. "I came back here to Ruatoki because this is where I belong; for me it's where everything begins and finishes. This is Tuhoe land and it should be run according to our tikanga."
According to Tamati Kruger Tame has learnt that a Maori nationalist has to be prepared to do it alone. "He does what he does because he believes in it. If nobody turns up to a protest he won't go home he'll do it by himself. He's very much like his tupuna Te Purewa in that respect. If 90 percent of Tuhoe said to him to shut up, he'd just carry on. He has that sort of resoluteness and determination.
"But, to be fair, in all the years I've attended hui with him I've never heard a kaumatua criticize his actual politics or ideals. It's more the delivery they have a problem with." Many who don't know him assume, and his moko probably has something to do with it, that Tame is a violent man. Nothing could be further from the truth. As one friend says, "he's always there to help people out. He quite often has battered or scared wives turning up at his place and he'll meet them at the gate to take them in. And you can bet some of the husbands who turn up there are real pissed off. Tame puts himself on the line all the time."
TV producer Puhi Rangiaho, who grew up with Tame, says it's that sort of commitment that means people take him for granted. "People back home don't really realise how much work he's done for the tribe and for Maori."
But Tame says it's not recognition he's after "I don't see myself as the great leader here. A lot of the time the rangatahi do the work like at the embassy, I just keep an eve on it."
Whether he likes it or not he is an "identity". Having a full facial moko in the last years of the 20th century is a powerful statement. It took Tame five years of thinking and consultation with his koroua before he subjected himself to the pain of the moko. Because of the pain, it took 10 hours, spread out over four months. According to Tame some of the most surprising reactions have come from Pakeha.
"They're positive, too. I see them staring at me. I was at an airport and a young woman came up with her child and said, 'that's a moko son'. She didn't say tattoo, she said moko. That surprised me. The only negative reaction I've had has been from the media."