One hundred and thirty years after a Ngati Awa wharenui, Mataatua, left our shores for colonial exhibitions, brushes with royalty and the Sport of Kings, a Whakatane dawn ceremony will celebrate its restoration today.

When it opened in 1875, the 24m-long whare was intended by two prominent chiefs, Wepiha Apanui and Hohaia Matatehokia, to stand as a symbol of unity.

The iwi had been labelled "rebellious" and subjected to massive land confiscations by the Crown - out of its original estate of 100,000ha, barely 2000 remained by the 1870s.

Huge by even today's standards, Mataatua is the only wharenui in existence with two sets of twins depicted on the two upright supports on the front gable of the house.


In a nod to the political forces of the day it also featured a mermaid figure on the left hand side of the house named Te Makarini for Sir Donald McLean, the Native Affairs Minister.

Professor Sir Hirini Moko Mead says while it may have been viewed as an honour for the important figure in New Zealand politics, it was actually a bit of a dig.

"The joke part of it, which only a Maori could see, was that he was turned into a marakihau - a fish monster.

"He wasn't honoured as a true ancestor, but almost like a taniwha figure from another world. I think he would have loved it."

But just four years later it was dismantled by the Crown and shipped to Sydney to appear in an inter-colonial exhibition where its woven tukutuku panels and internal carvings were damaged by being erected outside.

"It was the ultimate surrender of iwi control over itself and its future."

Sir Hirini said the Crown had sent a captain stationed in Te Teko to ask for it. The implied threat of violence would have been a factor in it being dismantled. However, Ngati Awa argued successfully in its Waitangi Tribunal Treaty claim for Mataatua to be returned on the basis that the Crown had assumed an ownership which never existed.

Between 1879 and 1996 it travelled to London, Melbourne and was photographed with King George V and Queen Mary in 1924, was stored and exhibited in two British institutions before finding a home in Dunedin for much of last century.

After 1925, a Pakeha carver added two sequences including Phar Lap's winning Melbourne Cup run in 1930 and an ode to his best friend.

"He had a memorial to his dog. We discarded all of those but he did some pretty good work. I think he carved the pare [lintel] and he did a pretty good job of it."

For 15 years Ngati Awa has been working on restoring carvings and battling through the Environment Court to get it sited in Whakatane.

If Mataatua's walls could talk, they'd tell of damage and aching loneliness for home, but also of hope, Sir Hirini believes.

"It says: Here we are. We've been through a lot, the house has too, but we're here today ready to face the future and we're in much better shape to do that."