Call for restitution as Orakau remembered
Dust billowed from parched earth as 200 men, women and children stomped their feet in unison at Orakau Pa.
War paint smeared across tear-stained faces and weapons held aloft in trembling hands, the haka party surged together on sacred ground and cried out across the battlefield.
One hundred and fifty years earlier, an estimated 300 of their ancestors - men, women and children - did the same as iwi from around the North Island stood defiantly in the face of a British onslaught.
Ngati Maniapoto, Raukawa, Waikato, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Tuhoe and Tauranga became one again, but this time the theatre of war was set aside - honour and remembrance brought them here.
On March 31, 1884, Rewi Maniapoto and his allies stood outnumbered by more than 1500 colonial troops in what came to be know as Rewi's Last Stand.
Realising he had the upper hand, British commander General Duncan Cameron called for Maniapoto to surrender. But he vowed to fight on - ake, ake, ake.
An estimated 150 Maori and 16 British died in the final clash of the Waikato land wars, 52 British were wounded and some reports said only 50 Maori escaped unscathed.
Yesterday, hundreds of people packed onto a clearing and swept up a knoll on farmland next to the Orakau Pa memorial stone near Kihikihi.
Orakau spokesman Paraone Gloyne said it was a hugely significant day for the iwi who were involved in the battle and one of mixed emotions.
"Today, we've had a lot of moments," he said. "I've been angry, I've been sad, I've been happy to see our rangatahi and our babies that are here today and knowing they are going to carry on the korero."
The land wars carved New Zealand's history "in blood" and Gloyne said everybody was affected by them.
"We don't want history to repeat, my friend. Let's look at what shouldn't have happened and let's not do it again."
Otorohanga College students Waimarama Anderson, 16, and Leah Bell, 14, collected 400 signatures for a petition seeking a commemoration day and for the land wars to be taught in schools.
They brought their petition and a letter to Maori King Tuheitia and said they were spurred on by a school visit to the site.
"There are still issues over the land in New Zealand and it's such a huge part of us and we need to understand why. If we don't know the information how can we do anything about it," said Leah.
Iwi had already called for a national day of remembrance and stronger awareness, but Waikato-Tainui spokesman Tukoroirangi Morgan went a step further when he called on Prime Minister John Key to give the land back to Ngati Maniapoto.
"Prime minister, this land should be bequeathed for all time and as the statesman of this country, do the right thing and return it to the proper owners," he said.
Mr Key was welcomed to Orakau Pa and was flanked by the Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples and former PM Jim Bolger. A contingent from the New Zealand Defence Force were joined by British military specialists from the 1 Royal Gurkha Rifles and 1 Royal Tank Regiment.
It was important to acknowledge New Zealand's war history and while a day of remembrance was not on the cards, a return of the land was not out of the question, Key said.
"In terms of returning the lands, potentially not unreasonable," said Key. "This was the site of a very significant battle, a lot of people were lost here and it's something the Government might consider doing."
Waipa Mayor Jim Mylchreest said it was the last of the solemn occasions and he hoped the whole district could "draw a line and learn from our past and move forward together".
"We're saying it's 150 years for the district but we also need to recognise that for many generations before, there was a thriving community around here."