Commentary – Te Hau ki Turanga: Symbol of Maori Struggle for Justice
Te Hau ki Turanga is the oldest extant meeting-house in New Zealand, and it is considered to be the finest example of the Turanga school of carving in Poverty Bay around Gisborne. The name »Te Hau ki Turanga« has been translated as the »spirit« or »breath of Turanga« (Gisborne). It was built in the early 1840s by Raharuhi Rukupo and other members of the Rongowhakaata tribe as a memorial to Rukupo’s brother, Tamati Waka Mangere. As such, it was one of the first houses that symbolised the shifting function of these buildings in the nineteenth century, from houses for the extended families of chiefs to communal meeting houses for entire sub-tribes. Whare tupuna, or »ancestral houses«, as they came to be called, were increasingly considered as the physical embodiment of an ancestor representing the link between the living and the dead. Meeting houses confirm the presence of the ancestors when groups assemble on the sacred open space in front of them (marae atea) for the purpose of communal ceremonies (Van Meijl 1993).
Meeting houses not only became larger over time, but at the same time gradually more embellished, partly as a result of steel tools that were introduced by the Europeans. All of Rukupo’s extant works, for instance, are carved with metal tools; a result of the establishment of shore-based trading in Turanga in 1831. Accordingly, meeting houses also came to be referred to as whare whakairo or »carved houses«. Representations of tribal ancestors were increasingly carved into the slabs on the walls. These extend, in turn, into curvilinear rafter patterns painted in black, red and white (kowhaiwhai), representing junior descent lines derived from the senior ancestors represented in the carved slabs (Neich 1993). Indeed, Te Hau ki Turanga was one of the first meeting houses whose extensive decorations represent genealogies that were meant to facilitate ritual re-unification with ancestors during ceremonies.
In 1867, Te Hau ki Turanga was moved to Wellington by the Minister of Native Affairs, James Richmond, and by Captain Reginald Biggs, both of whom are mentioned in a petition for its return. In July 1867, Rukupo and seven other members of his tribe sent the above petition to the New Zealand Parliament to request the return of their ancestral meeting house. The petition led to select committee inquiries in which evidence was heard from the responsible Minister Richmond. He argued that the building was deteriorating (Brown 1996, p. 13), that compensation had been paid for it, and, that it had also been removed because the owners of the land and the house were »rebels«. The select committee agreed with Richmond’s view of the removal and concluded that the meeting house had »strictly speaking« been »forfeited to the Government« (Waitangi Tribunal 2004, p. 588).
Richmond claimed that the allegedly dilapidated state of the house had motivated him to rescue it, but the resistance of Rukupo and his tribal allies against its withdrawal, as expressed in the petition, indicates that the real reasons behind the removal were intertwined with the New Zealand Wars about the ownership of land (Belich 1986). These culminated in a series of battles, also along the East Coast, where large parts, including Rukupo’s tribal lands, were confiscated by the government in order to punish the »natives« for rebellion against British settlement. Although Biggs paid a total of £100 to some local Maori, the house was removed by force (Brown 1996, p. 14).
In October 1878, Wi Pere, an influential Maori leader from the East Coast, later Member of Parliament, again petitioned the government for the return of Te Hau ki Turanga. The Native Affairs Select Committee then concluded that the original payment of £100 had been inadequate, and it recommended that the government pay the owners the additional sum of £300. That amount was paid in 1880 (Waitangi Tribunal 2004, p. 588).
From 1868 to 1930, Te Hau ki Turanga was on display in the Colonial Museum in Wellington, later called the Dominion Museum. Here Rukupo’s house became part of New Zealand’s colonial history. It was presented as an icon of traditional Maori architecture and a yardstick against which colonial settlers could assess changes in Maori culture. In the 1930s, the museum was moved to another location, which caused Sir Apirana Ngata, Minister of Native Affairs, to have Te Hau ki Turanga renovated. Ngata attempted to reorganise Maori society after more than 90% of its land had been lost in the nineteenth century. The reinvention of the Maori meeting house, for which Te Hau ki Turanga became the model, was central to his agenda because it provided a focal point for the distinct identity of Maori communities. Indeed, it became a symbol of unity in traditional yet modern Maori society (Brown 1996). In the 1990s, Te Hau ki Turanga was again removed from what was renamed as the National Museum in 1972 and reinstalled as the centrepiece of the Maori collection in the new building of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where it remains on display today.
