The loss of Taniwha Springs has been mourned by Ngati Rangiwewehi since it was taken from them by the then council in 1966 but yesterday they celebrated its return alongside Rotorua Lakes Council.
More than 100 gathered at Tarimano Marae yesterday to mark the council's recent historic decision to return ownership of the springs to its traditional owners.
The celebrations included the signing of an agreement by council and Ngati Rangiwewehi representatives and a visit to the springs to plant ferns symbolising the two parties' new relationship.
Taken without negotiation in 1966 under the Public Works Act and vested in the then Rotorua County Council, the springs are of major cultural significance to Ngati Rangiwewehi.
"It is a significant taonga for us and we have mourned the loss," chairman of Ngāti Rangiwewehi's Pekehaua Puna Reserve Trust, Louis Bidois, said.
"The celebration of its return was a significant occasion. We see the springs as the life force of Rangiwewehi and placing a pump station over the top has been a cultural harm that runs deep," Mr Bidois said.
"It's always been Rangiwewehi's position that it wanted the pumps removed from there so that the spirit of Pekehaua - the taniwha who lived there - might return and with it, the mana of Rangiwewehi."
The council's resource consent to continue taking water from the spring does not expire until 2018 and the return of ownership now was seen as a goodwill gesture as part of building a new, positive relationship, Mr Bidois said.
"We recognise the value of the resource to Rotorua generally and to Ngongotaha and Awahou specifically. First we need time to grieve and to celebrate its return and what happens in the future will be for the iwi to decide."
Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick said yesterday's celebration was "a very significant occasion" for both Ngāti Rangiwewehi and the council. She acknowledged the loss of the iwi's taonga (treasure) had been very deeply felt.
"Returning the taonga was the right thing to do but it's been a long time coming and the iwi have been very patient.
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"We know there are more effective ways for local government and iwi to work together than has been experienced in the past. This council has undertaken to work better with iwi and I have faith in the collaborative new relationship we've established with Ngati Rangiwewehi."
The return of the springs and a memorandum of understanding signed between the iwi and council earlier this year signalled a new way of working together for the benefit of the wider community, Mrs Chadwick said.
"We can't change what happened in the past but we are doing what we can to make it right and now have a new way forward - tatau tatau (together), working side by side. We all have the interests of the district as a whole at heart and I'm confident the public interest and the community's aspirations can be well served alongside the aspirations of Ngati Rangiwewehi."
An easement will allow council to continue taking water from the spring until the current resource consent expires in 2018.
Council and the iwi are in discussions about its future and alternative water supply options are also being explored.
"We're undertaking these discussions in good faith, exploring the potential for solutions that would be good for both parties, but any final decision will rest entirely with Ngati Rangiwewehi," she said.
"There is another wrong affecting Ngati Rangiwewehi that also needs to be put right. And this is to do with the Hamurana Springs water take easement area that was left in Crown hands when the rest of the Hamurana Springs was returned to Ngati Rangiwewehi.
"There is no reason why this land needs to stay in Crown hands to secure council's water take as this is already secured by an easement. I would like council to support the transfer of this area to its rightful owners and work with [the Department of Conservation] to make this happen.
"It is my view that this should be part of council's commitment to doing the right thing."
The Pekehaua Puna, or Taniwha Springs, feed Awahou Stream and are precious taonga to Ngāti Rangiwewehi, both as the home of the taniwha Pekehaua and as a water resource.
Pekehaua made his lair in the main spring, Te Waro-Uri ('the dark chasm'), and stories of the taniwha are central to Ngati Rangiwewehi traditions and identity as an iwi. Life springs forth for the iwi through the river that emerges from Te Waro-Uri.
Taniwha Springs is linked by underground channels to other waterways and Pekehaua used these channels to visit Hinerua, the taniwha of Hamurana Springs, a site also sacred to Ngāti Rangiwewehi.
In 1966, land at Pekehaua Puna Reserve/Taniwha Springs, was taken from the Pekehaua Puna Trust/Ngati Rangiwewehi for waterworks purposes under the Public Works Act 1928 and vested in the Rotorua County Council. There was no negotiation.
Ngati Rangiwewehi retained only 20 percent of the land awarded to them by the Native Land Court, and a pump station was built over Te Waro-Uri, where it remains today.
In the iwi's 2012 Treaty settlement, the taking of the springs was acknowledged by the Crown as Ngati Rangiwewehi's "greatest grievance".
However, the springs were not handed back as part of the settlement due to a policy at the time to not deal with land owned or administered by local authorities.
Ngati Rangiwewehi has mourned the loss of Taniwha Springs since its taking and considers that although the taking was in accordance with the law at the time, it was morally wrong, and caused the iwi great and lasting hurt.