Tame Wairere Iti (born c. 1952) is a high profile Māori activist and artist – his beliefs often informing his artistic practise. Iti's ability to court controversy has made him a common feature in New Zealand news media. He has a full facial moko, which he described as "the face of the future" in New Zealand.
Most associated with Tūhoe, Tame Iti also has links with the Waikato tribes of Ngāti Wairere and Ngāti Hauā, and with Te Arawa. Told he was born on a train near Rotorua, Iti was raised by his great granduncle and aunt, Hukarere and Te Peku Purewa, whom he calls his grandparents, in the custom known as whāngai (adoption within the same family) on a farm near Ruatoki in the Urewera area. The Purewas had also raised his father. He says that at the age of 10 his school headmaster (himself a Māori) forbade pupils to speak Māori at school. On leaving school, he took up an apprenticeship in painting and decorating after completing a year-long Maori Training Scheme at Christchurch Technical Institute in Christchurch.
As the Māori nationalist movement grew in New Zealand in the late 1960s and 1970s, Iti became involved. He protested against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa, and he became involved with Nga Tamatoa, a major Māori protest group of the 1970s, from its early days. He joined the Communist Party of New Zealand, and went to China in 1973 during the cultural revolution. He has taken part in a number of land occupations and held a hikoi to the New Zealand Parliament. He stood for Parliament as a candidate of Mana Māori in the 1996, 1999 and 2002 New Zealand general elections.
As the Māori nationalist movement grew in New Zealand in the late 1960s and 1970s, Iti became involved. He protested against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa, and he became involved with Nga Tamatoa, a major Māori protest group of the 1970s, from its early days. He joined the Communist Party of New Zealand, and went to China in 1973 during the cultural revolution. He has taken part in a number of land occupations and held a hikoi to the New Zealand Parliament.
In June 1997, Tame Iti and fellow Tuhoe activist Te Kaha, removed Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural (a major triptych) from the reception of the Department of Conservation Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre at Lake Waikaremoana. After being missing for 15 months, it was returned in August 1998 after long negotiations involving Iti and prominent arts patron Jenny Gibbs. It required more than $5,000 worth of repairs. When it was stolen, the mural was thought to be worth $1.2 million but that figure was later updated to $2 million.
On 15 October 2007 Iti figured among the at least 17 people arrested by police in a series of raids under the Terrorism Suppression Act and the Firearms Act. In September 2011 most of the alleged terrorists originally arrested with Iti had all terrorism and firearms charges dropped. Iti and three others were charged with belonging to a criminal group.
The trial was held in February and March 2012, and Iti and the other defendants were found guilty of some firearms charges, and not guilty of others. On the most substantial charge of belonging to a criminal group, the jury could not reach a verdict, even when invited by the judge to reach a majority verdict of ten to one. The Crown decided not to proceed with a second trial. Justice Rodney Hansen sentenced Iti and Rangi Kemara to a two-and-a-half-year prison term on 24 May 2012.
Iti was released from prison on the morning of 27 February 2013. Prison staff described him as a "role model prisoner". Iti said he enjoyed his time inside working as a mechanic and focusing on his art and writing.
Iti has long had connections with the arts – from his early apprenticeship as a painter and decorator; a radio DJ, a performer and a visual artist. He was a partner in a restaurant on Auckland's Karangahape Road that served traditional Māori food. The alcohol-free restaurant, which incorporated an art gallery, opened in 1999 and closed within a year.
He performed a lead role in the Tempest dance theatre production by MAU, a New Zealand contemporary dance company directed by Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio. The Tempest premiered in Vienna in June 2007. Tempest II was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London in June 2008. Because of Iti's arrest and court case over the 'terror-raids' Ponifasio had to convince the New Zealand High Court to allow the detained Maori activist to travel on the 2008 tour. Affidavits in support of MAU from international arts organisations had also been submitted as evidence to the High Court. Iti was eventually allowed to travel for the tour. Tempest: Without a Body made its New Zealand premier at the Auckland Festival in March 2009.
Since 2012 Iti has been employed by Tūhoe Hauora, a health service, as a social worker dealing with drug and alcohol problems. He has three children, two of them adults with their own children – Iti’s mokopuna (grandchildren). Today Tame Iti lives in Ruatoki in the central North Island. He works “almost” full time on his art and runs an art gallery Taneatua Gallery - a contemporary art gallery, exhibiting works by international artists, emerging artists, and shows to revitalise his community and the Tuhoe Nation. Find out more about it by visiting the website - http://www.taneatuagallery.com/