More than 700 people gathered on an isolated hilltop south of Kawakawa to remember the victims of a battle 175 years ago as Waitangi commemorations got under way in earnest yesterday.
The dedication of a memorial at Ruapekapeka Pā to 12 British soldiers, whose unmarked grave was rediscovered in 2017, was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's first official engagement of a four-day stay in Northland.
Twenty Māori also died in the Battle of Te Ruapekapeka, the final conflict of the 1845-46 Northern War.
The Prime Minister was joined at the ceremony by many of her ministers, the Governor-General, the Chief of Defence Force, the British High Commissioner, Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata and descendants of fighters from both sides of the palisades.
Ardern said some of the stories from the battle had become legendary, such as the children who defused shells as they landed in the pā, and the way the ''masterful structure'' was abandoned as a trap for the British.
New Zealand history tended to be under-played because it wasn't on the scale of events in other countries — but the New Zealand Wars did as much to shape this country as civil wars did in England and the USA.
That was one of the reasons New Zealand history would in future be taught in schools, she said.
British High Commissioner Laura Clarke thanked the people of Ruapekapeka for their determination to find, and honour, the soldiers' long-lost grave.
She also read a message from British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who said he felt grateful and humbled.
Pita Tipene, interim chairman of Te Ruapekapeka Trust, said Māori influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement had challenged him about building a memorial to colonial troops.
''My reply was, my ancestors fought the British to the death but respected them. They even provided them with water and ammunition so they could keep fighting. As they were respected in life, they will be respected in death.''
Tipene didn't miss his chance to deliver some blunt messages to the Government, saying iwi were still waiting for a genuine response to the 2014 Waitangi Tribunal report that found Ngāpuhi chiefs did not give up sovereignty when they signed the Treaty.
He also spoke of the deep divisions left by the Battle of Te Ruapekapeka — more Māori fought outside the pa than inside — and that the Government had been slow to recognise those divisions in its Treaty settlement process.
Many speakers paid tribute to Allan Halliday, the former trust chairman who did much of the groundwork for the commemorations but died suddenly in December.
Yesterday's event started with mortar fire from the pā, the signal for warriors of the Te Tira Taua mass haka group to descend to the site of the British encampment of 1846.
They performed a powerful haka pōwhiri and a series of challenges, the first of which was accepted by New Zealand's most famous contemporary soldier, Willie Apiata VC.
After speeches with waiata tautoko by the New Zealand Army Band and a volley of shots, the memorial was dedicated by Bishop of Te Tai Tokerau Te Kitohi Pikaahu.
Helping unveil the monument was Kene Martin, the 82-year-old great-great-granddaughter of Te Ruki Kawiti — the Ngāti Hine chief who built Ruapekapeka Pā, known as ''the bats' nest'' for its intricate underground defences, 175 years earlier.
Later Ardern visited nearby Kawiti Marae where she was given a tour of the glow worm cave and took part in a tree-planting programme. A planned dinner for kaumatua and kuia was cancelled due to concerns about Covid-19.
Today she will be formally welcomed at the Treaty Grounds.
Yesterday's event took place in scorching sunshine with coordinator Huhana Lyndon saying she had distributed 1200 bottles of water then had to head back to Kawakawa on a mercy mission for more.
The commemorations were another step in the reconciliation between the warring parties of 175 years ago, she said.