I am quite taken by the striking Maori totems on the new Kopu and Waikato Expressway bridges. I figured the taxpayer was milked for them. There would be outrage if they were Christian crosses but somehow they are okay because they're Maori.
I decided to find out more. A Google search turned up nothing. I emailed the New Zealand Transport Agency. I thought it would have a brochure to explain the history and spiritualism behind what are I now know to be called pou. Nope. Nothing.
There followed six months of emailing back and forth. Finding out about pou was harder than pulling state secrets.
The best the Transport Agency could produce was that the eight pou whenua at the Kopu Bridge were part of the "Tangata Whenua Mitigation Plan", which, in turn, was a condition of the bridge's resource consent. Taxpayers funded the pou for Ngati Maru because they are kaitiaki (guardians) of the Waihou River.
The four pou erected on the new Waikato River bridge on the Ngaruawahia section of the Expressway, it was explained, tell the stories of Tainui's involvement with the river.
There are to be similar pou to mark the Expressway's Huntly section. That's because the highway goes near sacred sites such as the Taupiri urupa and because it traverses several different marae areas.
The Transport Agency told me the stories behind the pou are culturally sensitive and hence the delay and difficulty in providing what little information it could garner.
How strange is that? We all pass them. We all paid for them. But the responsible public servants can't tell us what they signify or are for. Other than that the council made them do it.
The Transport Agency did provide contact details for an iwi representative who, it said, was happy to help. I fired off an email.
The very polite and kind reply left me not much the wiser. My iwi contact explained the pou "symbolise and represent ancestors hapu [subtribes]".
And that protection of histories can sometimes be confused with "secrecy".
"It is common knowledge and practice for hapu to keep safe their histories. However, what is displayed along the Ngaruawahia section are carvings that Tangata Whenua are happy to share with the country, with the world."
I still don't know what the pou mean or represent or the story they tell.
I know only that they somehow symbolise and represent hapu ancestors.
And that they are there as "cultural mitigation", whatever that is, and as a condition of the resource consent.
So when you see the pou, remember you paid for them.
And that what they are about is not secret but next to impossible to find out. And know this: we no longer keep church and state separate.
It's not Christianity the Government backs, but refloated Paganism.
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