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The Return of Aute

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A visitor to Papakura Art Gallery examines the notebook in which Nikau Hindin has recorded her research into aute.  A scene from the opening ceremony for Nikau Hindin's Te Kiri o Tane and Horo Horomoana's Tui Tuia: Traditional Maori Music Nikau Hindin and Horomoana Horo pose at Papakura Art Gallery Visitors to the gallery examine some of the paintings produced by Hindin's wananga aute. Tributes to the wananga aute's work produced by students from Drury Primary School during a visit to Papakura Art Gallery. An aute plant. Photograph taken from from Te Ara website A typical Franklin E Local cover. The cover of Martin Doutre's book-length 'guide' to New Zealand's supposed ancient history.

The turnout for Hindin and Horo's opening seemed particularly disappointing, and I wondered whether it had something to with local history. During the Waikato War Papakura became a military settlement. Imperial soldiers barracked there, and they supervised the movement of men and munitions down the Great South Road to the front. Occasionally they skirmished with Maori guerrillas based in the Hunua Ranges. After the war many soldiers stayed behind to farm land confiscated from Maori. Few of the refugees from the war returned, and Papakura became a white town.



Nikau Hindin
Te Kiri o Tane


23 March - 28 April 2016

Old Wairoa Road runs from the edge of Clevedon to Papakura. It begins amidst the lifestyle blocks of wealthy commuters, passes through a new brick and tile housing development and through East Papakura’s blocks of weatherboard rentals, crosses the main trunk line, and joins the Great South Road near the centre of town.

Under the tar seal of Old Wairoa Road is metal laid down in the second half of the nineteenth century, to help bullock carts and drays carry sacks of potatoes and kauri gum to markets. Under the metal is the clay of a bridle path cut from bush earlier in that century. Under the clay is a still older path, one trodden by Maori. This path connected the Wairoa River, which flows into the Waitemata harbour beyond Clevedon, with the Pahurehure inlet of the Manukau harbour on the other side of Papakura.

With its two harbours and their scores of serpentine inlets and estuaries, Auckland has been called a ‘natural Venice’, and Maori waka moved like gondolas on the region’s waters. The route through Papakura was one of a dozen portages connecting the Waitemata with the Manukau. Over hundreds of years hundreds of thousands of footsteps fell on the Papakura portage, until the route was sunk inches deep in the earth.

Taonga as well as taua moved along the trail, as iwi traded and warred with one another. Cloth made from the bark of the aute, or paper mulberry tree, was one of the treasures that travelled the Papakura portage and the waters of Tamaki Makaurau.Aute had been brought to Aotearoa with some of the earliest Polynesian colonists. In tropical Polynesian societies like Tonga and Samoa, millions of the trees grew. Their bark was stripped, soaked, and pounded into cloth that could be painted and then exchanged as money, or worn, or turned into sails. The colder climate of Aotearoa made aute slight and sickly, and most of the plantations the Polynesian settlers established were abandoned.

But in a few places the tree survived, even if it did not flourish. It was harvested and beaten and shaped into jewellery, like earrings, and other tradeable goods. Because it was rare, aute was prized. A plantation at Waihihi, amidst the forested swamp of Hauraki, became so famous it inspired the proverb ‘Haere ki Hauraki, he aute ko awhea’ (‘Come to Hauraki, where the aute has survived’).

When the people of Hauraki came north to trade, they loaded aute and other taonga onto their waka tiwai and mokihi, then paddled down their swamp-rivers into the shallow sea Pakeha later named the Firth of Thames, then steered north into the Waitemata harbour, then turned up the Wairoa River, then hauled their craft across the portage, to a canoe landing on the Pahurehure inlet. The Waiohua iwi, which maintained pa and kainga just south and east of Papakura and had more temporary settlements near Pahurehure, might host and trade with their Hauraki relatives. The volcanic gardens and sprawling villages of Mangere lay a day’s paddle from Pahurehure.

