Rua Kenana, sometimes known as Ruatapunui, has usually been considered to be the posthumous son of Kenana Tumoana of Ngati Kahungunu, who was killed fighting for Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki at Makaretu sometime between November 1868 and January 1869. Rua's paternity has been questioned within his family, as has his statement that he was born at Maungapohatu. His mother was Ngahiwi (Harai) Te Rihi, of the Tamakaimoana hapu of Tuhoe at Maungapohatu.
Rua was brought up among Tuhoe, and Kenana's people at Te Aute, Pakipaki and Waimarama. Rua described the time with Ngati Kahungunu as a period of exile, but also said that when he returned to his mother's people (at about the age of nine) he was rejected by them. From both families he learnt of Te Kooti's history, and absorbed his religious predictions which envisaged the One who would come after him to complete his work by redeeming the land for Maori. Rua claimed to be this man.
He emerged from among the Ringatu, the followers of Te Kooti, within two years of their leader's death in 1893. In claiming to be the 'son' of Te Kooti, Rua divided the Ringatu world irrevocably. His greatest support came from his mother's tribe, Tuhoe, as did his most formidable Maori opponent, the chief Kereru (Numia Te Ruakariata). His authority would not be accepted until he had completed a series of quests in 1905–6.
Rua's statement that he was the successor to Te Kooti was first announced through an experience that he underwent on Maungapohatu, the sacred mountain of Tuhoe. The oral narratives tell how Rua and his first wife, Pinepine Te Rika, were directed to climb the mountain by a supernatural apparition, later revealed to be the archangel Gabriel. There they were shown a hidden diamond, the guardian-stone of the land, whose bright light was shielded by Te Kooti's shawl. Rua, in his turn, covered it again to protect it. In some versions of the narrative Rua met both Whaitiri, the ancestress of Tuhoe, and Christ on the mountain. Rua would soon claim to be the Maori brother of Christ.
Following this revelation, in 1906 Rua undertook further tasks. In March he made a pilgrimage to Poverty Bay, Te Kooti's birthplace. There, he entered the sacred meeting house, Rongopai, erected to receive Te Kooti in 1887, when he was prevented from returning to Poverty Bay by the government. It is said that Rua entered the locked house by means of Te Kooti's white horse called, in this narrative, Te Ia. Following this miraculous event, the leading Ringatu tohunga, Eria Raukura, baptised Rua in the waters of the Waipaoa River with the name that Te Kooti had given for the One who would make the land fertile again, Hepetipa (Hephzibah).
From Gisborne Rua went to Maungapohatu, where on 12 April (the sacred day of the month for Ringatu) he reiterated his own prophecy that on 25 June he would 'ascend the throne [and] the king will arrive at Turanga [Gisborne]'. The pilgrimage to Gisborne took place in May–June 1906. Rua rode his white horse; with him he carried a large box strapped to a pack-horse by day and guarded in a tent at night. Some said it was the ark of the covenant, others that it was a second diamond which he was taking to give to the King, Edward VII. The diamond (in some versions money) was to be the means by which the land, conceded to Queen Victoria, would be redeemed from her son. Rua's mission was to seek the peaceful restoration of authority to Maori. When the King failed to appear, Rua announced: 'I am really that King.' 'Here I am, with all my people.'
Rua now initiated a new cycle of events, the creation of the City of God at Maungapohatu. This cycle was created from scriptural history, but its immediate purpose was to prevent the alienation of the Urewera for mining or European settlement. Tuhoe's land was being made available for prospecting without their consent, contrary to protective legislation passed in 1896. Tuhoe and Te Whakatohea, the two tribes who committed themselves to Rua in the 1906–8 period, saw the issue in even wider terms. They sought to re-enter their confiscated lands in the eastern Bay of Plenty, identifying them with the lands that God had promised, by his covenant with Israel, to restore to later generations.
In 1907 Rua constructed his new community at the foot of the mountain. The people called themselves Iharaira (Israelites) and, like Rua, grew their hair long in imitation of the Nazarites, the people separated unto God. The meeting house, which was circular and decorated with a design of blue clubs and yellow diamonds, was called Hiona (Zion). Built in imitation of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, it stood within the inner sanctum of the pa and was Rua's council chamber and 'parliament'. The entrance to the pa bore the bold sign 'Mihaia' (Messiah), Rua's stated identity. His home within the inner sanctum was called Hiruharama Hou (New Jerusalem). It was a European-style gabled house, but it had two entrances from its verandaed porch: one for Tuhoe, the other for Te Whakatohea.
