Mistaken mere identity: Aroha for man who stole the wrong taonga

The theft started with a wig.

Standing on the steps of Auckland War Memorial Museum, Cedar Erueti was prepped and ready to go.

"I had a dreadlocked Rasta wig, a plaster over my moles and glasses on and a flamethrower in my pocket - that's what I used to melt the seal of the shatterproof glass," he told 1News in 2019.

"Thirty seconds, gone in 30 seconds."

That was a bit of a boast. CCTV footage shows it actually took much longer - and two trips - to take a beloved mere pounamu (a traditional Māori weapon with a sharp edge used in battle).

This is the ultimately sad - albeit hardcase - tale of a heist gone wrong, laid out by the man who did it.

Just over three years ago Erueti saw a story I'd written about the theft of mere pounamu Pokaiwhenua. No one had been charged, but police were appealing for information.

It galvanised him into making contact.

Before then things were lining up in a Māori way for this story. A few years earlier, art historian Ngarino Ellis wrote a book about a Ngāti Porou carving school led by Iwirākau, a rangatira (chief) who lived in the 18th century and was closely associated with Pokaiwhenua.

She specialises in art theft too.

Pokaiwhenua, a Ngāti Porou taonga associated with Iwirakau, a chief who lived around 1700.

A carving of Iwirākau lives in the Māori Court at the museum. You'll find Iwirākau past Te Toki ā Tāpiri, the last waka used in battle. Carved out of totara, the way it's angled points to Iwirākau. The Ngāti Porou tupuna (ancestor) is holding what is believed to be a wooden version of Pokaiwhenua. Up until March 6, 2019 the greenstone version lived side by side with Iwirākau.

Both taonga Iwirākau and Pokaiwhenua are a reminder of tupuna that lived long ago.

"Often weaponry is a really important symbol of them," Ellis says. "It symbolises their mana - very, very tapu - and those types of taonga would be passed through the generations and would gain more mana being associated with different people.

"How special that Auckland Museum had both of them together in that special place. Of course, we from Tairāwhiti would say it should've been down in Tairāwhiti Museum, but we're mindful also that there's 17,000 Ngāti Porou living in Auckland."

Ellis was one of the first people the museum notified when Pokaiwhenua was stolen. She says it still smarts that it took a day for the museum to realise it was gone.

"Security is a huge, huge issue for museums, they spend a huge amount of their budget on this, but when things like this happen we as tribal people have to think, 'Well is that the best place for our taonga?'"

A spokesperson for the museum told 1News they have to strike a balance between security and being open to the public.

A korero with Cedar Erueti

Three years ago, when Erueti agreed to meet me in an Auckland park, he said he was trying to raise issues around a Ngāi Tahu mere pounamu, named Kataore, and its place in the museum.

Cedar Erueti

"Basically after 186 years of my people trying, writing letters and petitioning - doing it the right way, so to speak - I ultimately decided to do something about it, so I retrieved said item."

Except there was a problem. In a case of mistaken mere identity, he'd taken the wrong one - Ngāti Porou's Pokaiwhenua instead of his intended target.

The museum says Ngāi Tahu has not asked for the return of that particular mere.

When we met Erueti was mild-mannered, skinny and had a gentle way of speaking. He waved out to me in court once, which surprised his lawyer. There was nothing that was ever vaguely threatening about him.

He was disarming too, giving me the name of the officer he was dealing with directly before being arrested to prove his bona fides.

On Wednesday, a hearing was held at the Auckland District Court. This follows the court's judgment in September where he was found not guilty of theft by way of insanity.

This ended a protracted court case disrupted by changes in lawyers and judges, as well as Covid-related complications.

But back to our previous dealings. Erueti said he felt bad about stealing the wrong mere and he wanted to take part in a tikanga process to resolve it. Māori staff at the museum, police, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Porou were all on board with this.

There were several meetings between Erueti, a prominent kaumatua, museum staff and police Inspector Ivan Sarich. There was an offer to Erueti to view the Ngāi Tahu taonga in return for Pokaiwhenua. Sources say he did not take that offer up, and to this day Pokaiwhenua is still missing.

Dion Peita, Auckland Museum's tumuaki Māori and Pacific development, says his staff went to extraordinary lengths to get a result.

"Stirling efforts from kaimahi Māori, it was endorsed by the executive all to start a dialogue with the offender."

They weren't the only efforts outside of legal channels to try and reach a solution. Ngāi Tahu has also dedicated time to Pokaiwhenua's recovery.

For non-Māori audiences it may be worth pointing out that Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Porou share whakapapa. The woman leading Ngāi Tahu's recovery efforts is a cousin to Selwyn Parata from Ngāti Porou, who has been the museum's point of contact.

Sarich says since police have been chasing leads as to where Pokaiwhenua might be.

"Very quickly iwi from across the country found out about the theft of Pokaiwhenua and we received a number of investigative leads which pointed us in different directions… unfortunately we've been unsuccessful to date."

A combined Māori operation in the background to help the museum and Ngāti Porou get back their taonga was also without luck.

'Something's not quite right'

The mental health issues at play here are significant. Erueti claimed to be a Ngāi Tahu rangatira before we met. On the edges of the Māori world there are types who will talk your ear off about their whakapapa and what their chiefly lines are.

They can be harmless, but in this case Erueti acted on those beliefs.

Court documents reveal Erueti had become fixated on Kataore and was experiencing symptoms of psychosis, believing he would become a Ngāi Tahu leader and receive considerable mana.

"Mr Erueti had become intently focused on Māoritanga through what he had read and heard, not through immersion and experience," Judge Claire Ryan noted.

Judge Ryan was satisfied that at the time of the theft "it was more likely than not that Mr Erueti suffered from a disease of the mind" and was "incapable of knowing the moral wrongfulness of his actions".

Professor Linda Nikora of the University of Auckland has a background in psychology and arts, but her view on the case is rooted in Māori common sense.

"So often we will recognise deluded behaviour and commentary by simply firstly kind of having a feeling that something's not quite right about this person in terms of what they're saying, and that what they're saying is often running up against some of the values that hold true as Māori.

"So for example, kāore te kūmara i korero mo tōna reka [the kumara doesn't talk about its sweetness]. So someone's who is up there batting on about their whakapapa and how great they are and being a rangatira and whatnot is not viewed kindly by us."

She is not familiar with the case but says it's likely we'll hear from more people who claim to be chiefs. The anti-mandate protesters in Wellington who claimed to be tangata whenua are a more recent example. Marginalisation, disinformation and poverty all contribute as causes.

"There's a need for people to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of security and a sense of meaningfulness in their lives, and that's the challenge we face as Māori people and that is to ensure that everybody has a place and has a meaningful life."

Many of the main players in this case have expressed aroha, or a sense of compassion for Erueti. Judge Ryan said in Wednesday's hearing that criminal proceedings were only half the process - the other being the need for healing: for him, the two tribes and the community.

Ngāti Porou's Parata put it this way.

"I just want to say to the young man, 'Please return the taonga,' and I hope things get better for him in his journey."