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The Warrior Canon

A burly cleric in full regalia, who can be seen moving from group to group across the vast field, is approached by a TV technici

Hastings, New Zealand, February 1986. Elizabeth II, Queen of New Zealand as well as Britain, is about to be welcomed by the assembled tribes of Maoridom in the kind of ceremonial only they can stage.

A burly cleric in full regalia, who can be seen moving from group to group across the vast field, is approached by a TV technician. Major technical troubles, he says. The national telecast is threatened: will Canon pray?

And 'Canon', otherwise known as the Reverend Wi Te Tau Huata, MC QSO, who has been Chaplain to the Maori Queen and the famous wartime Maori Battalion, does pray, with all the crew. He is not in the least surprised when the broadcast is able to go ahead and he can open proceedings by leading the huge throng in prayer.

To watch Caonon Huata at work is to have your mind stretched by his way of dealing with people. Especially when he calls on Maori traditions of forthrightness, laughter and spontaneity - and not least, their great love of rhythm and song.

New Zealanders are currently looking closely at the relationship between Maori and pakeha (whites). 1990 will be the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1840 a large number of Maori chiefs accepted the protection of the British Crown and were guaranteed the use of their traditional lands, forests and fisheries. This treaty has been called the founding of New Zealand as a nation. But in Maoridom today a strong body of opinion feels keenly that the spirit and substance of the treaty has not been honoured.

At this year's Waitangi Day celebrations on the historic domain where the treaty was signed, a group of young radicals in the protest movement invited Canon Huata to conduct a religious service for them. He was also asked to lead a service for the chiefs and elders.

To the radicals, who had been preaching racism, hatred and violence, he said, 'Your desire to redress the injustices of the past is on the right track. But your strategy is wrong and even evil. You speak of land confiscated by the Crown. Don't forget that our tribes confiscated land from each other. Land went to the victors after battle. You speak of the Treaty of Waitangi never having been ratified. I say to you that fighting side by side in two world wars is ratification enough. Let us build on that Treaty unless you have something better to put in its place.'

To the chiefs and elders he said, 'Don't forget that our Lord had the toughest things to say to the Pharisees, not to the sinners. Watch out for self-righteousness when you judge the young radicals.'

Wi Huata is the son and grandson of Anglican priests. 'My grandfather was ordained in 1860 and died on October 13, 1910. My father died on October 13, 1954. I must admit I get a trifle nervous each year when October 13 comes round!'

In the troopship on the way back from Europe after the war the Maori soldiers kept ragging Huata with remarks like, 'Are you going to enter a monastery and remain single all your life?' To silence them he said that when he got home he would ask the first woman he met to marry him. As the train from the ship arrived in their home town he put his head out of the window and surveyed the waiting crowd. 'The betting among the men increased! I went over to the first woman in the crowd and asked, "Are you married?" "No," she said. "Are you engaged?" "No." "Well, if you want a padre for a husband, I'm your man."'

When he arrived home he discovered that his father had hoped he would marry Ybelle Tomoana, daughter of his own best friend. And that Ybelle, extraordinarily enough, had been the girl to whom he had proposed at the station. They were married by his father in the presence of the bishop, and have nine children and 23 grandchildren. His sons have been active promoters of their people's cultural renaissance: one is now in Canada with a Maori concert party.

When Huata first joined the Maori Battalion, his commander, Peta Awatere, checked that he was unmarried and told him, 'The custom in our battalion is for the padre to be up front.' It was only later, he says, that he discovered that Awatere had been having him on. By then he had gone into action: 'It was just like a cowboy picture until I realized that the bullets were killing, and then I really did get the breeze up and thought seriously about transferring out of a frontline outfit.'

Despite such jocular comments, one suspects he would not have let anything stop him being where the danger was hottest. The fear was real, though, and after a struggle he decided to admit to the troops in a battalion church parade that he'd been tempted to quit. Normally, sermons were in the Maori language, but on this occasion Field Marshal Alexander, the Supreme Commander, and General Freyberg, head of the New Zealand contingent, were to be present, so a sermon in English was requested. The Canon was appalled at the prospect of 'coming clean' in such company, but did so. After the parade, General Freyberg came to him and said, 'That was the most courageous sermon I've heard. I understand very well how you felt. I was scared to death before the action that produced my Victoria Cross.'

