The return of the Rangitane

Last updated 09:45 14/04/2009
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The repatriation of tupuna to Wairau Bar in 2009 by Rangitane - David Tipu
CHRISTINE CORNEGE
Kurutekau MacDonald

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Marlborough Express reporter Claire Connell joined the Rangitane iwi on a sacred journey to bring their people home.

April 17, 7am

The last three days have been the most incredible reporting job I have done in my short time as a journalist.

Not only have I experienced and covered a nationally and internationally significant event, but I have met some incredible people and heard their stories.

Yesterday out at the Wairau Bar was something very special. I have never seen a Maori burial before, and this was one of great proportions, with five caskets being laid to rest in nearly the exact same location they were first found in up to 70 years ago in Marlborough.

Despite an unfavourable weather forecast, the rain held off all day as about 300 Rangitane iwi members and guests made their way by boat to the barren site on the outskirts of Blenheim and established their place in history.

The iwi walked slowly and proudly towards the gravesites - everything was silent apart from their open grieving and tears.

It was blowing a gale and bitterly cold, but it didn't seem to matter because adrenaline had kicked in for everyone - they were warm on the inside.

The sky was dark and the mood was sombre, but once the final casket had been buried, the clouds formed a circle of blue sky, and the sunlight streamed down on the gravesite.

A sign, surely, that this event was the right thing.

It has been an incredibly emotionally and physically draining few days, but ones I never would have swapped for anything.

When photographer Christine and I first left with the Rangitane group on Monday morning at 6am, I had no idea what to expect. I was nervous and excited.

Now it is over, I'm not sure I want it to be finished. I didn't just meet people with brilliant stories - I met new friends.

So thanks Rangitane. Thanks for the opportunity to share your culture and your story with you. I enjoyed every second.

April 16, 7am:

Yesterday was another exciting day on our journey south with Rangitane iwi to reclaim and rebury their lost 700-year-old ancestors (tupuna), taken up to 70 years ago from the Wairau Bar.

Every day gets better and better with the group - photographer Christine and I are learning more and making some good friends on the trip.

Our time at Takahanga Marae in Kaikoura was great. After a late night filing stories and photos, we rejoined the group and departed for Blenheim early yesterday morning.

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Coming home to Omaka Marae in Blenheim at noon yesterday was different to the other ceremonies Rangitane have been involved in on the trip.

I really got the sense that the iwi were most comfortable here, and the ancestors were truly home.
I got to take a backstep from the ceremony this time - I watched and filmed it from the grounds of the marae.

For the first time, I saw Kiley Nepia and his men perform their weaponry ritual, to safeguard Rangitane and their tupuna.

It was impressive. Emotions on the men's faces were all on show - they looked so powerful as they made their way toward the marae, with pallbearers carrying their tupuna behind them.

I'm excited about going back to the Wairau Bar today. I was last on the site, which is boat-only access, during January's excavation. It was then I fell in love with the beautiful area.

This morning I'll return again, but I hope it won't be my last.

I can't believe our trip with Rangitane as they repatriate their family members is nearly over. But I'm sure today will be even better than we can imagine.

April 14, 9pm:

Today has been a day I'm going to remember for the rest of my life.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced as I walked through the Canterbury Museum doors with Rangitane to take back their ancestors remains (tupuna) that were taken by the Museum for study and display purposes 70 years ago.

I couldn't help shed a tear during the ceremony - and I wasn't the only one. It was so powerful and moving - elders and young children alike were weeping over their family members who they never knew, but always knew existed.

Finally, the tupuna are coming home to Marlborough.

After the seven-hour-long bus trip and limited sleep last night, it was fair to say everyone was pretty tired on arrival at the Museum.

But the adrenaline rush took over for the iwi - they had one thing on their minds - to claim their family back, and return them to their resting place.

The warmth of the Rangitane people toward us has been incredible. They have been helping photographer Christine and I with cultural protocol, word meanings and have welcomed us with open arms.

I watched as Katarena from Levin explained and translated Maori words to Christine as she was captioning her photos on the bus, and I felt like I never wanted to leave this group.

There are thousands of stories hidden within this iwi. I have experienced such a small part of it today and love what I have seen.

It was an honour to stand alongside the 100-strong Rangitane group to be part of the ceremony, and I know there is still so much more to come as we spent tonight in Kaikoura, and leave for Omaka Marae tomorrow.

April 14, 6am:

I will leave from Omaka Marae soon full of anticipation of a great experience ahead.

Photographer Christine Cornege and I will travel on board one of  two 50-seater buses travelling to Canterbury Museum, to retrieve and then rebury local iwi Rangitane's 700-year-old ancestor's bones, held by the museum.

About 41 tupuna were first excavated up to 70 years ago by Canterbury Museum for study and display purposes. For many years Rangitane have sought their return -  now possible following a recent agreement between Canterbury Museum and Rangitane.

The tupuna being reburied totals about 60, and includes other tupuna held in other locations around New Zealand including Te Papa museum.

Christine and I will spend the night at Takahanga Marae in Kaikoura before returning to Blenheim with the group, and attending the reburial ceremony at the Wairau Bar on Thursday.

I think it is an honour to be invited because not many people get the chance to experience what I am about to.

There is worldwide interest in the Wairau Bar site and its past findings - it is home to New Zealand's first people.

Growing up in Gisborne on the East Coast of the North Island, I am relatively familiar with the marae. I love the atmosphere and warmth it brings, as well as the cultural and historical significance of the place.

I always feel safe when staying there.

I'm anticipating a big few days. There is a lot of the culture I am yet to understand, but I will do my best. My most important task is to capture the event as accurately as possible, while respecting the culture.

Having experienced the Wairau Bar excavation in January, I know I am in for a treat.

The warmth of the Rangitane people, the landscape out at the Wairau Bar, and the hospitality of Omaka Marae in Blenheim and Takahanga Marae in Kaikoura will make for a great trip.

But the best part will be the people and the stories. People who have waited their whole lifetime to see the return of their ancestors back to their original gravesites.

This is a huge event for Marlborough and New Zealand -  not just for the Rangitane people, but for everyone.

Marlborough's oldest people are coming home, and I'm really glad to be amongst it.

- The Marlborough Express

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