Issues of ‘Authenticity’ and Apocalyptic Thought in an Indigenous Religious Response to Colonisation
The traditional/colonial dichotomy dominates much of the discourse on New Zealand’s indigenous Māori society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, this binary distinction can often be more nuanced in practice, and in the case of certain indigenous religious responses to colonisation, can potentially obscure as much as clarify the nature of Māori society in this era. The often overlapping rather than colliding forces of the traditional and colonial worlds can be seen in religious movement led by the Māori prophet and leader Rua Kēnana (1869-1937) in the early twentieth century.
To a people that looked to be on the brink of disappearing, Rua offered the vision to his Māori followers of a utopian future (which was partly a re-fashioned image of a very vague, idealised nostalgic past) that would be achieved after the country endured various apocalypses. Rua developed his religious and prophetic movement which at its height attracted over a thousand adherents, and which anticipated rather than feared the apocalypses he prophesied because of the potential these followers felt it held for transforming their lives. What is apparent in the history of this movement is the role of colonisation as a causative and correlative element in the rise of apocalyptic religious sects, and how notions of authenticity can be interpreted in various ways when viewed through the optic of the group being colonised. Nether the category of traditional nor colonial applies to Rua’s sect, and paradoxically, its hybridity was the source of its authenticity. The fact that it was not purely traditional or simply a transposition of settler religion is what made it authentic to Rua’s followers in a period when the certainties of the pre-European world in a state of flux, but where the world of settler society was still largely out of reach.
This paper examines the origins of Rua’s sect, and how he relied increasingly on prophecies of an imminent apocalypse in order to bolster support among followers. In the course of this survey, themes of religious authenticity, the significance of cultural innovation, the role of charismatic leaders to the success of hybridised sects, and the importance of apocalyptic thought to communities in crisis are explored. What emerges from this analysis is that the tensions and dislocations of those indigenous communities in New Zealand subject to extensive colonisation was sufficiently extreme that some members of these communities sought supernatural deliverance (with the implication that the saw little prospect of temporal solutions to their situations). What is also at least circumstantially evident is that the traditional Māori world no longer fully met the religious needs of some of these communities, but to a similar extent, neither did the religious denominations of settler society either. It was in the contested space in between were movements such as those led by Rua temporarily flourished.
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