Only weeks after they were installed, more than $7000 worth of local history plinths have been stolen in Ahipara.
One large sign and 10 smaller plinths have been removed in recent weeks, with no clue as to who is responsible for the illegal activity.
The signs were put up to coincide with the inaugural Matariki ki Ahipara celebration last month as a way of knowledge sharing about the local history with the community.
The plinths form part of the wider $7 million Te Hiku o Te Ika Open Spaces Revitalisation project, to provide new shared pathways, public art, park improvements, and street works in Kaitaia, Awanui and Ahipara.
Ahipara Aroha, Marae Takiwa o Ahipara and the Te Hiku o Te Ika Open Spaces Revitalisation working group worked together to come up with the signs, which took several months to create.
The large sign outside the Te Rarawa Rugby Club had the entire map of Ahiparapara, with 24 special places marked on each design.
Each landmark had a brief blurb in te reo Māori and English, explaining the significance and history behind each place and its name.
Speculation from some community leaders about the theft suggests those removing the plinths could be disgruntled residents unhappy with the signs' kaupapa.
Roma Marae chairman and member of Ahipara Aroha and Marae Takiwa o Ahipara, Hone (John) Paitai, put out a statement last week to address the issue.
In the statement, he requested those involved in taking down the signs, to stop.
"To the person or persons who are removing the plinths from around Ahipara and the main sign on the Te Rarawa Rugby fence, can you please stop," Paitai said.
"Each plinth names and marks a place of cultural significance to the ahi ka of Ahipara.
"They are there to educate and share knowledge. With knowledge comes enlightenment and an appreciation of why these places are important to our whānau, hapū and iwi of Ahipara."
Paitai said the plinths were installed in the hope children would learn the names and could become kaitiaki (guardians) of the places and assert their rangatiratanga (leadership) over them.
"The plinths are not intended for tourists, rather the information is for our own community as it gives a name to the area and a brief explanation without going into depth," Paitai said.
"Hopefully, inciting a reader's curiosity enough to ask a kaumatua, a kuia or a local about the place."
No contact yet on motive
According to Paitai, Ahipara residents had been encouraged to join the local committees where collective decisions were made around such projects as the signs.
He said those who chose not to participate were asked to show respect for the decision to place the plinths to educate the community.
"At this stage, the various groups involved will meet soon to discuss a solution moving forward," Paitai said.
"It's been really gutting to be honest, as the positive feedback from the community had been enormous.
"One thing I can say is we won't be replacing them as the cost for one plinth alone is $700, so they're just too expensive to recreate.
"There have been all kinds of rumours and hearsay about who is behind this, but at the end of the day, it is what it is and I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."
Te Hiku o Te Ika Open Spaces Revitalisation project lead Andrea Panther said the removal of the plinths had taken the shine off the work that had been happening around the region.
She said she wanted to remind people that funding for these projects was community led and took a lot of effort to execute.
"Not only is this a loss financially to our community, but all the hard work done by the Ahipara Aroha and Takiwa members to get these in place in time," Panther said.
"If anyone does have information on where our missing signs are being kept, that would be much appreciated."
Far North district councillor Felicity Foy was instrumental in designing and applying for funding for the Te Hiku o Te Ika Open Spaces Revitalisation project, and said she, too, was disappointed by the recent events.
"Matua John Paitai does so much for our local community and Roma Marae," Foy said.
"After all the work that John, the Ahipara Takiwā, the Ahipara Aroha group, and our Te
Hiku Masterplan working group have done, it is so sad to see these signs are being stolen/removed."
Te Taitokerau MP Kelvin Davis also weighed in on the issue, saying it was disappointing someone would steal something so important to the community.
He said by not sharing this information, the people responsible were effectively excluding residents from understanding who and where they came from.
"It was sad to hear the information panels recently erected in Ahipara have been vandalised and stolen," Davis said.
"Those panels displayed local place names and stories. They informed people of the rich history in the area.
"The panels were allegedly stolen by locals who don't want local place names, history and stories to be shown to the world.
"If this is true ... then there can't be any complaints that Pākehā don't understand Māori, or respect our waahi tapu, or appreciate our status as tangata whenua."
According to Paitai, the police had been informed and were looking into security camera footage from Ahipara School.
At about 7.42pm on July 4, security camera footage shows the large main sign being removed.
However, due to the position of the sign, thieves were able to take it down behind a fence, concealing their identity.
Panther said the groups had also received an anonymous donor offer to replace the sign, but were unsure whether to take up the offer in case the same thing happened again.
The Te Hiku o Te Ika Open Spaces Revitalisation working group is currently selecting concepts to be put forward by artists for the Kororā Park toilet blocks and entrance to Ahipara.
The new Ahipara welcome sign, which includes a digital component, is reportedly also not far away.
Northscape will soon install a bollard and rope fence to keep cars off the new footpath on
Foreshore Rd and construction of a new footpath from Panorama Lane up to the hill preceding Te Kohanga is due to start, pending clear weather.
If anyone has information about the stolen plinths, they are advised to contact Kaitaia police on 105.