A woman giggles nervously: a man, wrapped in a ripped blanket, has just had his tattooed face close to hers. He leers then swaggers away. “Even though I know they’re acting, that was scary” I hear her tell her partner.
Less than an hour ago we had left central Christchurch, NZ, and were transported back in time to the Tamaki Heritage Village in Ferrymead. ‘Lost in our own land’ re-enacts about two hundred years of turbulent, South Island history when two very different cultures met.
“I have been waiting 150 years to tell you this story” an old man says before we are led, to the sound of flute and chants, past carvings silhouetted against the evening sky, and through native bush to a building where screens show historical footage.
It is obvious that tonight will not be the usual and popular Maori tourism of kapahaka (dance) and waiata (song) but a mix of acting, technology and period settings.
As we watch the screens, a musket-bearing warrior bursts through the door and another act begins on the 20-acres of open-air set, which tells the thought-provoking story of tribal warfare and Maori caught between the promises of new ways, the values of the past, and coping with European disease, land loss, and alcohol.
“Times have changed. Those with power rule,” he challenges while eyeballing me only inches from my face – I now understand the English tourists’ nervous laughter. We’re no longer merely passive viewers, but people drawn into local stories. He leaves, slamming the door behind him, the relief is almost physical and we relax again as the narrator, who had welcomed us earlier, explains what was happening for Maori with family fighting family as each took sides between the old and new ways.
Past fluffy blankets available for cold nights, and which we don’t need, we too go through the door where we now find ourselves in a Maori village – Matuku-Moana, named for the blue heron abundant on this estuary. Around us villagers are re-enacting life as their ancestors, the Kati Noho people, have lived near here for generations. Women are weaving baskets, footwear and fishing nets; carvers are working on poupou which tell the story of this tribe, and outside the Whare Te Taua (warriors’ house) men and young boys are working on their physical prowess with taiaha.
As I talk to a villager about the healing attributes of plants, which she says she learnt of while training for this role, a conch shell is blown, and the villagers hurriedly gather together, ensuring we visitors are within the safety of the group too. It seems a battle is imminent. Hastily the group is shepherded through the gates and into the safety of the wharenui. Again our narrator-guide talks, telling how the muskets bought trauma – overturning tradition and values. As she speaks the front of the building opens, revealing a fortified pa, and where a battle takes place between the intimidating musket-warrior and the traditional warrior-chief.
The battle escalates, deaths result and as the tangi continues we walk down the double palisades to board a tram which takes us on an 80-year forward leap: traditional Maori life is behind us and soon the tram pulls up at a Christian church in a fabulous early-New Zealand village.
We watch and hear life as it was, Maori and Pakeha interacting, children at a Native School, opposite the Land Courts squatters have set up camp. Its life in the raw, with prostitutes, sick people, children on the street, and some Europeans trying to ignore what is happening. Outside the General Store the narrator wraps up the evening before leading us across the railway line and past the thirty-plus cast who now welcome us with a haka powhiri and into the wharekai ( dinning room) where we enjoy a splendid traditional meal.
This is not simply the story of two peoples as they came together but, as all good theatre does, it examines the tension that interaction created: between tribes, between individuals, and between cultures. Local or visitor, this is a must-do.
©Heather Hapeta 2008
Look for other posts on this site (of mine ) about Maori herbs, Maori tours, language etc