by Phillip Mann
After a Wellington winter of driving rain and raging storms, and chill, roof-lifting winds, booming straight from Antarctica, it was decided by the powers that manage the affairs of Te Papa that the coming of spring should be celebrated.
A children’s festival someone suggested, and the idea caught on, for many of the people who worked at Te Papa had children or, at least, grandchildren. Suggestions were called for and the response was impressive. Among the favourites were a treasure hunt (weather permitting) in the sandpit where the bones of the dinosaurs were hidden; a dressing-up in old-fashioned clothes (specially made of course); a hands on display of toys from earlier times and, to conclude, a barbecue (weather permitting) in the little Greek theatre. But one idea gained immediate favour: this was for the archives to be opened and for each child above a certain age to be invited to choose one object that they particularly liked, and which they could carry and display at a march past before the barbecue. Of curse there were were some restrictions, but as someone pointed out, ‘our treasures are part of a living tradition.’
Among the children who wanted to take part were a brother and sister called Matariki and Aroha. Since their mother and father both worked at Te Papa, they knew the place well.
Now it so happened that the first day of spring was on a Sunday, and the week before that was chosen as the day for selecting the treasures that each child would carry. Aroha had made up her mind immediately. There was a kiwi feather cloak, a kahu kiwi, that she had fallen in love with the first time she saw it. When she was younger she had once got to hold and stroke a living kiwi, and was surprised at how warm it was and how soft the feathers. They felt more like hair or fur. The cloak she wanted to carry was not old, but she thought it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. And she promised that of course, she would be careful with it.
Matariki could not make up his mind. There were lots of things he liked, but none that reached out and grabbed him. Eventually, he was one of the children who decided they wanted to see some of the things that were not on regular display, and for this they had to get special permission.
Hidden away in Te Papa, in the places where the public are not allowed to go, are large high rooms with heavy shelves on rollers. Here there are many ancient treasures which are rarely handled even by those who are looking after them. In fact in one room, the people in charge have found that although the lights can be switched off, there is always one light that stays on and it is not always the same light either! Electricians can not explain why this is so – but the people who work there and look after the treasures know that the light stays on because some of the treasures do not like to be left in the dark.
It was in a store room such as this the Matariki entered. The neon light flickered above. Here were fish nets and fish-hooks, models and ancient bone carvings. The attendant who was with enjoyed watching the surprise on Matariki’s face as he saw things he never knew existed. But still… nothing quite spoke to him. The attendant, who was proud of his collection, turned a wheel which rolled open the shelves and revealed a wall on which were hung weapons of war – beautiful carved mere each of which told a story, cruel looking pātiti, and many taiaha standing upright, each held by a metal clasp. These interested Matariki. He had never see so many. And so ancient. He marvelled at the carving on the polished blades and the decoration with feathers and hair.
As he walked down the narrow corridor between the wall and the shelves, his attention was drawn to one taiaha in particular. It was not the most decorated, but it was the one that most appealed to him.
“I like this one,” he said pointing.
The attendant came down the corridor. And looked at the taiaha. “You like this one?” he asked, pointing.
“Dunno. Just do. Do you think they’d let me carry that in the procession. I’d be very careful.”
“Do you know who that taiaha belonged to?’
There was a pause. “Te Rauparaha. That’s who. Rangatira of the Ngāti Toa.”
“Crikey! We learned about him at school. I don’t suppose they’ll let me carry it.”
“Probably not – but you can always ask, eh.”
That night Matariki talked to his dad, and asked him to help.
“Will you talk to them for me, dad? Ask them if I can carry it.”
“No, son,” said his dad. “If you want to carry Te Raupraha’s taiaha, you must ask for it yourself. A chief does not ask others to do his work”
And so that was what Matariki did, the following day.
The result was a long meeting. And at the end of it, one of the Elders, a trustee of Te Papa, came to Matariki where he was waiting at the cafe near the Marae.
“Sit down, lad,” said the Elder. “So, you want to carry Te Rauparaha’s taiaha, eh?. Well, many of us are not sure whether that is a good idea, and we don’t want to set a precedent but…” Matariki held his breath, “So long as you agree to certain conditions, we’ll let you do it, just this once.”
Matariki let out his breath. “What are the conditions?”
“Well first, you will not be allowed to pick up the taiaha until just before the parade, and you will return it to the custodian in the Marae immediately after the parade. Agreed?”
“Second. There’ s to be no sky larking. No pretending you’re in battle and it must not touch the ground. You understand? You carry it with dignity and respect. Agreed?”
Matariki nodded. “Yes. Agreed.”
“Good. So now let’s hope the weather stays fine.”
And that was it.
For reasons best known to himself, Matariki did not tell anyone – except his mum and dad and Aroha, of course – not even his best friend. It was to be a surprise.
