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Every journey begins with that first step and for Mataatua the story begins with an idea of an individual that then transforms into an all encompassing tribal project spanning many generations of the iwi. In the early 1870s, in the aftermath of the Raupatu (confiscations), Hohaia Matatehokia, chief of Ngati Pukeko, conceived the idea to build Mataatua to celebrate the ancestors of Ngati Awa, its allies and to unify the iwi. It was envisaged that a carved house would also illustrate the skilled artistry of the people and be an object of considerable pride. Hohaia consulted the senior chief of Ngati Awa, Apanui Te Hamaiwaho, his son Wepiha Apanui and other tribal leaders, securing their approval and support. Following a further period of dialogue and discussion within the iwi, building began in around 1872.
Wepiha Apanui of Ngati Hokopu and Ngati Wharepaia was the designer and one of the tohunga whakairo (master carver) of Mataatua wharenui. He was the son of Apanui Te Hamaiwaho, chief of Ngati Awa, and Miria Tarei, herself a descendant of the Ngati Awa and Tuhoe chief Te Mautaranui. Trained by his father, Wepiha being the younger of the two, directed the carving of the whare and Paniora of Te Whanau a Apanui oversaw its construction. The carvers included Tiopira Hukiki and Tutere of Rangitaiki and Te Wikirihotu of Patuwai as well as men from neighbouring iwi such as Tikitiki of Te Whakatohea and Mohetei of Tuhoe. Matenga Peraro, an experienced carver of the Te Kaha School, and the six sons of Ahiwaru Heremia, Wi Taokuku, Wairua, Mihaere, Rura and Teira were also part of the carving team. Wepiha and Paniora continued to lead the carving, which took several years to complete. The erection of the whare also took many months.
Mataatua was first officially opened in 1875 and dedicated to Queen Victoria as an expression of goodwill from the people of Ngati Awa. Following a formal opening and dedication on 7 March 1875 a public ceremony was held the next day where over 700 Maori were in attendance. Most of them were members of the tribes of Mataatua with the exception of Ngapuhi whose chiefs decided not to attend. Along with newspaper reporters and government officials including Sir Donald McLean, rangatira from the traditional boundaries of the Mataatua waka, from Nga Kuri a Whrei (past modern day Tauranga) to Tihirau (Cape Runaway) were present, including: Apanui Te Hamaiwaho, Te Keepa Toihau, Tiopira Hukiki, Te Rangitukehu Te Wharewera and Hori Kawakura of Ngati Awa; Te Meihana, Manuera, Te Manohoaka and Matiu of Ngati Pukeko; Tiwai and Awanui o Whakatohea; Te Hata of Ngai Tawarere; Hori Tupaea, Enoka, Hamiora Tu, Hori Ngatai, Hohepa, Tareha, Hone Makarauri, Te Kuka, Ranapia and Wi Parera of Ngai Te Rangi and Ngati Ranginui and Te Whenuanui, Kereu, Te Makarini, Ahikaiata, Tamaikowha, Hapurona Kohi and Hetaraka Te Waru from Te Urewera and Ngai Tuhoe. It was a day of celebration that included much debate and discussion. The Bay of Plenty Times covered the opening in an extensive article that survives to this day and provides an important glimpse of the occasion and the times.
Mataatua was opened as a functioning meeting house and during its time in Whakatane, it was used to welcome manuhiri from beyond the borders of Ngati Awa, such as Rewi Maniapoto of Ngati Maniapoto and his tira (visiting party) in 1875, the members of Ngati Whakaue in 1876. There could well have been many other visitors to the house but no records were kept, so we are unable to provide any information; nor are we able to say with any certainty where Mataatua whare stood.