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Last updated 08:08 08/03/2014
A view of Mount Taranaki taken by NASA.

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It's our very own public holiday that lets us put our feet up when the rest of the country goes back to work. But what is Taranaki Anniversary Day all about and should we be celebrating it anyway?

Figuring out when Taranaki became a place people called home can only ever be an educated guess.

It's probably 700 years, or maybe closer to 800 years ago, when Polynesian migrants first came ashore and found a heavily forested land, awash with bird life and natural resources.

It was a relative paradise.

Then, 600 or so years later a new batch of immigrants started to come. They were English mostly but there were Scots, Welsh, Americans, Australians, Poles and other white-skinned peoples and they became known as Pakeha.

The people who called them Pakeha were by then called Tama, Mutunga, Mauru, Te Ati Awa, Taranaki, Ruanui and Rauru and known to the Pakeha as Maori.

What started off as a mutually beneficial meeting of people soon turned sour. Within 30 years Maori, by every name, were largely dispossessed, dispirited and defeated. Pakeha, on the other hand, had almost everything.

In that context, having March 31, 1841, the day Pakeha immigration began set aside as the official Taranaki anniversary date, would seem a little bit controversial.

Except it isn't, perhaps because hardly anyone knows why it's celebrated when it is anyway.

Te Atiawa Iwi Authority chairwoman Wikitoria Keenan knows exactly why the holiday is observed when it is. With both Maori and Pakeha roots she can see it as a day to both celebrate and commemorate, although she admits to really just seeing it as a day off.

"What it means to me is not a hell of a lot," she says during a break in treaty settlement negotiations in Wellington. "I would like to think it's a day when you can reflect on the co- operation that there was between Maori and Pakeha then and like there will be again."

In Wellington last week for yet another round of Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, Ms Keenan is confident her iwi will be able to sign on the dotted line within months.

Overnight Te Atiawa will become a major player in the Taranaki economy with assets in cash and land worth in excess of $80 million. Though it is a pittance compared to the value of the land they lost by force more than 150 years ago, it is a chance at a new start, for Maori and Pakeha.

"I think there has been a real shift in thinking in terms of settlements. They go through Parliament with hardly a murmur because communities realise it's a shot in the arm for the local community," says Ms Keenan.

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Even before this imminent shot Taranaki is a province that by most measures is doing extremely well and with plenty to celebrate. It's economy is vibrant and confident, and after years of catastrophic degradation the environment is slowly and steadily being improved. The main city of New Plymouth is internationally recognised as a great place to live and just days ago an Australia tourism website named Taranaki the best destination in New Zealand.

Sure, it wasn't anything that will bring the tourists here in hordes but it's always nice to hear.

And things are also looking up in terms of sport. Taranaki rugby has this year aligned itself with the Chiefs, the incumbent championship Super 15 rugby side. After 18 seasons of heartache with the Hurricanes we might just have a team we can rely on.

Yet there is no escaping Taranaki is still dealing with a tormented past. Just days ago the planned auction of what could have been leg irons used to restrain Taranaki Maori imprisoned in Dunedin during and after the land wars, picked the scabs on wounds still to heal.

Parihaka spokesman Ruakere Hond, whose ancestors were among those taken by force from their home for what is now seen as defending their land against Pakeha appropriation, labelled the auction "obscene and morally repugnant".

Debbie Ngawera-Packer, of Ngati Ruanui, was less strident in her condemnation of the proposed sale, which has since been called off, but explained the 130 years between now and then was just a short time in memory.

"Even though it was three generations, four generations ago, it is still highly sensitive for Pakakohe and Ruanui families," she says.

South Taranaki historian and museum operator Nigel Ogle says it may be time to update what Taranaki Anniversary means. Like so many others he sees the reason for the holiday as somewhat old-fashioned.

"You say William Bryan to most people these days and they say 'who was that?' It was a significant date then, certainly, but perhaps there are other things we could celebrate."

- Taranaki Daily News

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