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Māori Sacred Sites in Aotearoa

Flat Point- Wairarapa

The land of Aotearoa is sacred to Māori.

Māori refer to themselves as tangata whenua, the people of the land. They were certainly not the first people to colonise New Zealand, and there is ample reference to the Hawea and Waitaha people who arrived in Aotearoa many centuries before the first Māori colonists arrived, it is believed, in the 13th and 14th centuries AD.

By describing themselves as tangata whenua, Māori make clear that the relationship with the land is not simply a geographic one. Whereas Europeans may see their relationship with the land as being a geographic or economic one, for Māori the relationship is a spiritual and psychological one.

Speaking on a marae (Māori meeting space) at a hui (formal meeting), will often begin with each speaker reciting his/her mihimihi, a formal statement of where he/she comes from. This will include the maunga (sacred mountain), and awa (river) as well as reference to genealogy. In doing so the speaker draws direct reference to the importance and sacredness of the tribal lands, for it is the sacredness of that place which helps establish the speaker’s turangawaewae (the place where I stand). This last term refers to the fact that the land is of primary importance, both spiritually and culturally.

Many of the sacred sites in Aotearoa may therefore only be known to the iwi (tribe) of a particular area, and in some cases these are closely guarded by the people themselves. It is worth noting that many of the sacred sites may be sacred in an historical sense, for the history they contain. Others will be sacred in a spiritual sense, for their mauri (essence) and the spiritual presences which inhabit them. Places like this will often be tapu (see Māori Concepts). In the mythology of the Ngai Tahu people of the South island, the area around Castle Hill in Canterbury is said to be the place where the separation between Papatuanuku (earth mother) and Ranginui (sky father) took place. The Waitaha people, who also view this area as extremely sacred, have a different mythology and set of stories.

Unlike Europe, where many of the sacred sites are carefully recorded and clearly known, those in Aotearoa may be invisible to an outsider, or at least the stories around them may be known only to the tangata whenua of the area. A sensitive visitor may well sense the mauri of a particular place, but not know the stories behind it.

Māori Heritage and Sacred Sites - Wahi Tapu

Māori heritage can be described as nga taonga tuku iho no nga tupuna = treasures handed down by our ancestors.

Māori heritage can be divided into the physical/tangible, natural and intangible.

The physical/tangible heritage places can be described as those land-based places created, formed or shaped by earlier inhabitants. These can be archaeological sites (eg burials, pa, pits, terraces, oven stones, midden, stone/rock structures, rock-art, house sites, etc) or Maori built heritage places such as marae buildings, including their contents (eg carvings, artworks, photographs, etc) and structures (eg flagpoles, gateways, etc).

Natural heritage places may be natural features associated with traditional activities (eg springs, trees, swamp, caves, etc) or a tribal landmark (eg mountain, river, lands, sea/lake, village, etc) where no human activity is evident.

The intangible heritage places are those places that have intangible characteristics where no visible feature or evidence is present but where a significant event or traditional activity took place (eg battlefield, places of meeting, of learning, of ritual, fishing ground, taniwha den, etc)

All or any of the above cultural heritage places may also be considered to be wahi tapu, traditional sites, wahi taonga, or others depending on the iwi, hapu or whanau concerned.

~ Historic Places Trust

The Department of Conservation (DOC) manages around 10,000 Māori sites, ranging from sites of earliest Polynesian settlement to nineteenth century Māori economic, spiritual and military sites. All these sites are protected from development pressures and from avoidable harm, which makes them a key national collection.

~ Department of Conservation

Toitu te whenua, whatungarongaro he tangata

Man disappears but the land remains

~ Whakatauki
(Māori proverb)

He kakano ahau i ruia i Rangiatea

I am a seed which was sewn in the heavens of Rangiatea

~ A famous proverb from the Aotea waka, which shows the important of your genealogy and your culture.

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