Pukeahu Anthology

Naming the Unknown Warrior

‘Tomb of the Unknown Warrior’ and ‘Naming the Unknown Warriors’ are from Rachel Buchanan’s The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget (2010) which documents Buchanan’s research into her family’s Taranaki and Te Āti Awa ancestries and the histories connected with them. These pieces visit the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and the National War Memorial on Pukeahu / Mount Cook, calling to light forgotten histories and examining the cultural agendas at work in our selective national remembrances.

Only a few months after our modest, demented memorial was unveiled, tens of thousands of people attended the internment and unveiling ceremonies for the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial in Buckle Street, Wellington. The first memorial to an unknown World War I soldier was erected in England after that war, and Australia’s unknown soldier was interred in Canberra in 1993. New Zealand’s memorial also contains the remains of an unknown World War I soldier; but its extravagantly bicultural form and title — it contains a warrior, rather than a mere soldier — makes it different from other foreign tombs.

The dead New Zealand man is purposefully without ethnicity. While my family is exploring the deep connections, privileges, responsibilities, silences, losses and gains accorded to us by our indigenous history, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior seeks to erase or collapse historical difference. It represents an escalation of the process by which non-Māori New Zealanders look to Māori culture for globally-recognisable markers of national cultural difference, a process that might be described as a case of kiwi (both the flightless bird that is the national faunal emblem, and a colloquial term usually associated with a white male New Zealander) robbing iwi (tribes) for a bright new set of feathers.

The haka performed before All Black games is the most obvious example of this. Just as the haka lends both fierceness and mystery to all the rugby players who perform it, the tomb adds a mythic, noble-Māori-warrior strand to the memory of dead Pākehā soldiers, enhancing and enriching the ‘hard man’ stereotype most often associated with the Pākehā at war, the image of a fighter who is a ‘strong and versatile pioneer with gentlemanly morals’.[1] The wisdom or justice of this masculine enhancement can be debated; but what is clearly troubling about the memorial — to me at least — is the way this overtly bicultural tomb ignores New Zealand’s wars of foundation, wars in which the supposedly superior fighting skills of the white male were radically undermined both by the superior military strategies and fighting skills of their Māori opponents, and by the fierceness of their Māori allies, the ‘kupapa’ neutral or friendly troops who were at the forefront of many Crown attacks against Māori.[2] Memories of these complicated foundational wars, including war stories associated with the site on which the tomb has been built, nibble away at this elegant new memorial, diminishing its mana and power.

What are the competing and overlapping desires at work in the Rawinia Buchanan Dementia Wing and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior? It has been argued that all memory work starts with the ‘local’ and the ‘subjective’.[3] Stories connected with our family memorial — an almost private, local and very discreet site — challenge the stories embodied in a public, national and very prominent monument. Whakapapa recovered from the dementia wing of my own family’s Māori past offer new possibilities for memorialising national foundations in a settler nation such as New Zealand, possibilities that go beyond the ‘us’ and ‘them’ framework of tribunal histories.

Writing about the ever-growing cult of Anzac worship in Australia, Marilyn Lake has recently argued that ‘national memory has been powerfully influenced by the militarization of history through the construction of war memorials and the annual commemoration of Anzac and Remembrance days’.[4] In her work on public memory in post-Apartheid South Africa, Annie Coombes has observed that monuments and memorials are ‘animated and reanimated’ by performance.[5] In Australia and New Zealand, the rituals associated with annual Anzac and Armistice Day commemorations enliven war memorials, making them potent sites for public memories of masculine sacrifice, in particular.

The internment and unveiling of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior are believed to have been the largest commemorative project ever in New Zealand. It is now the site for annual commemorative ceremonies. On one level, the tomb continues New Zealand’s long tradition of excessive war memorialisation. Every conflict that New Zealand has ever been involved in, including the nineteenth-century wars of foundation, has been documented in official histories commissioned by the state, paper monuments to the sacrifices of the dead. The memorialisation of foreign wars reached a stupendous apex with the 48 official war history volumes and 24 booklets produced on World War II.[6] The production of war stories about that war and the ones that have followed continues unabated. In 2001, for example, the then Prime Minister Helen Clark announced a major oral history project to gather the stories of New Zealanders who had been imprisoned by the Japanese in World War II.

More recently, as I have already argued, the work of the Waitangi Tribunal is another form of military history, a memorialisation of the many types of Crown violence against Māori. The tribunal’s report on Taranaki tells a story of ‘never-ending war’ in that province, a war whose climax was the invasion of Parihaka.

As a researcher, I found the massive written archive generated by twelve hearings held over five years to be a painful memorial of the ongoing trauma caused by the wars of colonisation in Taranaki. But the tribunal archives are hidden inside storage boxes, accessed only by a few researchers. Tribunal reports make the news for a day or a week, then they too are relatively hidden from public view. Aside from the initial ceremonies to honour the publication of a tribunal report, and the Crown-iwi rituals that mark the settlement of a claim (should such a settlement be achieved), there are no ongoing, national annual rituals of commemoration to specifically mark New Zealand’s wars of foundation. The fragility of national remembrance of foundational wars was demonstrated, perhaps, by the popularity of the conservative National Party’s promise in the 2005 election campaign to govern for ‘kiwis’ rather than ‘iwis’, by ending all Treaty of Waitangi claims by 2010 and wiping out all ‘special treatment’ for Māori.[7]

However, the National Party lost the 2005 election. It won in 2008 with a campaign that was, ostensibly, much less divisive. Its ‘Maori’ policy was far less prominent than three years earlier; but its tone was, perhaps, even more assimilationist. The Party pledged to ‘achieve just and durable settlements of all historic Treaty claims by 2014’. Once claims had been settled, National would begin a ‘constitutional process to abolish the Maori seats. National wishes to see all New Zealanders on the same electoral roll’.[8]

The absence of any reference to New Zealand’s first wars at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, or at the National War Memorial that looms up behind it, suggests that these wars are moving even further from the centre of national collective memory. The wars of foundation are certainly not forgotten; but they remain peripheral, problematic and contested, unable, somehow, to be integrated into popular, bicultural rituals of commemoration.

