Earlier this year Thelma Karaitiana, Pou Tikanga in Residence at Te Papa for the Rongowhakaata iwi, welcomed a group of Friends to historic Te Hau ki Tūranga, the oldest surviving carved meeting house in the world. Thelma had us enthralled by the story of this historic whare whakairo, which is a physical record of the iwi’s ancestors. Recently, the Friends returned to Te Hau ki Tūranga to learn more about the exhibition, Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow, and how the stories of the land and the iwi’s ancestors are inseparably woven together.

This time we followed the dancing stream of light, symbolising the river Te Arai to the 3 pou, where Pou Tikanga Taharakau Stewart and April Nepia-Su’a introduced us to their ancestors. We were fascinated to hear about the prime role held by women, the pou representing three sisters who all in turn became wives of Rongowhakaata, One of them, Tūrāhiri, is the ancestor of all Rongowhakaata. It was very special to find that besides Taha and April, six people in our group were also her descendants.

Ko Rongowhakaata includes some 120 taonga on loan from over 40 different lenders, including the Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne, from ancient carvings, the story of Te Kooti, examples of skilful weaving, to Witi Ihimaera’s typewriter. The story of Rongowhakaata is significant not only for the Gisborne Tairāwhiti region but our whole nation as many of those in 28 Māori Battalion came from Rongowhaktaata marae. The iwi suffered huge losses across several generations of their men and one of their whare whakairo is still known as Māori Battalion.

We were delighted to have Carolyn Guytonbeck, President of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Society join us for the tour. If any Friends are visiting Dunedin, the DPAG’s office is open on Tuesdays from 10 am to 1 pm, and you would be warmly welcomed. The DPAG shop offers 10% discount if you produce your Friends membership card.

Elizabeth Kay

September 2018