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'The vision was to give voice to our ancestors': Māori battle story brought to life

The re-creation of trenches and a fortified pā at Rangiriri in North Waikato are the start of a venture by local iwi to tell the true story of the Battle of Rangiriri in November, 1863.

Two section of land in the Waikato settlement of Rangiriri will be returned to Waikato-Tainui and the Kiingitanga later this morning.
The site of the Battle of Rangiriri before the project started. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

It was one of the pivotal battles of the New Zealand Land Wars in Waikato.

The Rangiriri Historical and Cultural Heartland Project received $2.97 million from the government to rebuild the battle trenches and, in time, to open an education centre.

It will be officially opened on Saturday by the Māori King, Tūheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII.

It is the vision of the chairperson of Te Runanga Ngāti Naho, Brad Totorewa.

He got the idea to rebuild the trenches at the 150th commemoration of the battle in 2013, so that history could be shared more widely.

''The vision was to give voice to our ancestors and to give voice meant that I had to rebuild a significant part of the trenches, like that of my ancestor.''

Iwi Historian Brad Totrewa
Iwi historian Brad Totorewa Photo: GSTV

Totorewa's great-great-grandfather was the engineer behind the original fortifications at Rangiriri.

When I visited on Thursday, a group of iwi from within Waikato-Tainui were being hosted prior to the official opening.

We were led through the 130 metres of rebuilt trenches. From the top we could look down on the Waikato River and Lakes Kopuera and Waikare and were able to fully understand the strategic location of the site.

''It's designed for deception, so while the soldiers were there invading they were deceived by its infrastructure. There are significant parts of it that from a distance of five metres it looks like a two metre wall but in actual fact when you get right up to it, it's 5.5m,'' Totorewa said.

He said recreating a replica of trenches used in battle during the land wars is a way of re-telling the history around the New Zealand Wars.

''The Crown's narrative in the 1800s was merely to invade and annihilate. It was written in a proclamation for natives who failed to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria are hereby required to return beyond Mangatāwhiri in Waikato or they will be ejected.

"The word eject is exactly the same as annihilate. We weren't supposed to be here today telling our story, but we are.''

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The Battle of Rangiriri. Photo: Wikipedia

Brad Totorewa's son, Te Oko, said the history of Rangiriri has always been seen mainly through the eyes of the colonial forces and that has not changed in nearly 159 years.

He spoke of a cemetery in Rangiriri.

''You see individual graves and each and every single one of those individual graves belongs to British soldiers and then you see this one mass grave and in that mass grave lies the bodies of our ancestors and to me that is a sign of inequality, racism and all that type of stuff that still exists today.''

Te Oko said in order to move forward as one people, Māori and Pākehā, there needs to be an understanding of what happened in the land wars.

He said there is no better way to tell the story than with a replica of the battle site.

''It has a different effect, actually walking on the land and through the trenches instead of learning about it in books or in a classroom.''

Kaumatua Vince Hapi said women and children played their part in building and defending Rangiriri and the replica pā and trenches honour all Māori who fought and died there.

He said this will not be lost on people visiting the site.

''They can feel the hurt, they can feel the sadness of what actually happened back them. It is similar to the RSA, lest we forget. It is no different, lest we not forget what happened at Rangiriri.''

Brad Totorewa said it is more than just a visit; it is an educational experience.

He said when the borders open up in May they will be ready to receive people from around the world.

''Let's not be fooled. There is a number of our Māori people that need to be educated in their own history. Education had a significant part in suppressing all of this.''

He said just down the road is the old school, Rangiriri School.

''The descendants of those who actually fought in the battle went to school there but we never taught about their own history of their great-grandparents.''

''We are about to flip that on its head,'' he said.