The Pakaitore/Moutoa Gardens area was important to Maori long before Europeans arrived and should have been made a reserve, the Waitangi Tribunal says.

Its He Whiritaunoka: The Whanganui Land Report was released in October, after years of research and consultation.

It has a separate section of 17 pages dealing with Pakaitore, mentioning the 1995 occupation of the gardens - an assertion of mana motuhake (Maori self determination).

Those 79 days have been remembered there on every February 28 since, most recently last Sunday with a day of inter-marae waka ama competition and a day of talk and celebration.

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Pakaitore was a fishing kainga at the bend in the river opposite Shakespeare Cliff, the tribunal report says. An 1842 map shows a "Pah" and perhaps 4ha of land which may have been enclosed.

European observers of the time knew it was used mainly by people from further upriver and beyond. It was seen as a landing and gathering place, a place of sanctuary.

It was probably extensive, as camping too close to the river would have put people in danger during floods.

Two gatherings of hundreds of people took place there in May 1840 - one to view New Zealand Company deeds and another to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.

It was "a confused succession of wrong decisions" that resulted in that very Maori place becoming a grassed reserve with public monuments, the report says.

The 1848 Whanganui sale sold 40,000 acres, with one tenth supposed to be set aside as reserve, including pa, urupa (graveyards) and cultivated land. The settlers took more than twice that amount of land, and their agents persuaded Maori to give up areas that should have been reserved to them.

There were soon houses on part of the Pakaitore area, and a market place.

Pressure to have the area made a reserve from 1874-80 had no result. By 1900 it was still a marketplace, and Maori had to camp along the riverbank.

During the 1995 occupation Wanganui District Council took a High Court case to determine where Pakaitore was. Justice Heron said it was only a narrow riverside strip, but the tribunal found that unlikely.

"We consider it very likely that the 'Pah' shown in the same vicinity on both the maps of 1842 and 1850 was Pakaitore, and that the present-day Moutoa Gardens occupies the same place, at least in part. If not, it is very nearby."

In 2001 Government, Wanganui District Council and Whanganui Maori agreed to a joint board to govern the area. In 2007 the corner where Whanganui Courthouse stands was returned to Maori, as an advance on settlement of their land claims.