“You didn’t know about the women and children at Rewi’s last stand?” Sadly, no – the bravery and technical brilliance yes, but not the stories of sacrifice by all the defenders, regardless of age or gender.
Sleeps standing Moetū is a small but complex volume; a history of the Battle of Ōrākau (one of the most significant battles in the New Zealand Wars in the Waikato), a summary of depictions of the battle in history books and other cultural media, some eye witness accounts, a set of photographs (including some stunning portraits, one lovely one of a young Witi Ihimaera), and at its heart a novella in parallel text, the te reo version by Hēmi Kelly. The novella is a beautiful piece of historical fiction.
Sleeps standing Moetū is a story within a story, a young man returns to New Zealand from Australia, with his Waanji bride. They are expecting their first child and wish to call him Moetū. After asking permission to do so, Simon is given the story of the ancestral Moetū.
Moetū’s story is told mainly from inside the Ōrākau pā. Rewi Manga Maniapoto had stood up to the British troops many times before the Battle of Ōrākau and “Ngāti Maniapoto have the primary right to tell the story of Ōrākau”. So Moetū is a 16 year old boy from the Rongowhakaata people of Tūranga, Gisborne. Their chief at the time was Raharui Rukupō, an ancestor of Ihimaera.
Moetū insists on joining others from his tribe when Rewi calls upon his allies to take a stand with Ngāti Maniapoto. Those that responded are from Waikato, Raukawa, Tūhoe, Taranaki, Rongowhakaata, Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou.
Moetū is tactical and brave, he quickly comes to the attention of Te Haa, the leader of the Rongowhakaata warriors, Rewi and Ahumai Te Paerata, the woman who is leading the women in battle. Moetū is given responsibility in the fight, and eventually the task of keeping the children safe throughout the battle and after.
The question of why did they go to the pā and why did they stay and make a stand is addressed: there was no safety anywhere at the time. British troops had attacked villages, so why not at least be somewhere fortified? And when the British offered safe passage for the women and children: “If our husbands and brothers are to die, of what profit is it to us that we the women and children should live?”
The story of the women and children of the Battle of Ōrākau is extraordinary, the children fought and died alongside the adults, and the women alongside the men. Even when fleeing, the children threw peach stones to spook the Forest Rangers’ horses.
And the women are wonderfully described:
Kararaina: “She was short and slim but with broad shoulders like a man’s. Her eyes were black and her hair was glossy and wavy and long, down to her knees; she gathered it up and tied it with a red ribbon – her one vanity. Some called her pretty, but she was not one who thought much about her looks.”
And her sister, Whetū: “The voice belonged to a striking young woman standing on the main parapet of the pā, holding a musket. Wearing a plaid skirt and dogskin cape, and a hat to keep the sun out of her eyes, she fired off a warning shot.”
As the battle progresses the plight of the combatants becomes dire, hardly any food, no access to water, diminishing artillery and suffering great losses of people. There are more reinforcements willing to fight alongside Rewi and Ahumai Te Paerata, but the soldiers will not let them through and they are reduced to yelling encouragement over the enemy lines.
Little do the British know how under-resourced are those in the Pā – at one point the women respectfully take on the clothes of their dead men and walk around to make the defenders look plentiful. They are all committed: “Let us abide by the fortunes of war. If we are to die, let us die in battle. If we are to live, let us live defending the pā.”
The framing story works well, it is told from the point of view of Rua, descendant of Patu, a very young child who is orphaned during the Battle of Ōrākau, and who fights alongside Moetū, and who is later adopted by him and Kararaina. Simon, the Australian, is from Rua’s uncle’s side of the family, an uncle who was stationed with the Army in Malaya and who stopped and stayed in Australia on the way home. Rua’s sister Hūhana also contributes to the story-telling.
Rua looks out cartoons and articles about the battle to show Simon, filling us in on some of the details of the battle without the research seeming dry or over-detailed. The women of the present are strong too – insisting on healthy food at Simon’s farewell, putting up with jibes about their weight etc, but all dressed up for line-dancing at the farewell – still doing things their way. Hūhana assuring Simon that he can learn the end of Moetū’s story: “the plane won’t leave until I tell the pilot he can go”.
But the beauty of the story is in the battle: in the echoing of the story in the clouds above the pā, in the moments of sacrifice and bravery, in the characters’ love for each other, for those who have chosen to make a stand and fight, in the purity of the dedication: “Don’t ask me to look into the future, Moetū, The past is still with me, and there’s the present to take care of.”
And the aftermath when “Neutrality was over everywhere.” A great reminder of some of the powerful and appalling and history of New Zealand.