No waka has made the Papakura portage since 1863, when a British and colonial army invaded the Waikato Kingdom. As they moved down the Great South Road, the invaders chased Maori out of their villages, and smashed or burned every waka they discovered.

After the war soldier-settlers established farms on confiscated land around Papakura, and much of Hauraki was deforested and drained, until it had turned from a swamp into a plain bleak with dairy farms. Aute has not been grown at Waihihi for at least a century. But last month, nearly one hundred and fifty-four years after the invasion of the Waikato, aute returned to Papakura, as Nikau Hindin’s exhibition Te Kiri o Tane was installed in the town’s art gallery, close to the Great South Road. (1)

Nikau Hindin is a young Ngati Rawarawa artist who learned about the delitescent tradition of aute making at the University of Hawai’I, where one of her instructors showed her the accounts that Cook and other early visitors to Aotearoa had left in their journals. She visited Roger Neich, who had prised aute beaters from the mud of estuaries and the amniotic waters of swamps and repaired and studied them at Auckland’s War Memorial Museum. Hindin made her own copies of the beaters, and carved decorations on these new artefacts with broken shells.

Dante Botica, a master carver at the University of Auckland’s Waipapa Marae, led Hindin to an aute tree that had somehow survived amidst the magnolias and privet hedges of suburbia. Hindin knelt by the tree and stripped its bark with her teeth. Hindin formed an aute wananga, where she beat the plant into cloth and taught friends and whanau how to do the same, and then painted the cloth with dies she had squeezed out of berries.

On the walls of Papakura’s gallery Hindin hung long, thin strips of aute on which she had made fragile, provisional patterns out of small crosses and dots and arrows. On a long table she lay beaters, carving shells, dyes, and a notebook in which she had recorded, in a mixture of diagrams, drawings, and elliptical prose entries, her research into aute.

A screen played a video of Hindin beating aute. She hit the strips of soaked cloth gently in the manner of Hawai’ian tapa makers, rather than with the steady ferocity of Tongans. Later she sat in a circle with her friends and whanau; they beat together. In Tonga and other parts of Western Polynesia tapa beating is the preserve of women, but Hindin, like the Hawai’ians, had allowed men into her circle.

Hindin’s exhibition filled the first of Papakura gallery’s two rooms. The other room was given over to a collection of Maori musical instruments, and in particular putorino, or flutes, that had been collected and played by Horomoana Horo.

The opening of the two shows drew a crowd of less than twenty. Horo led his guests in a slow, single file circumnavigation of the gallery, as he recited a karakia and blew on a large shell. My two small boys joined the procession. Normally uncontrollable in art galleries, they moved quietly, cowed and awed by the long strange notes from the shell and by Hindin’s ragged cryptic strips of cloth. The circuit ended at the entrance of the gallery, where Horo blew loudly towards the evening traffic on the Great South Road. The blast from his shell slowly faded into the rumble of a refrigerator truck’s engine.

I was standing with my kids outside the gallery when an elderly Pakeha woman with a clipboard approached me. She stepped forward and pushed the clipboard toward me and asked me to fill out a questionnaire. I shook my head. The spell of the conchshell and the karakia had faded, and my kids were tugging at my jeans, and searching in my pockets for coins, and pointing at the supermarket across the road, where football-sized Easter eggs wrapped in golden tin foil shone under fluorescent lights.

But the woman with the clipboard was persistent. ‘Are you not a gallery customer?’ she asked.

Oh yes. I just stepped outside, but I’ve been looking at the art.’

Do you like it?’

Very much.’

Then you must fill out this questionnaire. The council needs to know that Papakura people support their local gallery.’

I don’t live in Papakura.’


I grew up out this way, though.’

We need to know that Papakura ratepayers are getting value from this facility.’

The gallery is sited in Papakura’s old fire station, and is funded and managed by Auckland Council. But its shows have not always won the support of Papakurans.

Have you had a lot of local responses to your questionnaire?’ I asked.

