Close this search box.
Rangatira Marae whānau salvaging taonga

Jamie Tahana, Rangatira Marae whānau salvaging precious taonga in wake of Cyclone Gabrielle, Radio NZ, 6 March 2023

With the delicate swirl of a brush under the trickling water of a hose, the silt finally gives way. Stroke by stroke, the mud slowly crumbles down the face of the woven mat, once again revealing the intricate patterns beneath.

Whānau from Rangatira Marae, in the flood-ravaged community of Te Karaka, are trying to preserve what taonga they could salvage. With a patient determination, they work away at the silt that has latched on to some of the country’s most unique whāriki mats.

But the efforts come as the hapū, Ngāti Wahia, confront difficult questions about whether to relocate their devastated marae.

“How do we do that? What are the tikanga that are involved, that we need to uphold? What are the kawa that we need to understand in order to observe,” asked Whitiaua Ropitini, a whānau member of Rangatira Marae who was helping with the preservation.


Whitiaua Ropitini. Photo: RNZ / Jamie Tahana.

Only eight mats – all about a century old – survived Cyclone Gabrielle, which tore through this valley three weeks ago. Salvaged from Rangatira, they were taken to another nearby marae, Tapuihikitia, where they now lie on aviary wire strung across timber frames, beneath fans going full tilt.

“It’s a rescue programme, that’s what I’m here now doing,” said Rangituatahi Te Kanawa (Ngāti Maniapoto), one of the country’s leading textile conservators, who was here helping preserve raranga she said were unlike any she had seen.

“Beautifully fine work, a good portion of them woven in kiekie,” she said from behind a thick mask as she delicately rotated a brush over the tight weaving, slowly revealing the original colours.

“They date sort of middle 20th century and they’re just a very good example of mātauranga Māori and raranga, whāriki.”

Waipoua River rapidly flooded three weeks ago. Photo: RNZ / Jamie Tahana.

Gabrielle devastated Rangatira Marae, across the Waipoua River from Te Karaka, which rapidly flooded three weeks ago forcing hundreds to seek safety on a hillside in the middle of the night.

The marae’s stopbank proved no match, with water spilling over the top and into the century-old wharenui.

It washed away a shipping container, which was being used to store other taonga, and an ablution block, which was found a long way downstream.

“Let’s put it this way, it was an experience, and an experience I wouldn’t wish upon anybody else,” Ropitini said.

“You’ve got properties that were decimated both inside and outside of the building. Then you had those people who were trapped in their homes, no way out.”

The land is still scarred around Te Karaka. The hillsides are mottled with slips, the roads still brown with dust. Cars lie abandoned where the water dumped them, while rows and rows of crops lie buried under tonnes of mud.

Only eight mats – all about a century old – survived Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: RNZ / Jamie Tahana.

Ropitini said adrenaline had worn out for people in the town, their tanks empty.

“I make note of politicians saying ‘community strength, community strength’. Well, reality is, community strength is now running on E,” he said.

“We’re at that point where we’re tired and we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”

That uncertainty extends to core issues of identity and belonging here in Te Karaka, with difficult conversations getting underway about whether to relocate Rangatira Marae entirely.

Such a decision would involve leaving the wharenui, Te Whakahou, which was opened in 1926. The name derives from a whakataukī uttered by Te Kooti to those who whakapapa to these lands.

Today it sits still filled with knee-high silt and stagnant water, waiting for assessors.

The continuing claws of colonisation are also a factor for those pondering what to do next. For tangata whenua, there is little whenua hapū can work with.

“Who is going to help us move our marae? All marae operate on voluntary, so there’s no particular funding. Where do we move to? Because all the safe, higher ground are all kinda occupied or not available,” Ropitini said.

“There’s also that thinking around the fact we have to dis-attach ourselves from a turangawaewae that was gifted, to possibly now a turangawaewae we have to buy. So do we call that turangawaewae? Do we call that tuku iho? Will that hold the same mana as whenua tuku iho? That’s the reality of what’s happening now amongst ngā uri o te marae.”

Despite the urgency, those conversations will take time, shrouded in the uncertainty of how it can be done and when the next storm may be. That’s why whanau are holding strong to the salvaged whāriki, which offer a connection that can follow them whatever they decide.

It’s also why Rangituatahi Te Kanawa, one of the country’s leading Māori textile experts, was so keen to help out.

“I’m really pleased and warmed that those who whakapapa to the whāriki are here and participating, I feel I’ll be doing my job if that connection to their whakapapa is held fast,” she said.

“There’s a wow factor to all of them, really. One has the triangle recess, little deliberate triangle holes in the whole whariki. I’ve never ever seen that before. And working with how all the elements are a constant 3mm wide and the pīngao, exactly the same.

“You know when you look at them from afar it’s like a machine-woven piece of work, but in actual fact you can imagine those little hands that were constantly working so that they were of the right tension, the counting that went on.”

The whānau of Rangatira Marae had also enlisted Tairāwhiti Museum and experts from Te Papa to help preserve the taonga from their ruined wharenui.

Tairāwhiti Museum director Eloise Wallace said staff had been getting shade-cloth and buying chicken wire to help build frames, which she was hunched over with a hose and brush.

“We’re down in the fine detail of the weave doing different things. So very carefully- [but] you do have to be quite vigorous – brushing the mould out, flicking the individual bits of silt out of the weave, looking very carefully through our magnifying glass trying to understand what’s happened there. So it’s really detailed work, but it’s beautiful work too.”

Paora Tibble, an iwi development manager at Te Papa, said there was work to preserve taonga happening across the country in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle.

“What our job is to do is to find out, to engage with and find out from hapū and marae … to help them care for and preserve their taonga,” he said.

Next week, they hoped to have a refrigerated shipping container arrive to help store the whāriki until they found a more permanent home.

But Ropitini said they were determined to make something of the disaster, so whānau could reconnect with their taonga.

“The drive behind restoring and seeking the experts is to maintain the taonga. They’re a glimpse into the world of our old people. They’re very important to the hapū, they’re very important for the hapū to maintain and hold on to the whāriki.”

He also saw it as an opportunity for whānau to learn from experts like Te Kanawa. She was more than happy to share.

“[They] become so much closer to the raranga, to the patterns, the narratives, and their whakapapa and identity. We can’t find the words to describe their suffering, but their identity can be found and they can hold on to that.”