Although the Auckland Domain has a colonial air about it, the area has a rich Maori past, writes

Gia Dumo.

A lone 71-year-old totara stands on Auckland Domain's Seagull Hill. Many people pass by every day without giving it a thought. But it is a living witness to history - war and peace, regimes, seasons and tides.

Seated beneath its canopy, you can easily imagine a pair of eyes peering out of its wrinkled trunk and sinewy arms, dressed in dull-green foliage, gesturing like an experienced orator.

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In 1940, Ngati Whatua and Tainui planted this tree to mark the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Today, its significance is given away only by a modest wooden enclosure. Its posts and beams, though covered with moss, are richly carved with Maori symbols.

Ngarimu Blair, heritage and resource manager for Ngati Whatua o Orakei, says the spot has a rich and royal heritage.

"The first Maori king, Te Wherowhero, had a cottage on that hill where he would stay while visiting the governor and his Ngati Whatua kin.

"His granddaughter, Te Puea Herangi, led the 1940 planting and commemoration."

Aside from Seagull Hill, or Pukekaroro, there are many other sites of interest to Maori in the Auckland Domain.

Mr Blair says there used to be a small village at the Park Rd entrance beside Auckland Hospital called Te Wai Kohanga, the "nest next to water".

The fields were once a huge wetland, or repo, providing plenty of waterfowl and eel as well as building materials to the village.

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The hill on which Auckland War Memorial Museum stands is called Pukekawa. It means "sour hill" since kumara, or sweet potato, could not be grown there.

In the 1820s, at the height of the Musket Wars, Te Wherowhero and Ngati Whatua met there to make peace with the northern tribes.

"Ceremonies were held in the shadow of Pukekawa and its meaning was recast to connote 'hill of bitter memories' as a memorial to all who fell in the Musket Wars," says Mr Blair. "So it was a war memorial long before settlers thought it a good place to build a war memorial museum.

"There is another cottage site of Te Wherowhero in the lower domain, the ruins of which can be seen by the trained eye. Here, the great fighting chief Te Rauparaha stayed for a time after his release from Mt Eden Gaol by Governor George Grey. Hundreds of Maori would visit him there to pay their respects."

Waipapa ("water flowing across rocks") forms the northeast boundary of the domain.

It flowed into the Te Toangaroa Bay, about the area of former Carlaw Park, where land met the sea before reclamation, says Mr Blair.

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Te Toangaroa means "to drag your canoe a long way". If a paddler arrived there at low tide he would be hard put to drag his waka to the shoreline.

Maori have been actively working for the preservation of historical sites such as those in the domain.

Mr Blair and his group offer guided walks and have also put up signs so that "people may understand the deeper layer of history and stories".

"We lobby with council to plant more native trees to bring back our native insects and birds so people may feel and hear a little of what it may have been like before the vegetation was cleared and replaced with exotic species and turned to the very colonial-looking place it is today," says Mr Blair. "We hope over time to install more artworks that help tell the Maori stories."

Powerful guardian

At the southern end of the museum, as part of the Auckland Domain Sculpture Walk, is an imposing steel-plate sculpture of a hawk by Maori artist Fred Graham. The curator's notes on

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Kaitiaki

(2004) read: "The hawk has figured prominently in the oral traditions of Ngati Whatua and Tainui.

"The enormous swooping steel bird, dark against the sky, may seem threatening, but conveys the strength that makes the hawk a powerful guardian of the land."

A regular feature at the museum is the kapa haka group, which sings and tells stories about the history of the Maori.