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The year is 1870 and you are a leader of a Maori tribe who have been brought to their knees by the effects of colonisation. Your tribe, once as powerful and meritorious as any other, now find themselves landless, ashamed and devoid of all hope. What would you do?
For Wepiha Apanui and Hohaia Matatehokia, two prominent Ngati Awa leaders of the time, the answer was to build a wharenui (carved meeting house) of such grandeur that the tribe could not help but be inspired with renewed optimism. The house would bring unity. The house would bring hope. Most of all, the house would show that, despite the crippling effects of colonisation, the creative spirit and resillience of ngati Awa had never been stronger.
In 1875, the house was opened in Whakataen to an excited and very proud Ngati Awa. Such a massive house was a rare sight; there was certainly not a comparable specimen in the wider Bay of Plenty region. Apanui and Matatehokia had succeeeded in their aim. The tribe were once again lookign to the future with positive eyes and the opening of Mataatua Wharenui had paved the way for the revival of Ngati Awa. However, any chance of revival was quickly extinguished and the people of Ngati Awa were soon to be dealt another crushing blow.
In 1879, only 4 short years after being opened, the New Zealand Government dismantled Mataatua and shipped the house to Sydney to appear in the Inter-Colonial Exhibition. The bastion of Ngati Awa strength, unity and resilience was now hundreds of miles from home leaving its people in a state of desolation and hopelessness once again.
After Sydney, the house was sent to exhibitions throughout the Commonwealth including Melbourne and London. The New Zealand Government negotiated the return of Mataatua but instead of returning to its rightful home in Whakatane, the house was sent to Dunedin where it would spend the next 70 years.
In 1996, the Crown returned Mataatua Wharenui to Ngati Awa as partial settlement of the tribe's historical claims. A team of artists, originally led by the late Ngati Awa master carver Te Hau o Te Rangi Tutua, have spent the past 15 years restoring Mataatua to its former majesty.
In September 2011, Mataatua Wharenui came full circle and now stands once again as the icon of a united, strong and resilent Ngati Awa. After 130 years, the travelling house has returned home. Let the revival continue.
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