A taonga plundered by soldiers from a Whanganui River marae during the 1865 siege of Pipiriki is a step closer to home after a near 50-year battle to have it returned.
The taonga, described as an obelisk, is a waka maumaharatanga made from the hull of a canoe. Nearly 5m tall, it was erected at Te Koanga o Rehua marae in the middle reaches of the Whanganui River as a monument to the memory of Te Mahutu, a chief of the Pipiriki area.
The taonga was taken during the colonial siege of Pipiriki township and eventually found its way to the Dominion Museum in 1911.
Pipiriki kaumātua Don Robinson says the people of Pipiriki have sought the return of the taonga since it was first taken. He was told about the looted taonga as a young man in the early 60s and has been behind the drive since the 70s to bring the waka maumaharatanga back to the river.
"In 1978, I shifted back to live in Ohakune and I took a stronger interest. I met with some of my cousins in the 1980s – Matiu Mareikura, Mark Cribb, Ruka Broughton and, from time to time, John Tahuparae. We went to Wellington to view it and asked if we could have the object returned either to Pipiriki or to the Whanganui museum."
However, a decision was made to move it to the newly established national museum Te Papa in the 1990s.
Despite this, efforts continued to bring the taonga home, Robinson said.
The waka maumaharatanga was originally situated about 300m from the water's edge at the entranceway to Te Koanga o Rehua on the western bank of the Whanganui River, opposite the current Pipiriki settlement.
"In those days, there were seven or eight marae in the area and although we had gardens, urupā and some people living where the settlement is today, the main village was on the western bank."
Robinson says that following the battle of Moutoa in 1864, the people shifted upstream to Ohoutahi and then, following more fighting, from Ohoutahi to Pipiriki where Crown forces and their supporters later lay siege to Pipiriki. Documents from the time show that the soldiers were interested in two pieces of Pipiriki heritage.
"One was the obelisk Koanga Rehua and the other was the church," Robinson says. "Parts of the main church were taken at the same time. They were uplifted and taken to Whanganui. Koanga Rehua was deposited at the Pūtiki marae urupā.
"This is something that wasn't gifted to anyone, it was an act on behalf of the soldiers that were here … it was a war trophy to some of these people to have it removed from Pipiriki.
"These items were confiscated … that's probably not the right word – they were taken illegally. No one likes to use these words, but these are the things that happened there. That has been a concern to us."
The taonga was kept at Pūtiki Marae for some years before being passed to Sir Walter Buller, who erected it on family property at Lake Ōhau near Levin. After his death, Buller's family gifted the waka maumaharatanga to the Dominion Museum in 1911.
Robinson, a long-time member of the Whanganui Regional Museum's bicameral governance structure, the Tikanga Māori House and the Joint Council, says he is excited that decades of negotiation have finally been successful.
Earlier this year, Robinson travelled with governing board chair Marshall Tangaroa, Museum director Bronwyn Labrum and staff members to approach Te Papa again.
"We discussed again at length what we would like to see happen. We had a very strong response from Te Papa and it was a greater response than we had received previously. I believe the taonga should be back in Whanganui later this year," Robinson said.
Whanganui Regional Museum director Bronwyn Labrum says the taonga will be returned initially as a long-term loan but repatriation discussions with Te Papa would continue. She says Te Papa is working through a repatriation programme in response to requests from a number of iwi who have taonga in Te Papa collections.
The famed taiaha known as Te Ringa Mahikai, belonging to the middle reaches warrior Te Hāmarama, was among 14 taonga brought back to Whanganui Museum by Te Papa in 2019.
"There's a nationwide repatriation programme for the return of such objects," Labrum says. "In some cases quite a lot of research has to be done to establish the claim, the relationship and the provenance – but in this case, it's really clear.
"Of course, we are consulting with the iwi to whom it belongs about bringing it back and the tikanga around that. We are also discussing where it may be put on display, whether it's the museum atrium or the Māori Court."
Exhibiting the upturned prow might require changes to existing displays. The Māori Court is the biggest single exhibition area in the museum but space is tight.
"It's very tall, which is one of the interesting points of discussion that we're having about how we might display it and where it should go. The waka that are in the Māori Court take up the whole length of the gallery and if we put this upturned prow in we're going to have to shift those. But part of the purpose of repatriation is to put it on display.
"These objects are all about people and relationships, responding to requests and doing things properly, and sometimes these things take some time."