By April 1908 Rua had seven wives, fulfilling, as he said, the vision of Isaiah 4:1. Ultimately he married 12 women. They came from Tuhoe, and from Ngati Raka, who lived mingled with Tuhoe. With his first wife, Pinepine, from Ngati Kuri of Ruatahuna, he had (according to their eldest grandson) 17 children. She was known as 'our Holy Mother', because she had shared the vision on the mountain. Rua's other wives were Pehirangi (Rehe) Kanuehi of Hamua from Ruatoki; Te Akakura (Patu) Ru of Ngati Rongo, who came from the Ruatoki chiefly line of descent and was known to his followers as the 'Queen of Sheba' – she to whom King Solomon gave all her desires; Te Aue (Kiritiatia) Heurea of Ngati Koura from Ruatahuna; Mihiroa (Tatai) Te Kaawa, of Ngati Kuri from Ruatahuna; and Wairimu (Martha Vercoe), a part-Maori of Hamua hapu. Whirimako (Teo) Ereatara of Hamua, Ngapera Rini of Te Mahurehure from Ruatoki, Kiha (Te Hororoa) Tahu of Te Whanau-a-Pani from Ruatoki, Waereti Irohia of Ngati Raka from Te Waimana, and Te Aomakarani (Meri) Wi Kamaua, also of Ngati Raka, soon joined the others. His last and youngest wife was Piimia (Te Atawhai) Onekawa of Upokorehe, another tribe living with Tuhoe. She married him after his return from his prison sentence in 1918.
Rua had children by all his wives. The Whakatohea people were linked to Tuhoe by early arranged marriages with Rua's two eldest sons, Whatu and Toko. The death of Whatu's wife, Whaitiri Rewiri, about 1911 caused many from that tribe to leave Rua, and Toko's first wife, Taupaki Te Kora, also left. However, Toko's second marriage, to Tawhaki Awa, was just as important politically, for she was the daughter of Awa Horomona, one of the five men who had secretly exhumed and reburied Te Kooti in 1893 and who alone knew where he lay.
In 1910 Rua was invited onto the tribal committee for Tuhoe lands, and through it he sold 40,000 acres to the government for £31,000. His objective was to raise the capital needed to develop his community and thereby retain the heart of the Urewera; that is, the 20,000 acres which he had been given by Tuhoe in 1907. He also hoped to develop mining through a company that he had formed in 1908. He thought that European settlement would speed the completion of the partially constructed stock route from Poverty Bay, and open up another from the eastern Bay of Plenty, meeting at Maungapohatu. From there the track would pass through to Rotorua, making his community economically viable. In 1906 a railway was also scheduled to come inland from Gisborne through Maungapohatu. Rua had gathered the people there through his visions and predictions of catastrophic floods on their low-lying lands. They had sold all their possessions on his instructions; now he hoped to sustain them under their mountain.
By 1911 this task was becoming increasingly difficult. None of the planned routes were developed. Maungapohatu suffered (and would continue to suffer) from high mortality, particularly among its children, due to the harsh winters, inadequate diet and poor housing. Rua's offer in 1908 to the Cook County Council to send men to complete the Gisborne stock track was refused. Poverty undermined the religious vision. By 1913 the community had declined from five or six hundred people to about 30 families, and many, including Rua and his wives, had returned to live in the more clement valleys of the eastern Bay of Plenty.
In 1914 the second construction of Maungapohatu commenced under Rua's direction. His was a ritual sequence of demolition and rebuilding. The 20,000-acre block was divided in August 1914, and half was set aside. Rua ordered the inner sanctum area to be destroyed. Hiona was abandoned, and subsequently demolished. In its place a more orthodox meeting house was built, Tanenui-a-rangi. It differed in one important aspect from almost all Maori meeting houses in that food could be consumed within. The reconstruction of 1914 was part of a series of tapu-lifting rituals which culminated early in 1915 when Rua and his followers cut their long hair and brought to an end the days of the Nazarites. This ushered in the years of the New Covenant, as they lifted the state of living under the laws of tapu and inaugurated the state of being noa, or freed from the restrictions of the past. If Rua was taking the people step by step through sequences from the Bible, he was also following Maori practices of entering and leaving temporary states of being.
