A project aimed at to identifying sites of significance to Māori in Northland is about to get under way, with the goal of protecting them and restoring knowledge of their history.
The project, led by Whangaroa Papa Hapū, with support from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, has begun identifying wāhi tapu and key archaeological features in the Whangaroa area, and recording kōrero about them.
It will incorporate places within a wider landscape, and will enable sites to be scheduled by the Far North District Council, and thus protected.
Pat Tauroa (Whangaroa Papa Hapū) said significant sites had to be granted recognition before it was too late.
"Whangaroa was the first area where resources were extracted and sent overseas. It was also where European settlement occurred with the missionaries, and where colonial rule started to impact Māori," she said.
"All this has not only been felt; it's still being applied. By 1865, Māori here had lost 65 per cent of our land to the Crown. A lot of the information and history about sites of significance has also gone."
There had been no shortage of archaeological reports and research over the years according to Robyn Tauroa, one of the team of hapū volunteer archivists who are driving the project, but they only went so far.
"At least 12 archaeological reports have been done as part of resource consent processes," she said.
"They've all recorded archaeological sites, but none have been scheduled on the district plan, and therefore protected."
According to fellow hapū volunteer Awhirangi Lawrence, indifference and ignorance had resulted in wāhi tapu and archaeological sites being "sidelined," and in some cases deliberately destroyed.
"We have become wary about identifying places, because some of the kōrero that we share is not always taken seriously," she said.
"Our way of believing and living has been denigrated as 'myths and legends,' so many Māori have stopped talking about these places."
The project provided opportunities to reclaim and record the histories associated with those places, this time on hapū terms.
Distorted versions of history were another reason for the project according to Waiatua Hikuwai.
"The way the Boyd incident is told, for example, always makes Māori look bad. I want to be able to tell that story from our perspective, with integrity and aroha," she said.
"It's similar with our waka tūpuna, who are portrayed as arriving here skeletal and emaciated. In fact, the opposite is true. It was actually colonists who often arrived needing sustenance, which was often provided by Māori."
There was some concern about sharing the knowledge, however.
"We know of situations where some tour operators, for example, tell our stories in a derogatory way, and make money out of it. Nevertheless, we feel that the risk is outweighed by the opportunity to protect these places by increasing people's understanding of them," Robyn Tauroa said.
"The cause is a greater one."
The next generation was another driving force.
"My grandchildren are asking for kōrero about tūpuna history. If this project can help record some of this information, then at least the kōrero will carry on," Pat Tauroa said.
Ultimately the hapū wanted sites protected and respected, whether that be through wildlife restoration, a halt to pine forestry, or, in the case of Taratara, the commanding maunga that dominates the landscape, "keeping people out of our flaming caves and letting our tūpuna rest in peace," she added.
Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Māori Heritage director Mita Harris was excited about the project's possibilities.
"The best thing is that it is being led by hapū, and can potentially result in similar work happening around the country," he said.