Not a lot. It’s hard to find locals. A lot of people out here don’t do art.’

It was a sentiment I’d heard from before, from some of the young men and women - many of them young artists and curators trying to earn a living in their spare time - who have spent long and lonely days at the gallery’s information desk.

The turnout for Hindin and Horo’s opening seemed particularly disappointing, and I wondered whether it had something to with local history. During the Waikato War Papakura became a military settlement. Imperial soldiers barracked there, and they supervised the movement of men and munitions down the Great South Road to the front. Occasionally they skirmished with Maori guerrillas based in the Hunua Ranges. After the war many soldiers stayed behind to farm land confiscated from Maori. Few of the refugees from the war returned, and Papakura became a white town.

During World War Two a new military base was established in the suburb, close to Old Wairoa Road. Many Maori trained there, and some of them settled permanently in Papakura. But the town remained an unfriendly place. It lacked a marae, and some of its businesses refused to serve Maori. In 1959 Henry Rongomau Bennett, a psychiatrist at Kingseat Hospital, tried to buy a drink at Papakura Hotel, but was turned away because of the colour of his skin. Unlike previous victims of Papakura’s colour bar, Bennett knew many powerful members of Te Ao Pakeha, and newspapers and politicians joined the campaign he launched against the town’s hoteliers. Prime Minister Walter Nash complained that there was ‘no excuse’ for Papakura Hotel’s anti-Maori policy, and newspapers in Sydney and Singapore as well as New Zealand repeated Bennett’s complaints.

Today Maori can buy beer in Papakura, but some complain about neglect by the suburb’s politicians. In 2015 Papakura’s local board rejected the example of its Manurewa and Otahuhu neighbours and refused to establish relations with a committee set up to offer advice on Maori-related issues. Hine Joyce-Tahere, the manager of Papakura’s marae, which was established after years of struggle in 1990, said she was unsurprised by the decision, because local politicians had a history of ‘non-engagement with Maori’.

Papakura has become one of the strongholds of the pseudo-historical conspiracy theory sometimes known as the Celtic New Zealand thesis. The proponents of the theory insist that New Zealand was for thousands of years the site of a populous and peaceable civilisation established by migrants from northern Europe - a civilisation that was overrun and usurped by the ancestors of the Maori a few hundred years ago. A secret and sinister alliance of archaeologists, Maori politicians, and civil servants has supposedly worked to destroy, hide, or disguise the stone temples and observatories and other landmarks raised by New Zealand’s first inhabitants.

The Franklin E Local, a Pukekohe-based magazine which claims a readership in the tens of thousands, has been promoting the Celtic New Zealand thesis for nearly a decade. The E Local insists that several sites close to Papakura - including an ‘obelisk’ of volcanic boulders on a traffic island between the Great South Road and the Southern Motorway, a group of oak trees supposedly many hundreds of years old - are part of the legacy of the ancient Celts.

The E Local recently established a special Papakura edition, so that its supporters in the town can advertise their businesses and publish denunciations of Maori.

By creating a pseudo-history that proclaims Pakeha rather than Maori as the tangata whenua of New Zealand, the conspiracy theorists deflect the real history of ancient Aotearoa, and justify the war of 1863. The Papakura politicians who refuse to listen to Maori voices show the same resistance to history.

Like the trail that lies beneath Old Wairoa Road, the Maori history of Papakura has been ignored by the town’s Pakeha majority. But by bringing aute back to Papakura, Nikau Hindin is remembering the time before the invasion of the Waikato, the expulsion of Maori from Tamaki Makaurau, the confiscation of millions of acres, and the transformation of forests into deserts of pasture. The research project that Te Kiri o Tane documents is at once an antiquarian and urgently political.

Scott Hamilton

(1) Te Kiri o Tane had its debut last winter in Manurewa’s Nathan Homestead, a few kilometres up the Great South Road. I reviewed that event at

This article is a taster from Scott Hamilton’s forthcoming book about the Great South Road and its history.

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