Tūhoe are known as Children of the Mist

Meet Te Urewera, the New Zealand Rainforest That Has Legal Personhood

In 2014, the Tūhoe nation set a completely new precedent in the fight to regain their stolen land. Now, ten years later, reconnecting new generations with Te Urewera is critical.

“WHAT THE THIEF STOLE will always be expensive,” says Tāmati Kruger. He faces a large window in his tribe’s local marae, a community meeting house, as he speaks. His words are matter-of-fact. They hang in the air, mingling with birdsong outside, then, suddenly, seem to slip down the nearby Rūātoki Valley Road, over a painted line demarcated CONFISCATED, and catch like an echo along soaring rainforested mountains, braided rivers, and thousand-year-old trees. In 2014, after 180 years of Tūhoe resistance, a groundbreaking New Zealand law granted legal personhood—with all its rights and responsibilities—to this rainforest, Te Urewera, a former national park and the spiritual homeland of the Tūhoe people.

It never should’ve been a national park in the first place,” Kruger says. “It’s a crime scene, stolen property.”

Set in the middle of New Zealand’s stingray-shaped north island, Te Urewera’s eight hundred square miles of rugged green ridges are Te Manawa o te Ika, the very heart of the fish Maui wrested from the sea. The land is largely inaccessible except by horseback or helicopter and treasured for its immense ecosystem: groves of conifers that drip bright red berries, iridescent wood pigeons flashing above expansive ferns, blossoming mānuka, brilliant lakes, waterfalls, and rivers flowing north to the sea. 

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The Tūhoe nation, of which Kruger is part, is a constellation of extended family groups called hapū abiding in Te Urewera’s isolated valleys. Their kinship with the land, which they characterize as kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, reflects a reciprocal relationship with Te Urewera stretching beyond memory or written record: “Tūhoe are born with obligations and responsibilities—not as people who own the land or people who take from the land—but tangata whenua, people who are of the land,” he says. Self-reliance and generous hospitality infuse rugged life in the “bush” where camo is layered over fleece jackets, and warm knitted hats and rubber boots are as essential as good horses and hunting dogs. Apart from six years at a boarding school and six at university, working, and traveling, Kruger has made his home in Te Urewera; as a young father he and his family lived in the forest, foraging and hunting stag off-grid for months. He helped his wife deliver one of their sons there.

“Tūhoe are called children of the mist,” he says. Unlike other Māori tribes who track genealogies to ancestral canoes arriving on the island, Tūhoe trace their origins to the union between Hinepūkohurangi, the mist maiden, and Te Maunga, the mountain.

“The mist is a product of heaven and earth. It is a purifying, nurturing agent,” Kruger says. “If we know where the mist comes from, that is where Tūhoe comes from. If we understand and can measure how long the mountains have been here, that’s how long we have been here.”

The mist, he says, goes where it wants to. But in the 1800s, the British Crown besieged Te Urewera, displacing her people through a brutal scorched earth policy. Many who weren’t murdered would die of starvation. Despite Tūhoe refusing to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document defining relations with Māori tribes, the Crown confiscated huge swaths of land. In 1954 the amalgamated land was enshrined as a national park and Tūhoe holdouts living in and around Te Urewera found themselves further locked out by environmental restrictions.

“We’re not just talking about a physical dislocation,” Kruger says, “but also a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual disconnection.” Livelihood, language, cuisine, poetry, music, dance, dreams, names—everything about being Tūhoe springs from the forest. Tūhoe were bereft: today ninety percent of their 40,000 members live outside their ancestral mountains. “We were a forest people,” he continues. “In the year 2024, the majority of us are a fourth-generation urban-dwelling people.”

For 180 years, Tūhoe continued to fight for the heart of the fish. “Everybody needs to be liberated from this history, the perpetrator as well as the victim,” he says. “Justice is needed by both parties.” 

In the 1970s, a tribunal was formed to address the New Zealand government’s past treaty violations. After years of internal discussions among the hapū, Kruger was appointed chief negotiator. Core to the fraught negotiations was the return of Te Urewera.


Tāmati Kruger, Tūhoe lead negotiator (Lawrence Smith/Stuff Limited)

“The Crown admitted they had stolen it,” he recalls. “Their anxiety was that a national park, in principle, was now owned by all New Zealanders.” Talks broke down over ownership until Crown negotiators led by Christopher Finlayson experienced a shift in perspective: Tūhoe were not asking for a transfer of assets. They saw Te Urewera as a living entity—with its own mana, spiritual authority, and mauri, life force. The rainforest belonged to itself. “This idea is not a new invention,” Kruger says. “What is significant is that Parliament chose to acknowledge and back it up by law.”

In 2014, Te Urewera was delisted as a national park to become the first ecosystem in the world recognized as having legal personhood. In the same way that a human being or corporation is treated in court, Te Urewera is imbued with the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person. A board of eight Tūhoe representatives and three from the Department of Conservation (with a Tūhoe chair in perpetuity) speaks on her behalf, overseeing management based on what “bush crews” living in her four remote valleys observe and report.

