A project to restore a significant piece of Te Arawa military history is about to get under way. Senior reporter Matthew Martin finds out what it means for the iwi and its returned soldiers.
The restoration of the Te Arawa War Memorial in the Government Gardens will soon get under way with war veterans saying it will help restore the mana of the iwi and the men who died for their country in all wars.
The Rotorua District WW100 Commemorations Committee, under the umbrella of the Rotorua Lakes Council, is about to embark on the restoration project after receiving more than $300,000 in funding.
Over the years the condition of the memorial has deteriorated and elements of the structure have been vandalised on more than than one occasion. Reinstating significant elements of the memorial is seen as a way to restore the mana attached to the memorial and to those it commemorates.
Restoration will also ensure future generations of Rotorua citizens and Te Arawa will be able to appreciate a unique piece of the district's history. The committee has consulted Te Arawa, through various organisations, and received unanimous support for the undertaking. It's intended the project will encompass the repair and conservation of the stonework on the memorial, replication of the stone statue of Te Arawa ancestor Rangitihi - badly damaged and removed from the memorial in 1936 - replication in bronze of the original eight tekoteko and four "wheku form" pou that originally surrounded the memorial, and research and development of new interpretive panels for the memorial.
Financial supporters of the project include the Lotteries World War One Commemorations, Environment and Heritage Fund, NZCT, the Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust, and New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute.
Funding from the lottery WW1 Commemorations, Environment and Heritage Fund totalled $275,229, the Rotorua Trust provided $25,000 and the NZCT $30,000.
The Rotorua District WW100 Commemorations Committee, led by Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick, includes representatives from the RSA, Rotorua Lakes Council, the Rotorua Museum, the Ngati Whakaue Education Endowment Trust, the 28th Maori Battalion B Company Trust, Rotorua Boys' High School, Children of Gallipoli Veterans, the Rotorua District Cadet Unit, the Rotorua Menz Shed and the media.
The aim is to have the restoration completed in time for Armistice Day, November 11, 2018, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Mrs Chadwick said it would be fantastic to see the memorial restored.
"We're very pleased we've been able to attract funding for this project - to restore and preserve an important piece of Rotorua war history which this memorial marks. "The memorial is one of only a few erected by Maori to commemorate their men who fought and died in World War I and it has had a really interesting history since being erected in the late 1920s.
"Its restoration will be a fitting way to commemorate our city's contribution to World War I," she said. "Our committee is delighted with not only the contribution from the Lotteries fund but also the funding and input from other organisations, including from Rotorua's New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI), which will bring its expertise and enthusiasm to the project."
"The memorial has been in need of attention for some time now and it's great that we can finally get it restored."
Experts from NZMACI will be tasked with replication, in bronze, the eight tekoteko and four "wheku form" pou that originally surrounded the memorial. NZMACI director Karl Johnstone said using bronze would bring back to life the original carvings in a more sustainable way.
"But it also fits the language of the memorial well and is a beautiful medium in its own right. The carvings are quite intricate . . . so we'll be carefully planning our approach to that and our experts here will enjoy the challenge.
"The thing for us is the opportunity to continue to engage with community around projects that help shape that community. War memorials are a fundamental connection point and is an obvious contribution for us. We look forward to participating in this project."
The restoration of the Te Arawa War Memorial is a long time coming, say three of Te Arawa's returned soldiers.
Te Arawa Maori Returned Services League secretary Sam Smith, a Malaya and Vietnam veteran, said when he first heard about it he hoped it would be restored to its original state.
"I heard about the plans and thought it was a good idea, but really in the end I just hoped the funding would go through. But it's a brilliant result. It brings us back to why these fullas served, what they did and that they died for their people," Mr Smith said.
Mr Smith was joined at the memorial site on Friday by the last surviving 28th Maori Battalion B Company member Robert "Bomb" Gillies and Pita Anaru, a veteran of the Malaya conflict. All three said they were very pleased the memorial would see a new life. Mr Gillies, now 92, said he remembered when some of the memorial's carvings were stolen.
"It was bloody rotten, absolute disrespect," he said. "It will be a great day when we get to see it again. I hope to make it, but it will be a hard call," he said.
"Years ago when we used to march from the RSA all the servicemen used to march past the cenotaph and around this memorial, it would be nice to see that tradition restored," Mr Smith said. "It's something we needed to have done a long time ago," Mr Anaru said.
"It's fortunate we have a farsighted committee who have decided they would attempt to restore it."
Mr Anaru said his uncle, Albert Poiho Anaru, is named on the memorial.
"He was killed in France and his body never recovered."