Commemorations marking the 1846 Battle of Ruapekapeka pa, the final clash between Maori and British forces in the Northern War, could become a regular event following a spectacular gathering at the battle site south of Kawakawa on Sunday.
Up to 400 warriors from around the North Island remembered the 170th anniversary, starting at 2am with battle rituals followed by a dawn ceremony, challenges for arriving dignitaries, mass haka, speeches and the firing of replica 18th Century mortars.
Many of those taking part were descendants of Ngati Hine chief Te Ruki Kawiti, who built what is regarded as the pinnacle of Maori military engineering. They were joined by war parties from Tainui, Tauranga Moana and Tuhoe.
Dignitaries included representatives of the Kingitanga movement, Maori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell and MPs Peeni Henare, Kelvin Davis, Nanaia Mahuta and Pita Paraone. They accepted three spine-tingling challenges, and passed between rows of hundreds of fierce warriors, their bodies coated in mud, red ochre and paint.
Kawiti descendant Pita Tipene said the Northern War was really about self-determination for Maori, and in Kawiti's case, Ngati Hine. Kawiti feared Maori would be assimilated and their culture would be lost.
"He was prepared to put his own life, and his people's on the line to protect their essence and particularly their land," he said.
One of the most significant outcomes of the battle and subsequent peace agreement was that Ngati Hine retained much of its land, unlike iwi further south, whose land had been confiscated in the aftermath of war.
Former MP Shane Jones said the commemoration was long overdue. Battle sites such as Ohaeawai, Otuihau and Ruapekapeka could be major attractions, and more importantly, reminded a new generation about a significant but often neglected chapter of Northland's history.
Several speakers at the dawn ceremony called for the commemorations to be held every year. Given the power and interest of the young people involved on Sunday, Mr Jones said he saw every chance of that happening.
Ms Mahuta and Mr Flavell have also called for a national day to remember the New Zealand wars.
The Battle of Ruapekapeka was the last of a series of skirmishes and battles that began with the Battle of Kororareka in 1845, famously signalled by Hone Heke's felling of the flagpole. British forces suffered a disastrous rout at Ohaeawai in July, with 33 dead and 66 wounded compared with minimal Maori casualties.
They then turned their attention to Ruapekapeka, subjecting the pa to a two-week bombardment until its defences were finally breached on January 10, 1846.
The outcome was inconclusive, however, as the defenders, who were outnumbered four to one, slipped away before the pa could be occupied.
The British studied Kawiti's pa, with its complex system of palisades, trenches and tunnels, and applied his ideas in the Crimean War and World War I.
The site is administered by the Department of Conservation as a historic reserve, and many of the pits, tunnels and earth defences are still intact.
Operations manager Sue Reed-Thomas said Ruapekapeka was one of DOC's most iconic historic reserves, and one of the best preserved.
In 2008 Ruapekapeka pa was formally recognised by the NZ Institute of Professional Engineers for outstanding innovation in engineering.