COMMENT:

More than five years ago the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) started concept work on a pou maumahara, or memorial carving, to recognise and honour the contribution of all New Zealanders in World War I, including the New Zealand Māori Pioneer Battalion.

Eventually the Passchendaele Memorial Gardens, in Zonnebeke, Belgium was chosen as the most appropriate place for the pou to be located.

On Anzac Day, representatives of both NZMACI and the New Zealand Government attended the ceremony to unveil and gift this magnificent pou to the people of Zonnebeke.

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The land where the pou now stands holds a special meaning for us. Even though we come from the other side of the world, many of our men lie there never to return home. For some their line was broken there, for all time.

But we do not forget them. The pou acts as an enduring reminder of the service and sacrifice shown by our soldiers and forever commemorates our countries' shared loss and legacy. We are all committed to ensuring this recognition continues forever.

For NZMACI, who carved the 8m, 6-tonne pou over a four-year period, the kaupapa pays tribute to our ancestors and provides a long-lasting memorial in a place of considerable prestige.

This is the first time Māori contribution to World War I has been recognised in this way – anywhere in the world. What this pou stands for is of great significance, it tells the story of our history acknowledging those who stood on the frontline as well as those who remained home in Aotearoa.

Many New Zealanders will be familiar with names and places around this region such as Messines, the Polygon Wood Sector, the Salient, and of course, Passchendaele. Most of us have a connection to these places, one way or another.

For me, it was my grandfather, Pita, who was a member of the very first Māori contingent that left for World War I in 1915. He was one of those lucky enough to return in April, 1919.

His younger brother, Ropihana, wasn't. Ropihana was killed in the battle of the Somme in 1916. He lies at the Bulls Rd Cemetery in Flers, France, a place I visited earlier this week. This is a small out, of the way cemetery and at least half of the graves are unmarked, a harsh reminder of the horror that unfolded in that area more than 100 years ago.

In the days leading up to the Anzac Day ceremony we talked to many locals. It is clear that, even after 101 years, the people of Belgium remain fully committed to recognising and acknowledging the contributions of all allied nations in World War I.

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On my first night here, I observed the remembrance service at the Menin Gate, in Ypres. This service has been performed every night for the last 101 years, except for an enforced break during World War II. They tell us the crowds are getting bigger every year, not smaller, and I can see why.

The other thing that struck me is that the Belgians are really interested in who we are, our story, and how this is represented through the pou maumahara. There is nothing like this pou in the Passchendaele Memorial Gardens.

The pou has two sides. One represents tumatauenga (war) and faces the north west towards the "jumping off line" for our soldiers in the Battle of Passchendaele. It commemorates those who left New Zealand shores to fight – and the many who never returned.

The other side, rongomaraeroa (peace), faces the south east, acknowledging those who remained in Aotearoa New Zealand, including those who opposed conscription (compulsory military service).

In the days leading up to the ceremony we received many questions from the Belgium people about what these two sides meant, and why the pou was created this way.

Our answer was simple – we wish to recognise not only those that fought in the war but also those who, for whatever reason, did not.

For Māori this is an important part of a broader story that is not well known or understood, not just overseas, but in New Zealand also.

What makes the Māori contribution to World War I even more remarkable, be it as members of the New Zealand Māori Pioneer Battalion, or as part of other New Zealand battalions, is that only 50 years earlier many Māori themselves had been subjected to serious and life-changing injustices at the hands of the New Zealand Government in their own country.

Because of this, some Māori, mainly those iwi and hapū who suffered the most heinous acts by the Crown refused to participate in the war, even after conscription was introduced in 1916.

Essentially their point was that "In the 1800s you stole our land, killed our people and imprisoned others without trial, so why should we now fight for you?".

Many Māori were imprisoned because of the stance they took in 1916 and no doubt would have been further stigmatised and alienated as a result.

Some 80 years after those Māori were imprisoned for refusing to fight in the war the Crown have, in the context of Treaty Settlements, acknowledged that in fact many Crown actions in the 1800s against Māori were wrong, unjust and unconscionable.

That's perhaps a polite way to explain what happened but nonetheless it represents an important acknowledgement of wrongdoing which shines a light on a dark time in our history.

 James Rickard from New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute with the pou maumahara. PHOTO / SUPPLIED
James Rickard from New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute with the pou maumahara. PHOTO / SUPPLIED

Many would see this Treaty settlement acknowledgement as vindicating the position taken by those Māori in 1916 not to fight for a power they considered to be their oppressor.

Numerous historical Crown injustices in the 1800s and early 1900s nearly wiped Māori out culturally and economically. But not quite.

Māori are extremely resilient and have for some time been in a period of sustained cultural and economic growth. NZMACI see our role as supporting that cultural growth, including story telling through our taonga.

For NZMACI it is vital that this pou represents those two sides of war and peace. In doing so we hope that visitors to Passchendaele Memorial Gardens look at the pou, think about the contribution all New Zealanders made and also the unique position that Māori were in when they either chose to fight in World War I, or not.

This is an important story for all New Zealanders as well.

We have been humbled by the reception we have had here in Belgium. The Belgians are extremely hospitable and remain fully committed to recognising and honouring the contributions of all New Zealanders in World War I; they're interested in our story, so we need to tell it.

As the saying goes there are two sides to a story, and we hope the pou maumahara honours those two sides.

David Tapsell is a member of the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute's board. He spoke on behalf of the board at the 2019 Anzac Day pou maumahara unveiling and gifting ceremony at the Passchendaele Memorial Gardens in Zonnebeke, Belgium.