Monday, July 03, 2006

Matariki up the Mountain

Another Matariki event I attended was a guided tour of the pa sites on Parihaka with an archaeologist and kaumatua (Maori elders). I had negotiate some time off work, because it was scheduled on a Tuesday morning (the actual day of Matariki) so I drove to the Summit carpark (the first time I hadn't walked up Parihaka and it felt like a terrible cheat).

The twenty or thirty manahiri (guests) were welcomed onto the Summit with a powhiri. Our group was included a some young pakeha mothers with their preschool children, a uniformed group of teenagers from a Wharekura (Maori language high school) and assorted adults of various ages and ethnicities. I was particularly appreciative of the teenagers who confidently sang waiata that I'd never heard before in beautiful harmonies. (If you don't already know, a powhiri involves -among other things- a series of speeches and prayers in te reo Maori from hosts and guests, and each speaker is followed by a song led by someone in his -and it's almost always his- party. When the group is mostly pakeha, the waiata part can be pretty shameful).

After the powhiri one of the kaumatua, Te Ihi, talked for a long time on the viewing platform, from which you can look out across the harbour and town of Whangarei and beyond to the old volcanoes pimpling the land all the way to the horizon. He told us about the battle to have the official name of the mountain corrected to the original, finally achieved last year. He talked about the some of the landmarks, the meaning of their Maori names and a few stories, but he didn't really tell us much about Parihaka itself.

That was left to James Robinson, the archaeologist, who turned out to be neither a fusty old academic nor Indiana Jones (that would have been good) but an incredibly well prepared, articulate, passionate, knowledgeable and unpretentious guy about not much older than me. He directed much of his spiel at the teens, referring to the pa-dwellers as 'your tupuna' (ancestors) which won them over completely. When the preschoolers started to lag behind the group, he just picked one up and carried on talking with a toddler on his hip for the rest of the tour.

I have spent quite a few hours wandering the tracks and pa site trying to imagine the mountain when it was home to hundreds of people. My imagination and ability to see the evidence were completely inadequate compared what James showed us. A flat terrace off the track not far from the summit had never even caught my eye. Turns out, like almost every surface on the mountain it had been altered by human hands at some point. Literally by hand, the terrace (big enough to build a single garage) had been carved out of the hillside using digging sticks. Same with the enormous kumara pits used for storing enough vegetables for a chief to throw a huge feast.

Parihaka is an exceptionally well preserved pa site. Although all the roofs and walls and tools have long since disappeared, all the earthworks have held their shape very well for 200 years or more. This is because of the unusual white clay that covers much of the mountain. It was formed by kauri forests over thousands (millions?) of years: as the litter of the hard wood broke slowly down it became incredibly dense clay. The denseness of the clay posed engineering challenges for the kumara pit diggers: they needed to ensure excellent drainage so their food stores wouldn't rot in the rainy climate. Their drains and sumps can still be found under the fallen leaves that have filled in the pits by at least a metre since they were abandoned.

There were no stones up the mountain before people came there. Thus any rocks to be found are 'cultural', brought there by someone for some purpose. The most obvious are the several hearths that are still intact on the sites of old houses. I look at them and try to imagine the task of carrying those rocks up the long steep muddy track from the river, barefoot.

The archaeological evidence suggests that Parihaka was home to hundreds of people for hundreds of years but probably not permanently inhabited by great numbers at a time, except when the wider community was under attack or coming together for rituals or celebrations. Significant defenses meant that stored food was safe from raiders and people who usually lived closer to their gardens or fishing places could retreat to a stronghold. Today deep ditches and sheer cliff faces remain to show the boundaries of the pa that originally were reinforced by tall spikey palisades. In an era of hand weapons, height gave a fourfold advantage to the defenders. However, in the 1820s, the 'Musket Wars' removed that advantage and Parihaka was abandoned as people moved south and inland seeking safety (or revenge). Not long after that European surveyors were carving up the mountain and surrounds for Pakeha ownership (it was during this period that the misnomer of Parahaki became entrenched). Fortunately the four men who owned the west facing slopes all chose to set aside the land as reserve and that is why today, in the middle of Whangarei, there is such a wonderful park of native bush and historical significance.

1 comment:

E said...

How fantastic! I bet you got goosebumps a few times. You make it all feel tangible - what a treat. Thanks Meliors for taking the time to injest the information and recount so much of it (and so well) here...