Towards the end of the 1960s, however, Maori protest against their dispossession and marginalisation was reinforced and focussed primarily on recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, a covenant signed by the Maori and the British Crown in 1840 that protected Maori rights, but which over the years had systematically been violated by the New Zealand government. In 1987, however, the Treaty of Waitangi was finally recognized. Recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi also implied acknowledgement of Maori views and values in other domains of society, including museums. More collaborative museum practices were introduced by involving Maori in the display and interpretation of their »treasures« (Waigth 2009).
Changes in relationships with Maori also caused the museum to consult Rongowhakaata in the 1990s over its plan to move Te Hau ki Turanga to its current location at Te Papa in Wellington. In 1992, the museum hosted more than a hundred people for the 125th anniversary of the removal of Te Hau ki Turanga, which was commemorated with collective sleeping inside the house for the first time since 1867.
Notwithstanding the partnership that evolved between Rongowhakaata and the museum, the descendants of Rukupo lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal regarding their tribal territory that included a demand arising from the theft of Te Hau ki Turanga. During the hearings held in 2002, they provided evidence regarding the Crown’s acquisition of the house. Their view was that it was »blatant theft« and that the loss of their whare tupuna had remained a continuing grievance for the tribe (Waigth 2009, p. 76).
At the hearings and in the tribunal’s report on the claim, the question of ownership was highly contested. Rongowhakaata maintained that they owned the house legally and morally, because it had been removed without the consent of its owners. However, the Crown still believed that Te Papa legally owned Te Hau ki Turanga. The tribunal disagreed with the Crown by declaring that title could not pass to the museum since »Te Hau ki Taranga was stolen« (Waitangi Tribunal 2004, p. 601).
Since the release of the Waitangi Tribunal’s report in 2004, Rongowhakaata have made good progress in negotiating a final settlement with the Crown. The Crown did not hesitate to provide an apology for the removal of Te Hau ki Turanga, but it was not immediately prepared to return it to its original owners. In July 2012, however, the New Zealand government finally agreed to return Te Hau ki Turanga to the Rongowhakaata people, nearly 150 years after it had been illegally acquired by the Colonial Museum. A date for the return of Te Hau ki Turanga to Rongowhakaata may be announced anytime soon.
The petition of Rupuko et al. in 1867 was one of the first demanding the return of a treasure that had been looted. Since the original goal of the petition has at long last been achieved in recent years, the return of Te Hau ki Turanga will undoubtedly inspire many other heirs of inalienable cultural objects or further forms of indigenous property. After all, the forthcoming repatriation of Te Hau ki Turanga is a symbolic gesture of great significance that recognises Maori as the owners of their property. As a living ancestor, imbued with Maori cosmology, the return of Te Hau ki Turanga to Manutuke will also provide the descendants of Rukupo with the opportunity to reunite with their past.
Toon van Meijl is professor and chair of cultural anthropology at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He has been engaged in long-term anthropological research among New Zealand Maori since 1982. He has published widely on cultural identity and socio-political questions emerging from the debate about indigenous rights.
James Belich: The New Zealand Wars; and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Auckland University Press, Auckland 1986.
Deidre S. Brown. »Te Hau ki Turanga«, in: The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 105 (1), 1996, p. 7–26 .
Pakariki Harrison and Steven Oliver: »Rukupo, Raharuhi«, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated in October 2017. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, available online (accessed 16 March 2020).
Toon van Meijl: »Maori Meeting-Houses in and over Time«, in: James J. Fox (Hg.): Inside Austronesian Houses; Perspectives on Domestic Designs for Living, Australian National University, Canberra 1993, p. 194–218.
Roger Neich: Painted Histories: Early Maori Figurative Painting, Auckland University Press, Auckland 1993.
Kesaia L. Waigth: “Stolen from its people and wrenched from its roots”? A Study of the Crown’s 1867 Acquisition of the Rongawhakaata Meeting House Te Hau ki Turanga, Victoria University of Wellington, MA thesis, Wellington 2009.
Waitangi Tribunal: Turanga Tangata, Turanga Whenua: The Report on the Turanganui a Kiwa Claims, Volume II (WAI 814), Chapter 10 on ›Te Hau ki Turanga‹, Wellington 2004, p. 587–607.
Quote this article as:
Raharuhi Rukupo et al.: Petition of Natives at Turanga (1867), commented by Toon van Meijl, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike
, published 03.04.2020.