7 Mar 2018

Mataatua Wharenui: ‘The story of that whare is the story of the people’

From Nine To Noon, 11:26 am on 7 March 2018

The remarkable story of a precious meeting house returned after more than a century is told in a new book co-authored by the prominent Māori academic who played a major part in its return.

Writer, commentator and anthropologist Sir Hirini Moko Mead is one of the authors of Mataatua Wharenui - Te Whare i Hoki Mai, which relates the journey of one of New Zealand's foremost meeting houses.

Carved figures on the amo - the posts on either side of the front of the wharenui.

Carved figures on the amo - the posts on either side of the front of the wharenui. Photo: RNZ

Sir Hirini, 91, was instrumental in negotiating Mataatua's return to Whakatāne.

“It is a beautiful wharenui and a surprise to many who see it because of its size,” Sir Hirini says.

Ngāti Awa built the wharenui in 1875, under difficult circumstances. “The elders of the tribe had just come out of the raupatu (land confiscation) and things were not looking too bright for Ngāti Awa but they decided a statement needed to be made - that despite what had happened the iwi is still here.

“They decided to build this meeting house, fully decorated, just to let the world know that the tribe was still alive.”

In 1879 it was pulled down and sent to Sydney for an exhibition.

“When the chiefs of Ngāti Awa were asked about whether they would agree [to have it sent away], really, the chiefs of that time had no other answer – they just had to agree. They’d lost their mana through raupatu, through being invaded, losing a battle, having their people incarcerated.”

After Sydney, it went to Melbourne, then to London where it was re-erected at the V&A Museum. It was taken down and stored for 40 years, before being reassembled for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924-25.

“By that time the house was in pretty bad shape. Some of the carvings were damaged, some had been lost, and a lot of the artworks such as the latticework, the tukutuku panels, had all gone.”

The wharenui was returned to New Zealand in 1925 and sent to Dunedin, to again be put on show, placed in Otago Museum.

“Its whole life had changed and been transformed into being a museum exhibition piece.”

By the 1940s, when Sir Hirini was a young teacher at Ruatoki, his uncle had been thinking for some time that an effort should be made to have the house returned.

“He had come to our place … and he set down some tasks that I should think about and try to do. And one of them was the return of the whare.

“The idea just lay in my head for a long time, until the 1980s, and that’s when we as a tribe began in earnest to address the claims of the iwi that had never been attended to properly.”

The first job was to reunite the hapu and re-establish Ngāti Awa as an iwi, and the wharenui gave a focus to that renaissance.

In 1983, the Ngāti Awa trust board began negotiating for the settlement of the tribe's historical claims, including the return of Mataatua.

We had been trying before that to get the house back and we were told museums will look after the house much better than you can.”

The Crown believed that for quite a while, he says, until Otago Museum faced the Waitaingi Tribunal and lost its case for retaining the house.

Ngāti Awa then had to negotiate for land to be returned on which to place the wharenui.

“The house had been away for so long that most people at home had no memory of it,” Sir Hirini says.

“When the news came that the house was going to return they really weren’t excited about it until something real, that they could see, happened, and that was the return of the lintel of the house, brought back by a delegation of Ngāi Tahu.”

Mataatua was restored and opened in 2011.

“The story of that whare is very much the story of the iwi, what happened to the people.

“In the reopening of the whare in 2011, the whare and the people had at last come together again.”