Mātakitaki Pā in Pirongia is one of the bloodiest battle sites in Aotearoa-New Zealand – not during the New Zealand Wars between Government forces and Māori from 1845-72 – but decades earlier between two powerful tribes with a history of fluctuating relationships, Tainui and Ngā Puhi, in what became known as the Musket Wars.
On Friday the sacred site was recognised with the unveiling of a carved waharoa (entranceway), mānuka palisade fence and three carved pou (posts) to commemorate the people who lived and died there in 1822.
Dr Tom Roa (Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto) says the significance of the day of commemorations and celebration was to enable Tainui and Ngā Puhi to move forward together in the spirit of peace and reconciliation.
The waharoa and pou were unveiled in the presence of Kiingi Tūheitia, his cousin Hon Nanaia Mahuta (Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Manu), local iwi, representatives from Northland iwi, Waipā deputy mayor Liz Stolwyk and other dignitaries.
The carvings are the work of Māori artist James Webster and his team of carvers, developed in collaboration with Pūrekireki Marae, Te Rūnanganui o Ngāti Hikairo and Waipā District Council.
The installation took place under the guidance of local kaumātua.
In May 1822, Mātakitaki Pā witnessed an invasion by Northland iwi under the Ngā Puhi chief Hongi Hika.
The defence was headed by Waikato warrior leader Te Wherowhero – later Pōtatau Te Wherowhero when he became the first Māori King in 1858.
The pā, a place of refuge, was overwhelmed by Hongi Hika and his musket-bearing warriors who laid siege to the fortified settlement. A reported 1500 people died in the battle and while escaping from the crowded pā.
Tom says that as the 200th anniversary of the battle looms it is important to remember it was a significant event in Māori history – and as such should never be forgotten.
"History is both good and bad. From the bad we can learn lessons for the future," says Tom.
He says the invasion of Mātakitaki Pā by Ngā Puhi came about because of the death of Hongi Hika's nephew Te Haranui while in the care of Waikato iwi.
"In 1820 our ancestors got into a confrontation with other tribes and Te Haranui chose to join in," says Tom.
"Unfortunately he was killed as a result and understandably his family held his hosts responsible as they didn't look after him.
"Hongi Hika responded as expected, and as his warriors made their way south many Māori made their way to Mātakitaki because of its reputation as being a formidable defence for hand-to-hand fighting."
Tom says it was actually three pā, with a series of canals with spiked defences, and narrow bridges, but that was its downfall when muskets arrived.
"Most of the people were non-combatants taking refuge, but they soon panicked when Ngā Puhi set up their lines across the river and started firing.
"All they heard was a bang and then someone would be on the ground, bleeding."
Further confusion followed when Te Wherowhero's warriors returned fire from within the pā with muskets they had captured in an earlier skirmish; giving many seeking shelter the notion Ngā Puhi had breached their defences.
"They didn't understand this 'black magic' so they ran. In the panic many were killed in the crush or by falling into the canals," says Tom.
Council's iwi relations adviseer Shane Te Ruki says it was important to remember the event and the impact it made on the people who lived and died at Mātakitaki 198 years ago.
"Mātakitaki is a place of great cultural significance to the local hapū and iwi and descendants. It was there that the dark spectre of musket warfare cast its shadow for the first time in the Waipā," he says.
"It stirs the souls of the iwi of Tainui and dilates the hearts of the descendants of the northern musket bearers.
"Friday's dedication enabled the sharing of stories, contemplative moments, tears and the strengthening of relationships between the tribes and the connections between all who attended. It is an important milestone in the ongoing work being done to commemorate events that brought monumental change to tribal life."
Reconciliation had begun soon after defeated Ngā Puhi warriors returned north.
A marriage was arranged between Te Wherowhero's younger brother Kati Takiwaru to Matire Toha, daughter of Ngā Puhi chief Rewa.
Tom says relations between Waikato and Ngā Puhi have been both good and bad over the ages.
"After invading Mātakitaki, Ngā Puhi continued south to Ōtorohanga, but by now local iwi had also acquired arms and Ngā Puhi warriors were repelled.
"Some survivors were allowed to return north to spread the word."
Tom says the unveiling ceremonies, followed by a powhiri and kai at nearby Pūrekireki Marae, featured karanga and karakia which dealt with the recollections of the events of 1822 and allowed reconciliation while maintaining mana Māori.
"It was hugely significant to have the presence of Kiingi Tūheitia and descendants of Kati Takiwaru and Matire Toha," says Tom.
"Kiingi Tūheitia has a mandate to unify Māori, so he was invited to unveil the waharoa and lead the procession on to the site.
"He was joined by other representatives of Tainui to unveil the first pou, Pou Maumahara, carved in a traditional process to represent the passing of significant ancestors."
Artist James says the representation of the decommissioned waka is a portal on the journey to the other world.
The base of the pou represents Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess who is guardian of the gateway to the spiritual world.
Ngā Puhi unveiled the second pou – Pou Hohou i te Rongo, carved in niho taniwha (saw edged) pattern - a design connected to Waikato.
It signifies the rebuilding of community through the descendants of those who lost their lives at Mātakitaki .
The third pou, Ngā Pou Tūwatawata, represents the fortifications of the three adjoining pā - Mātakitaki, Tauranga Kohia and Puketutu, located on a peninsula formed by the Waipā River and its tributary the Mangapiko.
Is intertwining 'helix' design represents the connections of the three pā and the DNA and whakapapa of the iwi.
The waharoa, which stands at the entrance to Mātakitaki, forms the shape of a rūrū (owl) as a kaitiaki (guardian) of the surrounding lands.
Mātakitaki is wāhi tapu (sacred place) and features in the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero.
Tainui iwi are planning a bicentennial event for 2022 and in the interim is working closely with Ngā Puhi for the mutual benefit of both tribes.