Abel Tasmen National Park (Photo supplied)

If you stop and listen to the whenua, the history of Aotearoa will make itself heard, writes Aroha Gilling.


As I pack my battered old van to head away on holiday, chasing my elderly dog around to get him organised while I look for a spanner for my bike-rack, I find my mind drifting. I can’t help but wonder if anyone else thinks about the whenua and its history as they park up, pitch a tent, or unhook the caravan.

The whenua knows our pain. Generations of loss, hurt and violence stain the soil. Broken promises and lost dreams lie scattered across the land like discarded weapons on a battlefield.

Many years ago, on holiday, I walked the steep, barren hills of Gallipoli. It felt like an urupā punctuated by monuments to the fallen of both sides. Kōiwi, or human remains, were visible in trench walls. A silent Turkish gentleman found a military button and held it out to me. He pressed it into my hand and it was warm from his touch. When he turned away, I put it down gently and scuffed a little dry earth back over it.

You don’t have to go that far afield to find equally moving and fascinating sites that tell the story of Aotearoa New Zealand.

I’ve had the great privilege to visit some special places in our country, some of them designated sites of significance, some of them little known. All are embedded with colonial narratives of acquisition, together with whānau, hapū and iwi chronicles of resistance and loss. Some sites have an immediate impact on me, while others create a more gradual and cumulative effect. But, with all of them, the lessons of the past whisper and linger in my thoughts, filtering into my values and beliefs today.

One very hot, still day not long ago, I had the distinct misfortune to climb the steep cliff face of a tiny island known as Horahora Kākahu, across from Port Underwood, north of Blenheim. Gravity was not my friend as I struggled up through a web of gorse, sometimes crawling, in the unrelenting heat.

But the story this tiny piece of whenua tells has stuck with me way beyond the gorse scratches fading away.

On June 17, 1840, Major Thomas Bunbury met with Te Tau Ihu iwi and gathered signatures for Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Just a day later, his men are understood to have scrambled up the cliff at Horahora Kākahu and raised the British flag to declare sovereignty over the South Island.

This small-big act signalled the Crown’s intentions clearly. Today, historical focus remains, rightly, on the later land deeds that alienated most of the South Island by 1864. But the simplicity of that flag being planted in whenua Māori, immediately after the Tiriti signing, feels significant and meaningful to me. I felt the deception and ill-intention of that action echo down the years, as I stood dripping sweat and picking out hundreds of gorse thorns beside an odd and rarely-seen heritage monument on top of the cliff.

Horahora Kākahu island in Marlborough. (Photo supplied)

I regularly drive by the Tuamarina stream as I travel to Picton on State Highway One. The stream is a familiar part of my trip, just like the nearby cherry orchards and the sweet little cottage I’ve always admired. But if I pause for a moment and allow my mind to really dwell on what the place represents, it can take my breath away.

Tuamarina stream is the location of the 1843 confrontation between Ngāti Toa Rangatira, led by Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, and the Wakefield Company settlers designated as Special Constables, led by Henry Thompson and Arthur Wakefield. The battle is known today as the Wairau Affray. When it was over, Te Rangihaeata’s wife, Rongo, (who was also Te Rauparaha’s daughter) had been killed, and a significant number of the freshly minted Special Constables lay dead, including Thompson and Wakefield.

A fierce drive to acquire Māori land fuelled the attack. Baseless promises made by the Wakefield company to people who bought passage from England, a complete failure to understand tikanga Māori and the agreements cemented in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Treaty of Waitangi only three years earlier, all aggravated by racist beliefs and a sense of superiority, emboldened the settlers as they sought to secure land.

The intentions signalled by the flag that was planted on Horahora Kākahu were soon fulfilled by incursions into Ngāti Toa Rangatira territory in Wairau, and the eventual alienation of that verdant and extensive valley.

It’s a history that reminds me to watch carefully for signals of intent today, a potent lesson that lingers, whispers to me from the low-key little stream that is the Tuamarina.

Opotaka on the shores of Lake Rotoaira in the central North Island is another location whose importance echoes through our collective consciousness even though most of us don’t know or recognise it.

Opotaka is the site of Te Wharerangi’s pā. It’s the place that Ngāti Toa Rangatira chief Te Rauparaha concealed himself from pursuit. There, he pondered whether he would die or live, his thoughts immortalised in the words of the haka Ka Mate.

