It was 1995 and Whanganui was a city divided.

The iwi occupation of Pakaitore / Moutoa Gardens was a litnus to much deeper-seated cultural issues.

Emotions ran high all over town.

Several gangs had joined the occupation and there was a solid police presence. It felt like a tinder box that any small spark might ignite.

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A fierce haka outside of then Mayor Chas Poynter's bookshop had everyone in an uproar.

People feared if Whanganui was about to become another Bastion Point – or worse.

Walking onto Pakaitore / Moutoa Gardens for the first time, notebook and pen at hand, was like walking into the lion's den.

A placard labelled the local press a 'racist rag'. It felt far from peaceful.

That's when I first met Tariana Turia.

She and other senior iwi – Ken Mair and the late Niko Tangaroa – took time to sit under a canvas shade and explain their motivations and the issues they had.

Tariana did so with kindness, respect and patience. She later became one of the occupation's main spokespeople – and went on to a career in Parliament and a national honour.

The occupation ran for a turbulent 79 days – and while issues still simmer today – achieved much to advance iwi aspirations, address some of their grievances, and provide those with a will to listen, a better understanding.

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Today the occupation is marked each year with festive family-friendly celebrations that seem a world apart from those more than 20 years ago.

While Tariana was reportedly a reluctant recipient, her investiture in the city on Tuesday as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit was an appropriate mark of respect for a courageous campaigner and an inspiration to many.

Arise Aunty Tari.