This search for communal salvation was undercut by other events. The authorities had maintained a watch over Rua, encouraged by some high-standing Maori leaders, particularly James Carroll and Kereru. In 1907 the Tohunga Suppression Act had been passed, directed primarily at Rua. He was seen to be a disruptive influence because of his claims to be a spiritual healer, and because of his hostility to the native schools, which were teaching the children in English. The local police were instructed to watch Rua from May 1906 on the grounds that he was 'suspected of acting as a Tohunga'. He was harassed with the dog tax in 1907, but, despite Kereru's efforts, was never charged under the Tohunga Suppression Act.
The dropping of this attempt to prosecute Rua was undoubtedly due to his meeting with the prime minister, Sir Joseph Ward, in March 1908. This occasion became known as the 'Ceremony of Union' among the Iharaira, for Rua accepted Ward's argument that there could be no separate Maori government: 'there cannot be two suns shining in the sky at the one time'. Rua also interpreted this to mean that there would be the same laws for Maori and Pakeha, just as they enjoyed 'the one sun that shone above our heads'. He therefore created the flag that he flew at Maungapohatu (and which would later be described as seditious): the Union Jack with a message stitched onto it, 'Kotahi te ture mo nga iwi e rua Maungapohatu' (One law for both peoples, Maungapohatu). Alongside it he flew his own ancestral flag, Te Tahi-o-te-rangi, here taking his identity (as Te Kooti had before him) from the Tuhoe hero who had urged, 'Let us acquire fame by means of mercy' (instead of by revenge). Rua's leadership, based on the principles of equality under the law and pacifism, came to be seen as seditious in the First World War.
In 1915 Rua was arrested on charges of illicitly selling alcohol at Maungapohatu. Maori were not allowed to buy off-licence, a situation which led to frequent abuse by all parties involved. On this occasion the government used the legislation to harass Rua, because he had counselled against Maori volunteering. He was arrested on charges of supplying liquor at a large gathering (a ceremonial bone-cleansing), and the local magistrate, Robert Dyer, sentenced him to the maximum term of three months' imprisonment. The sentence was, in fact, for a suspended charge which had been held over from his arrest for a similar offence in 1911.
On 19 January 1916 Rua was summonsed on the 1915 charges, for which, in his understanding, he had already served the maximum sentence. This summons followed hard upon a contentious meeting about the opening of the Tuhoe land, at which all parties had been present: Rua, Kereru, William Herries (the native minister) and Dyer. Rua was a driving force behind a large Tuhoe petition of May 1915 which had urged that the legal restrictions on purchasing and leasing be lifted from the Urewera reserve. Kereru opposed this, as did Herries, although more covertly, for his interest lay in the Crown's continuing ability to purchase with monopoly rights, which he had commenced in 1915. Rumours were circulated that Rua was actively working for a German victory; these speculations Kereru passed on to the government. Herries decided on a strategy to pluck Rua out, using the legal channels that Dyer had kept open. Kereru, who was in charge of the Tuhoe recruitment committee, had been actively persuading Herries to take this action.
When Rua was presented with the summons he refused to attend court that month, pleading the urgency of harvesting his cocksfoot grass. He stated he would attend the session scheduled for the following month. Dyer judged the letter to be in contempt and a new warrant was issued for Rua's arrest. When it was brought to him on 12 February, he refused to go voluntarily with the two policemen and they did not arrest him. Preparations for an armed police expedition were set in motion on 9 March by John Cullen, commissioner of police. The plan to arrest Rua 'by ordinary means' had escalated into preparations to use force.
These events led to the conflict of 2 April 1916, the worst clash between the police and a Maori community this century. Rua was arrested at Maungapohatu by an armed force of 57 constables sent secretly from Auckland and two smaller contingents from Gisborne and Whakatane. He was seized on the marae, where he was standing unarmed, accompanied by Whatu and Toko, waiting to greet the police. At the same moment, a shot was fired. In the ensuing mêlée two Maori were killed, one of whom was Toko. The senior police officers later orchestrated the police evidence, stating that the first shot was fired by a Maori and was part of a planned ambush; the Maori stated it was a police shot. The weight of evidence supports the Maori case, although the matter is unlikely ever to be decisively resolved. Perjury was also committed by the police concerning the two Maori deaths; Toko, who was initially wounded when he grabbed a gun and began to fire at the police, was probably summarily executed. Legally, Rua's arrest was an assault, as it had taken place on a Sunday for a minor offence. Cullen, as commander, was guilty of the use of excessive force. At least one of the Gisborne policemen, Arnold Butterworth, thought that not only was Rua's arrest illegal but 'that Cullen would be guilty of eleven charges from murder or manslaughter down to common assault'.
