A treasure once lost has now returned. That's the saying befitting the tribe of Te Ātiawa, in particular their sub-tribe of Ngāti Rahiri, who were returned their historic panels today. For over 40 years the panels were held overseas, their story is certainly a remarkable one.
Puke Ariki Museum is the new home of the five Motunui panels. The panels formed the end wall of an ancient storehouse and are almost 200 years old. Hence the significance of this old treasure.
Under the cloak of darkness, the Motunui panels were returned home.
Mahau Waru says, “They looked as if it were the first time they'd been on show. Beautiful, just beautiful.”
Te Urumairangi Ritai says, “When I looked at them, I was looking at them as if they were smiling back at us to say thank you, we're home now.”
The panels were carved prior to 1820. They were then hidden in a swamp near Motunui where they were found in 1972. However, a year later they were sold overseas.
Ritai says, “There are different versions of the story in terms of whether it was smuggled illegally, taken out and we do believe it was illegally taken out.”
Waru says, “There was hurt and anger amongst our elders when speaking of the issue on the marae or here in Te Ngarue.”
For more than 40 years the government and iwi have been battling to have the panels return. Only last year did that come to fruition.
However, for the people of Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Rahiri this is the first time they've seen the panels in person.
Ritai says, “None of our mokopuna of whānau had ever touched or seen it so to hear that such a significant piece had disappeared overseas was really mamae for our people.”
Christopher Finlayson says, “There are very few things in public life that really make you very very happy but I have to tell you that this is one of them for me because in a sense it just undoes something that went really wrong 45 years ago and is very very positive for Taranaki.”
The Motunui panels will be held in the Puke Ariki Museum. However, the hope is once Ngāti Rahiri have built their marae, the panels will return to the sub-tribe.
The end goal is to attain ownership which is currently held by the government.
Waru says, “Once the marae is built for Ngāti Rahiri, then we will think about how to house the panels in our marae.”
Ritai says, “From here we can step into the future in knowing in the next few years, however long it may take, that the ownership will return back to Ngāti Rahiri.”
The matter is certainly not over, however, what's important is the treasures are back where they belong.