The Maori Battalion played an important part in the Allied advance through Italy and was in the heart of the action in the pivotal battle on the heights of Monte Cassino. Hundreds of Maori soldiers were killed, many dying in Huata's arms as he prayed the Commendatory Prayer over them. The citation for his Military Cross told of his complete indifference to enemy fire as he brought in the wounded.

He also spent many hours visiting wounded soldiers in hospital. He knew the kind of facts the men wanted to be told. He assured one who was brought in with 33 wounds that he would still be physically capable of having children. 'It was very important to a Maori soldier that he should one day be the father of a son.'

'No more football for me, Padre,' said one soldier who was being fitted with an artificial leg. 'From now on it's hockey, and I'll have my own hockey stick.' He discovered another, who had suffered such a bad head wound that his brains had been protruding, sitting up in bed a few days later reading the paper. 'You thought I'd kicked the bucket,' he coolly told Huata.

Twenty-six years after World War II, the Canon was flying over Italy when the plane's captain, knowing nothing of his history, drew the passengers' attention to Monte Cassino, right below. He thought of the friends who had died in his arms, 'and the cancer of bitterness against the Germans flared up inside me'

He was on his way to Caux in Switzerland, where an international Moral Re-Armament conference was taking place. The party was welcomed with a Maori song, which helped to dispel the cloud over his spirit. But in the opening session a German woman spoke, and his feelings welled up once more. At a friend's insistence he was introduced to her afterwards. 'By honestly accepting blame and asking forgiveness she made me see that hate and faith could not exist side by side in the same heart. This produced a stormy conflict inside me and I had a restless night. Next morning my room-mate told me it had been like sharing a room with a whale! I asked for a chance to speak from the platform. I spoke about reconciliation and felt as if a ton weight had fallen from my back.'

Several Germans at the conference asked to meet him over meals, and he made friends with the nephew of General WestPhil, Field Marshal Rommel's successor as commander of the Afrika Corps. At his initiative, a contingent from the Maori Battalion was invited to attend the Afrika Corps reunion in Mainz the following year.

The invitation arrived just before the Maori Battalion's own reunion. Canon Huata read it out to the assembled veterans at a cathedral service. He told of his feelings in the plane over Monte Cassino and his later reconciliation with Germans. Then, as one soldier describes it, he 'thundered, "If you have a chip on your shoulder, don't go!" ' Some veterans said, 'It's too tough: I couldn't do it,' but 26 went.

They were given a tumultuous welcome by 7,000 Afrika Corps veterans, one of whom commented on meeting the huge Maoris, 'We must have been lousy shots to miss you.' The Canon was seated in a place of honour beside Frau Rommel and her son Manfred, and asked to speak.

'This is a time for brotherhood,' he said. 'A time for reconciliation. A time for forgiveness. A time for cleansing. We cannot spell "forgiving" without spelling "giving". We cannot spell "brothers" without spelling "others". We cannot spell "communion" without spelling "union".'

General Westphal replied, 'Field Marshal Rommel paid a tribute to you: "Give me the Maori Battalion and I will conquer the world." Your greatness is not only in battle but also in your hearts by accepting our invitation of goodwill. You are the peacemakers.'

When faced with his resentment against the Germans, Huata also realized the need for peacemaking within his own family. One son had gone against his wishes and married a Catholic. 'We Christians have much to answer for,' he says. 'Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries competed for the conversion of the Maoris. For me, "love thy neighbour" meant my fellow Anglicans. We need to be the first to get rid of our prejudices. It's only by getting God in that prejudices go out.'

He wrote to his son and apologized, and at that moment lost his hostility to the Catholic Church. On his way home from Europe he was received in Rome by the Pope and accepted a commemorative medallion. He presented this to his son, who was so moved that he asked his father to give it to him publicly in his own Anglican church. Complete reconciliation followed.

Huata has a deep love of his Maori-tanga, his culture. He often speaks of the challenge of the taiaha (wooden spear) given by a Maori warrior to any guests arriving at the marae (meeting-ground). And he offers people a challenge which requires a response. He tells his people they 'will only find their role with God as their spearhead. We minorities are meant to be the leaven in the dough.'

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