“We’ve had to shed and unlearn, redesign and repatriate,” Kruger says. “How do we mend ourselves? It’s very difficult when the starting point is admitting that you are not the people you are supposed to be.”

Te Kawa o Te Urewera, a handbook created by the Te Urewera Board “disrupts the norm” by making clear its goal is to manage people for the benefit of the land. “Our disconnection from Te Urewera has changed our humanness,” it reads. “We wish for its return.”

Livelihood, language, cuisine, poetry, music, dance, dreams, names—everything about being Tūhoe springs from the forest.


WHEN HINEWAI MCMANUS, a local Tūhoe guide, introduces herself in te reo, the names of the nearby mountain spurs, woods, and waterways roll off her tongue. “Māori people use nature to introduce themselves to other human beings,” she says. “If you were raised by the sea, those elements are how you think no matter where you go.” McManus lives in the remote settlement of Ngaputahi, which she says has experienced a population boom of twenty people—most of whom she’s related to—in the last two decades.

Unlike her mother who was a “bush baby,” her Tūhoe father was raised outside of Te Urewera in an English-speaking household. Determined to push back against colonization, he sought out people living in the bush and took McManus wilderness training every morning, including on weekends. “As a child, it wasn’t very fun,” she laughs. “We always seemed to be rushing into cold rivers and cooking over fires.” Both her parents were educators, supplementing their income as seasonal park rangers and trapping invasive possums to sell as pelts.

“There’s a sense of powerlessness when an outside entity is making rules of how you interact with and experience your home,” she says of living in Te Urewera. “It was a kick in the guts for generations.”

As a park ranger herself, she became disenchanted with the Department of Conservation’s short-sighted policies. “The preservation of nature for future generations was often disregarded when it came to how things were managed,” she says. “If there were three or four options, the cheapest was chosen, not even the middle one.”

Since Te Urewera was returned to Tūhoe, McManus has seen a positive shift that she says is intergenerational and will continue to take time. 

A new technology using wood resin to surface roads has been developed to replace asphalt. Aerial delivery of pesticides to control possum populations has been suspended in lieu of more labor-intensive trapping. And outside entities will soon be invited to sign Friendship Agreements with Te Urewera in place of contracts with the former park. The new agreements capture the reciprocal, rather than extractive, relationship now expected of those working in the area.  

“We are nature and nature is us,” she says. “And we’re being given an opportunity to heal alongside it.”


The intergenerational transfer of mātauranga, or traditional knowledge is
essential for the health and survival of Te Urewera. (Tūhoe Tuawhenua Trust

DOWN THE ROAD FROM McManus, in the sweeping valley of Ruatāhuna, Brenda Tahi serves on a trust managing 35 square miles of private land in the middle of Te Urewera. For years, her small Tūhoe community resisted becoming part of the national park, eventually managing to retain their homes. Now, among other things, the trust works to understand how the rainforest ecosystem is changing around them. 

 “The forest is degrading by the day,” says Tahi. “I’ve seen it in my lifetime—we’re going to lose it if we don’t act.”

 Years of restricted use of mātauranga, or traditional knowledge, has led to gaps in ecological understanding between the young and older generations: Tūhoe once regularly cut holes in the dense canopy to create wells of light that encouraged new, healthy growth. They only harvested certain plants and animals at incredibly specific times of the year. Research on forest composition, invasive species, and biodiversity is now being collected, along with knowledge of indigenous forestry practices.

 Tahi says reconnecting the new generation with Te Urewera is critical. Though contiguous with Te Urewera, their private land is subject to New Zealand’s Forest Act, which heavily regulates cutting native trees, including to construct access roads. Because of this, Ruatāhuna lacks a robust enough economy to support young Tūhoe. As a work-around, the trust started a honey business. 

Hekenoa Te Kurapa, Chief Beekeeper for Manawa Honey, Honey from the Heart, one of the
Tūhoe Tuawhenua Trust’s many ways of caring for their land and people. (Scott Sinton/
Manawa Honey)

“Bees can go where we can’t,” Tahi says. “We saw honey as a sustainable way to connect us back to the bush—it’s a different relationship than what we’ve done in the past, but it’s a relationship.” Their bees aerial farm a rainbow of flowers, from mānuka growing in the scrubland, to rewarewa rooted deep in the forest, to māhoe in damp, green lowlands.

 The business began with a few hives next to an orchard and her son-in-law installed as the head beekeeper. “We had this crazy idea that everyone would want to be a beekeeper,” she says. Growth, due to human resource constraints in their small community, has been slow. But they’re determined to train only locals, building from the ground up. In 2021, their rewarewa honey won the grand prize at the international honey-tasting competition in Asheville, North Carolina. Recently they were able to hire someone who just needed a job to make it back home. She sees this as a huge win.

“It’s hard,” she says, “Why bother? Because we want to see both our land and our people in good condition. There’s so much at stake.”