Sunday the first of September dawned misty. But that soon burned off, and a fine day was forecast. All the mums and dads had their tasks: decorating the little Greek theatre, hiding the surprises in the sand, setting up the barbecue, putting the last stitches in some of the costumes … and so forth.. The celebration was scheduled to begin at 11.00. The Parade of Treasures, as it was called, would take place at 2.30 and the barbecue would be at 3.00 after which there might be dancing and then a general tidy up.
In the morning, Aroha had a great time, dressing up and then helping her dad with the barbecue, but Matariki found it hard to relax. It was not that he was worried, it was… well he didn’t know. He just kept wishing it was 2.30 and he could get started. His mum notice that he was sitting alone to one side in the Greek theatre, a bit out of things. She came and sat down beside him. “Don’t worry son. You’ll be fine. And we’ll all be watching, and we’re so proud of you. I’m going to take some photos.” Matariki just nodded. “Would you like a sausage to be going on with? I’ve pre-cooked some.” So Matariki had a sausage, and then he felt better.
2.15. All the children in the parade began assembling with their special treasures. The plan was that they would enter the theatre one by one, walk to the centre, hold up their trophy, say a few words about it and then move away to the side. At the end they would all leave in procession and go up to the steps into Te Papa. They’d had a practice on Saturday so they all had a good idea what they were doing. Matariki had used a mop to simulate the taiaha and his father had shown him how to hold it and how to stand.
Matariki hurried up to to the Marae and was relieved to see that the custodian of the weapons was waiting for him. The taiaha was wrapped so that no one would know what it was. The custodian carried it down for him.
The children waited in line. Each of them went forward, one by one. Aroha was in front of Matariki and there were three children came after him. What surprised them was that each of the children received a round of applause, as if they had done something really clever.
Then it was Aroha’s turn and she marched in wearing the cloak as though she had worn one all her life. She received a round of applause even before she said a word, and Matariki had to admire the way she spoke up, head held high. She’d always been good at drama.
And then it was his turn. The cover came off the taiaha and he gripped it firmly just as he had been shown, and ran with small steps right to the centre of the theatre. There he stopped. He cleared his throat, and spoke. “This the taiaha of Te Rauparaha, Paramount Chief of the Ngāti Toa.” Several people in the audience called out when they heard that. “I chose it because… because it spoke to me.” He hadn’t meant to say that. It just popped out. “I want to thank those whop have allowed me to carry this. It is a great honour. It is not very heavy, but I can tell you this, if I were facing it in battle, I’d be very worried.” This was greeted with murmurs of laughter. “That’s all I have to say.”
And as he moved away to the side, the applause broke out. He took his place beside Aroha and she winked at him. “Well done bro.” she whispered.
Minutes later it was all over and the children filed out of the theatre, through the café and into the entrance hall. Those who had come on stage last were now first. Keeping inline, they climbed up the stairs and then began to walk up the long path, Te Ara ā Hine, leading to Te Marae ō Te Papa Tongarewa.
Matariki was still holding the taiaha firmly, but half way up the path he started to feel strange. For a moment he wondered where he was and he stopped. Coming up behind him, his sister almost bumped into him. “Come on,” she said. “You can’t stop here.” And that jolted him out of whatever had gripped him. He walked on, and there, waiting for him at the top was the custodian.
“Well done, Matariki. You all right? You look a bit pale.”
“Ok. I’ll take that now and put it back in its place of rest.” So saying the custodian took the taiaha of Te Rauparaha and covered it.
“I’m starving,” said Aroha after she had handed in the cloak. “Smell them sausages bro. I recon we’ve earned a feast.” And she gave him a push.
That evening, when they got home, Matariki was very quiet.
“What’s up with you son?” asked his father. “Didn’t you enjoy today? We were proud of you. Proud of both of you. Is something worrying you?”
“No, It’s just…”
“He had a funny turn when we were taking the cloak and taiaha back,” chimed in Aroha. “What was all that about?”
“I don’t know,” said Wiremu.” For moment there, I didn’t know where I was. It seemed I was standing on a headland somewhere, with the sea high on the rocks. And I was looking across at the dark wooded hills on the other side, swarming with mist, and the mist low on the sea. I could hear the crash of the waves on the shore and see the gulls sliding down the wind. I could see it and smell the sea – and the smoke of fires too. But then Aroha gave me a push … and I am OK now. But it was very real.”
“Ah well,” his father said quietly. “A taiaha can tell strange stories. Maybe it was grateful for the outing. A taiaha was never made to sleep in a museum. But you are home now. And safe. And you have had a very special day. There’s not many get to touch the taiaha of Te Rauparaha and come back to tell the tale.”
 I am ideated to Alistair Campbell’s wonderful poem The Return for this imagery.