The notoriety of Rua's arrest was extended by his Supreme Court trial, the longest in New Zealand's legal history until 1977. Police lies were compounded by Maori perjury, directed by the defence counsel, Jerry Lundon, in a misguided attempt to name Mounted Constable Arthur Skinner guilty of firing the first shot. Because Rua's arrest was illegal, the judge, F. R. Chapman, dismissed the charges of resisting arrest at Maungapohatu; Rua was tried for using seditious language, counselling others to murder or disable the police, and resisting arrest on the earlier occasion of 12 February. The jury threw out the charge of sedition and were unable to come to a decision on the counselling charges, but found Rua guilty of 'morally' resisting arrest on the first occasion. With this lever, Chapman pronounced a sentence of one year's hard labour followed by 18 months' imprisonment. Eight of the jury protested publicly and with a petition to Parliament against this harsh interpretation of their verdict. It cannot be said that Chapman was impartial. He considered that Rua had a long history of defiance of the law and that, as a member of a race 'still in tutelage', he needed to learn that the arm of the law reached 'every corner'.
Rua was released from prison in April 1918. He returned to a community now heavily indebted by the legal costs of his and others' trials, as well as the costs of the police expedition, which he was expected to pay. He began the reconstruction of Maungapohatu for a third time. He and his wives lived at Maai, whose name meant that it was freed from tapu. It was about half a mile from the older settlement, and a new meeting house was opened there in February 1919. It was called Te Kawa-a-Maui, the name taken from a house of learning that once stood at Maungapohatu, but also commemorating the kawa ceremonies performed by the ancestor Maui to lift the tapu and cleanse the land. This new house was built from the timbers of the demolished council chamber, Hiona, the designs whitewashed over.
While Rua was in prison, the Presbyterian mission had established itself at Maungapohatu and opened a school in July 1918. Rua gave his support to the school on the understanding that, in return, the Presbyterians would never erect a church there. This was the unusual basis of the co-operation that developed between Rua and the missionary, John Laughton.
In 1925 an outbreak of typhoid fever struck Maungapohatu. Rua was advised by Dr Charles Hercus of the need to reconstruct the homes and latrines. He turned this knowledge to wider purposes, rebuilding the City of God on earth. In 1927 he predicted the end of the world in a rain of stars, and ordered the reconstruction of the houses, all possessing tin roofs against this event. Once again, the people sold their belongings and regathered from the lower-lying valleys to the foot of the mountain.
This second exodus by Tuhoe to Maungapohatu occurred because they had discovered from the 1927 government commission investigating confiscated lands that Tuhoe would receive no compensation and no land would be returned. At the same time, it seemed possible that Maungapohatu might now become economically viable. Under Rua's influence, in 1922 Tuhoe had donated 40,000 acres of land to the government so that two arterial roads could be built to connect Maungapohatu to the eastern Bay of Plenty and to Rotorua. This road construction was expected to commence in 1927. Rua's hopes were that Tuhoe could live fruitfully on their own lands and take control of their own lives, but the roads were never built; Tuhoe finally received some monetary compensation for their gift in 1958.
Maungapohatu failed economically, and by the early 1930s the people were forced to leave to seek food and employment. Rua went to live at Matahi, a community he had founded on the Waimana River in the eastern Bay of Plenty in 1910. There he died on 20 February 1937. He was described as being 68 years of age. He left five wives (Pinepine, Pehirangi, Te Aue, Mihiroa and Piimia), one former wife (Te Aomakarani), and 22 children. He had predicted that he would rise on the third day. When the appointed time had passed, his coffin was sealed in a concrete vault which he had ordered to be built beside his home.
Rua Kenana called himself the Maori Messiah, but his energies were directed into gathering the people and trying to make it possible for them to live and work together. If he exploited them, personally using some of the money he collected, he also directed their wealth into communal projects. He purchased seed and distributed food supplies in difficult times. He was a divisive leader, but was also a leader for a substantially dispossessed people who needed a vision.
With his handsome appearance and long hair, Rua became a well-known figure and was frequently photographed. He has entered the imagination of the playwrights, the poets, the film-makers, the painters, and the songsters of New Zealand, many of whom have used the story of Rua to keep alive the issues of justice and Maori autonomy.