The passing of Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu and the crowning of Te Arikinui Tuheitia Paki is a time to reflect on the significance and future of the Kingitanga.

The outpouring of grief from hundreds of thousands of Maori, Pakeha and Pasifika, foreign dignitaries, and worldwide media coverage confirm that Te Arikinui was loved, respected and admired, and that the Kingitanga is a potent Maori symbol of national and international significance.

The Kingitanga has deep historic worth for Maori. It is one of two surviving unbroken lines of hereditary leadership from before European times. The first king, Te Wherowhero - who won six single-combat duels at the Battle of Pukerangiora in 1820, who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1834, and refused to sign the Treaty of Waitangi - embodied that lineage.

The Kingitanga failed in its primary purpose to unite Maori - the 1860s invasion of the Waikato put paid to that - but in a twist of history it preserved this one hereditary line. Others fell, first by war, then through the Native Land Court, which - by individualising land - destroyed tribal decision-making. Urbanisation and cultural alienation did the rest.

The Kingitanga reminds us of the leaderships many have lost and the cultural code to honour ancestors and elders to foster descendants.

The Kingitanga summons memory of struggle, suffering and resistance. We remember the vision of Wiremu Tamihana The Kingmaker, who believed Maori and Pakeha could live together under parallel leadership. We remember the war leaders Tawhiao and Rewi Maniapoto, their fruitless victories and final humiliations.

They remind us of the heroes in other tribes: Wiremu Kingi, Titokowaru and Te Kooti; the nobility of pacifists Te Whiti and Tohu at Parihaka; the men, women and children who died in the brave stand at Orakau; the execution of prisoners after Ngatapa; and the deaths of innocents at Handleys Shed and Rangiaowhia. The Raupatu confiscation symbolises all land loss. The Kingitanga is emblematic of those darkest hours. Few tribes other than Taranaki, Ngai Te Rangi and Te Whakatohea suffered the same anguish of invasion and Raupatu confiscation as did Tainui.

The Kingitanga also represents recovery, renaissance and revitalisation over 100 years of leadership under King Mahuta, King Rata, King Koroki, Princess Te Puea, Sir Robert Mahuta and Dame Te Ata. As in war, they were first to walk the path of settlement, peace and reconciliation that other tribes now tread.

This is the Dame Te Ata legacy. She rose above bitterness and politics to forgive and work with Pakeha and in doing so won them to her, and to Maoridom. She looked beyond the confines of her own tribe and supported all Maori through kohanga reo and the performing arts.

She supported other indigenous peoples and elevated the Kingitanga to international arenas.

The Kingitanga, through Dame Te Ata, reflects a mana akin to that of Nelson Mandela. Mandela symbolises the suffering of his people because he personally suffered and was able to forgive. The Kingitanga suffered. Dame Te Ata forgave. We also need to be real. Dame Te Ata was better known to foreign Pakeha than native ones. The irony of yesterday's funeral was that most came to know her only in death. That is an indictment on cultural narrowness. There is value for Pakeha in the Kingitanga. The Pakeha Queen of New Zealand lives in a palace far away. The Kingitanga is here, it represents our history, the good and the bad of the past, the future. It belongs to us.

Small in stature, Te Ata leaves large shoes to fill, size 40 years of service. King Tuheitia Paki - draped in the coronation korowai of Te Wherowhero, blessed with the same Bible that anointed each of his forebears, and holding the white feather of truth and purity - faces many challenges.

Sir Bob Mahuta provided hard-headed political leadership. Dame Te Ata provided an overarching grace. There will be a need to maintain that balance in Tainui. King Tuheitia, a cultural adviser at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, former campus manager for wananga in Huntly, schooled at Rakaumanga and St Stephen's College, father of three, and senior elder in his own right, has been well tutored by tribal elders, assisted by Tuwharetoa paramount chief Tumu Te Heuheu. There is a gap to bridge between cultures. The obligation is for Pakeha to step forward and for him to facilitate this. There is a gap to bridge between tribal elites and the flax roots of Maoridom. Poverty, health and housing are issues. There are concerns for the safety of our children.

Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, farewell on the last great journey down the river of your ancestors, past each bend where taniwha dwell, ascend sacred Taupiri, rest among those who have gone before, and look over the innocents.

* Dr Rawiri Taonui is head of Maori and Indigenous Studies, University of Canterbury.