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Figure of unity

How and why Pukaki is on the money.

When the Reserve Bank last week officially launched its new 20 cent coin, it celebrated a beginning and a happy ending. The image on the coin, flipside to the Queen, is one of the country's most precious artistic taonga - a 168-year-old carving of 18th-century Ngati Whakaue rangatira Pukaki.

Hang on, you might say, I've seen that design on coins. You'd be right. Since 1990, eight million Pukaki 20 cent pieces have been released into circulation. But back then confusion over who held Pukaki's mana meant that the chief's descendants knew nothing of the decision to mint him.

This story of dishonoured deals and forgotten history begins, in this telling at least, with a marriage and a birth. Warfare in the Rotorua lakes district in the early 1700s between Te Arawa iwi Tuhourgani, Ngati Whakaue and Ngati Pikiao climaxed with Tuhourangi being driven south to Tarawera. To commemorate the victory and stabilise their partnership, Taiwere of Ngati Whakaue married Tamiuru of Ngati Pikiao. They had a child, Pukaki.

A symbol of unity at birth, he also brought harmony between tribes when he married Ngapuia, the daughter of Tuhourangi chief Te Anumatoo. Pukaki went on to fame as a warrior, who led Ngati Whakaue in withstanding an invasion by Ngati Raukawa.

Pukaki came to be honoured as a koromatua (revered ancestral father), and in 1836 Te Tapua carved his image in totara for a five-metre-high gateway at the tribe's new Ohinemutu pa.

Dr Paul Tapsell, Tumuaki or director Maori at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and a Pukaki descendant, says Te Tapua's work is in a distinctive Ohinemutu style and was carved "specifically to challenge anyone who approached the pa to say, 'this is who we are'".

Originally, the carver placed Pukaki's wife Ngapuia between his legs, signifying that the tribe's connection to the land was both through conquest - Pukaki's military might - and through Ngapuia's ancestral connection. It was this symbolism, and Pukaki's history as a figure of unity, that saw the taonga play a pivotal role in the founding of Rotorua.

By the mid-1860s, Pakeha were eager to purchase land in the district. Ngati Whakaue and other Te Arawa iwi, however, refused to survey or sell. Instead, the government sent Judge Francis Fenton to investigate the establishment of a tourist township on Ngati Whakaue land. Initially reluctant, Whakaue finally agreed, on condition that the land beneath the town remained in iwi hands.

Fenton spotted the carving during negotiations and, urged on by Justice Thomas Gillies, president of the Auckland Institute, thought it would be a great addition to the institute's new museum. Tapsell says that despite mixed feelings about losing their taonga, the tribe recognised there was no better way of sealing the relationship with the Crown and agreed to offer it as a gift.

Sadly, Ngati Whakaue's good faith wasn't returned. The iwi lost its land to compulsory government purchase in 1893 and the carving was presented to the Auckland Museum, with no mention of its part in the Rotorua land deal or the iwi's desire that it be handed on to the Crown. Museum records claimed it was a present from Gillies and came from Te Ngae, not Ohinemutu.

Its place in the museum's collection remained unquestioned until it was selected for the ground-breaking Te Maori exhibition in the 1980s. Then, Ngati Whakaue determined to get to the bottom of why its gift had never been delivered, and Tapsell unravelled Pukaki's true story.

In 1997, 120 years after the Rotorua land deal, the museum agreed to release the taonga and the Crown at last received Ngati Whakaue's gift. He now stands in the Rotorua District Council building.

The Reserve Bank, in the late 80s, decided to move the kiwi from the 20 cent piece to the new $1 coin. Pukaki had been featured in Maori Language Commission ads and, weary of birds, bank officials chose the design for the 20 cent coin. The commission asked and received permission from the Te Arawa Trust Board to use the image.

But Ngati Whakaue was never


Some members were upset that their koromatua was used on something as "profane" as money, says Tapsell. Shortly after the second run of coins was released around Christmas 2002, they contacted the bank.

"It came as a total bolt out of the blue," says Brian Lang, head of currency, "but our attitude from day one was that we didn't intend to upset anyone."

The bank was happy to find another design, but after consultation the parties came to an agreement that recognised the mana of Pukaki and Ngati Whakaue.

So, with four million Pukaki coins already in stock and another six million to be minted next year, the coin was launched again, along with 300 commemorative coins and an educational scholarship. But on this occasion it was in the knowledge that Pukaki was of Ngati Whakaue, and, via the taonga he inspired, he was once again a symbol of unity.