Centuries ago, there lived an explorer. His name was Tamatea and he was descended from a family of famous Polynesian explorers. Tamatea-pōkai-whenua means Tamatea who-encircled-the-land. He is known as the great land traveller in Māori tradition.
Tamatea arrived in Whanganui and he noticed that there were people living up on the hill in a place that is now known as Pūtiki. He wanted to meet these people and he wanted them to see that he was a chief, a rangatira, a weaver of people.
Tamatea sent his slave into a swamp, not far from where the Warehouse is now. "Find me a strong piece of harakeke, so that I can bind my hair into a pūtiki [topknot] and the people of Whanganui will see that I am a rangatira."
The slave waded into the swamp where he found a type of harakeke growing, called waranui. He stripped a leaf from the plant, shredded a piece with his finger and bound the hair of Tamatea into a fine "man bun". The harakeke broke and Tamatea felt his hair tumble free. The slave tore another strip and once again it broke and once again his hair tumbled free.
"The harakeke in Whanganui is not like the harakeke on the east coast," Tamatea said. The slave stripped a third piece of harakeke and again bound the hair of Tamatea into a pūtiki. This time it stayed bound. Tamatea made his way across the awa (river) and walked up to the village on the hill. "Where is your koha?" asked the people of Whanganui. "What gift have you brought us?"
"I will give you a name as a gift," Tamatea replied. "I name this place Pūtiki-waranui-a-Tamatea-pōkai-whenua," which means the place where Tamatea who encircled the land bound his hair into a topknot.
Different varieties of harakeke have different qualities of fibre. Phormium tenax, sometimes called New Zealand flax, or harakeke, is a versatile material for many uses. It was used, and still is, to make medicine, clothing, shelters, bindings for tools and waka, rope, nets, bags, containers, carrying straps and plates. Over the centuries, Māori selected and grew varieties of harakeke for particular qualities such as strength, softness, durability, colour and quantity of fibre. These values are still recognised today.
Historians believe that people settled permanently in Pūtiki about 400 years ago. Many Whanganui Māori spent the warmer months living in and around where the city is now. They grew food to store for winter and to trade for goods with surrounding iwi. They would retreat to the safety of the upper reaches of the awa in the wintertime.
The people of Pūtiki were wealthy. There was an abundance of food available to them from the forest, the swamps and the ocean. There were massive gardens that grew many different types of kūmara.
Pūtiki has always been known as the Window to the Whanganui River. Long ago the river was like a motorway, allowing access to the central North Island. To get on that motorway, you had to go through Pūtiki. During the Land Wars of the 1860s, Māori from Pūtiki fought to help protect the lives of the Europeans who had settled here.
Pūtiki is still a bustling community. This small settlement can boast of an authentic living marae and a beautiful, unique church that is a fusion of Māori and Pākehā religion, in stories, design, art and architecture. There is a kura kaupapa (a te reo Māori primary school) and a kōhanga reo (kindergarten). This is the place that was named centuries ago by a famous explorer who was clearly having a very bad hair day.
• Lisa Reweti is programmes presenter at Whanganui Regional Museum.