Joe Harawira at Opotaka. (Photo supplied)

On a crisp autumn day, I was fortunate to hear this kōrero recounted by renowned te ao Māori storyteller Joe Harawira. He also told a story that he called the Battle of the Mountains, in which Tongariro, Taranaki, Tauhara and Pūtauaki fought over the maiden maunga, Pīhanga, clad in her lovely kahu kākāriki. Tongariro finally won and the other maunga fled to where we find them today.

Sitting in Pīhanga’s shadow by the side of a kūmara pit, it was so easy to actually see these stories unfold in my mind’s eye. I’m sure some people would write that off as a flight of imagination, but it I believe in the principle of all things being imbued with mauri, or a vitality and life force. For me, no great leap is required to believe that echoes of mauri linger and can be reanimated when given life by someone as skilled as Joe.

On a visit to Whakaraupō/Lyttleton Harbour, the whispers from the whenua caught me unprepared. We unloaded at the dock at Rīpapa Island and walked to the start of the wall which encloses the island’s buildings. At that point, I stopped, turned to my colleague, and said: “I don’t think I want to go any further.”

I sat down on the nearby wall to chat to a friend who was recovering from recent surgery. We passed a pleasant half hour until the rest of our group returned. When they came back, a colleague remarked: “It’s no wonder you didn’t want to go. Parihaka prisoners were kept there.” He pointed to the old barracks. Rīpapa is also a site rich in Ngāi Tahu cultural memories and traditions, and beneath the colonial veneer, I sensed  much deeper stories running layers and layers deep.

The cliff face of Pukerangiora Pā is full of echoing layers too. The pā, situated high above the Waitara River, is the site of multiple bloody sieges. Two occurred during the period of history known as the Musket Wars, in the early 1800s, where various iwi faced off against each other in prolonged and bloody encounters. A generation later, the pā was the site of a clash between Te Ātiawa and northern iwi against the British Army. The army hammered the pā with artillery fire, and their trenches encroached within metres of the iwi defences.

I was fortunate enough to sit with the descendants of those who protected the pā, above the colonial trenches, and to listen to their recounting of that history. As I sometimes do when I’m tired and overwhelmed, I let myself mentally and emotionally drift in a gentle, unfocused way. A picture of iwi warriors attacking the British soldiers, then fleeing back over the cliff to their scaffolding that hung precipitously above the river on the extreme cliff face, out of the army’s sight, dropped into my mind. It was as clear as any modern high-definition image on a movie screen. I jolted into alertness, but the story had moved on to the sap trenches below us.

That mental picture of cleverly-concealed scaffolding that enabled Māori warriors to come and go unseen has remained with me. I come back to it frequently when I hear Māori denigrated and belittled. It reinforces the notion that our tīpuna were clever, that they used advanced technology adapted to their environment and circumstances, and that we, as their descendants, carry those same traits with us today.

At Pukerangiora, looking down to the Waitara river and the cliffs where scaffolding hung. (Photo supplied)

On a sunny midwinter day, I found myself in the Abel Tasman National Park watching a human skull being unwrapped for reinterment in the whenua. Mana whenua knelt on the golden sand around the tīpuna, using karakia to farewell their whanaunga. I reflected on the fact that, despite the time that had elapsed since death, this was still the physical remains of someone who had hoped, loved, hurt, and laughed. A mother, a father, a child, a grandparent.

The link between our tīpuna and us remains unbroken, despite many efforts to sever it. Our responsibilities to our tīpuna endure. They must be laid to rest in the whenua and returned to Papatūānuku. It’s the tika thing to do, and the process is imbued with honour and dignity. It’s another image I hold on to when the ugly rhetoric ringing around the country about Māori reaches fever pitch.

Aroha Gilling at Lake Rotoiti. (Photo supplied)

What echoes and whispers will we leave on the whenua today, I wonder? What signs will those who follow us find on their summer holidays, and what lessons will they cling to when times are tough?

My hope is that, in the days to come, we won’t leave screams of pain, loss, and violence for our descendants to absorb, but what my friend Francis might describe as “mana-full” messages. Messages of endurance, intelligence and ultimately triumph.

So, if you’re heading away again before summer is gone, and when you struggle to get your sagging tent as taut as the picture on its box, or when you try to recall whether the door goes into the wind or away from it, pause a moment to wonder about the land you’re pitching it on.

What stories lie in the soil and what might you discover if you approach your holiday site with curiosity, ready to hear a whisper?


Aroha Gilling (Te Whānau a Apanui) is an adviser to government departments on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and mātauranga Māori. She has a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Otago, and a background in adult education and social work. She lives in Nelson.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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