This ongoing marginality of foundational wars is particularly incongruous since New Zealand is often held up — at least in relation to Australia — as a place that has a superior record in remembering the wars of colonisation, and in honouring the sacrifices made by indigenous and non-indigenous dead in the formation of the nation. For instance, Australian historian Ken Inglis has contrasted the absence of memorials to Australia’s wars of foundation with the supposed proliferation of such memorials in New Zealand, a nation that was able, at least, ‘to legitimate the racial wars by commemoration, and with ever more confidence as memories faded’.[9] Inglis, Henry Reynolds and artist Richard Franklin are among the many who have called for the Australian war Memorial to include some form of commemoration of people killed in wars fought on Australian soil. As many have pointed out, the absence of any acknowledgment of foundational wars in Australia is particularly cruel when the participation of white Australians in the wars against Māori is commemorated there. Inglis contrasts Australia’s forgetting with New Zealand’s superior remembering. His work suggests that the New Zealand countryside is awash with bicultural monuments to the wars of foundation and that brown and white war dead have equal significance. This has not been my experience, either as a historian or as a citizen.

The first Crown memorial to Māori war dead (rather than Pākehā soldiers killed by Māori, or Māori who died fighting for the Crown) was not erected until 2002.[10] This unveiling, in a tiny coastal settlement close to Parihaka, attracted a few dozen spectators — nothing compared with the thousands who attended the preparation and internment ceremonies for the Unknown Warrior.

More than a year and a half of thick bicultural ritual accompanied the creation of the Tomb. For instance, Wellington Te Āti Awa kaumātua (elder), Sam Jackson, blessed the tomb site at the beginning and end of construction in May 2003 and November 2004 respectively. The warrior was accompanied from Longueval, France to New Zealand by members of the New Zealand Defence Forces Māori Cultural Group, an escort that was ‘in keeping with Maori protocol’ that the dead should never be left alone. In France and again in New Zealand, a piper played a special lament for the unknown warrior. The Tudor Consort performed a four-part choral composition at the 11 November internment. The ceremonies indicated a respectful blending of Māori and Pākehā tradition.

The title of the tomb is highly suggestive. While Australia’s monument is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, New Zealand’s commemorates a ‘warrior’, a word that evokes stereotypes about Māori as warrior resisters in the nineteenth century and warrior gang members in the twentieth.[11]

When I visited the tomb in January 2005, I was moved and repelled in equal measure. As I have reflected on this memorial, it has become clear that my repulsion was caused, at least in part, by the way it gestures towards difference on the surface while deep down — in its very bones — the monument seeks to erase historical specificity, to create, through the bones of one of 30,000 Māori and Pākehā soldiers who died in service in overseas wars, a nation founded on the sacrifices of a generic, non-threatening ‘New Zealander’. The tomb contains the remains of one of the 9000 New Zealand soldiers who are buried in unmarked graves or whose remains could never be recovered. The bones, which belong to a man, were ‘chosen by the Commission from the First World War Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in the Somme region of France as this was the area where the greatest number of various New Zealand regiments and battalions are known to have fought’.[12] The bones are purposefully bleached of all identifying markers, including race.

The absence of race in the unknown warrior is especially significant. On the War Memorial website, a list of answers is provided to Frequently Asked Questions. One is: ‘Why not pick one Māori and one non-Māori to return?’ The answer reads:

Because the body is unknown, we will not know who he is except that he is a New Zealander. We will not know his name, rank, regiment, religion or any other detail of his life. The term ‘Warrior’ incorporates all these unknown details. He could be anyone and so represents everyone.

Being a ‘New Zealander’, by this definition, seems to involve an erasure of all markers of cultural or ethnic identity.

While the contents of the tomb are supposedly blank, the exterior is a gorgeous patchwork of extremely specific references to place, language, culture and race, references that are drawn almost exclusively from Māori culture. The tomb is embedded in the final flights of marble steps that lead to the National War Memorial carillon and hall of memories, an imposing singing tower that was opened on Anzac Day, 1932. Its design references the Southern Cross; ‘the choice and treatment of materials, the use of symbols and language, strongly reflect the unique cultural identity of this land and its people’.[13]

The tomb is made from shiny black granite and its sides are etched with dozens of mars that could be crosses or stars. The internment booklet explains that: ‘The Warrior will be guided by the stars of the Southern Cross on his journey back to New Zealand. The distance of the foreign land he leaves behind is represented on the base of the Tomb by a night sky of black granite inlaid with light grey Takaka marble crosses.’

The tomb is covered by a bronze ‘mantle’ or ‘cloak’ inlaid with four pounamu (greenstone) crosses. (The crosses were carved by my cousin Maryanne’s husband, Steve Myre). The crosses reference the Southern Cross on the national flag; but the use of the word ‘cloak’ to describe the bronze tomb top recalls tangi (funeral) rituals in which a feather cloak would be laid over the body of a dead person. ‘Cloak’ also suggests the precious ceremonial garments worn by Māori men and women of high standing. Further, the symbolism of a warrior’s body being guided home by a compass of stars links the journey of this anonymous serviceman with the great foundational migrations of Māori from Hawaikinui to New Zealand about 800 years ago, epic journeys made by waka guided only by stars.[14] Chiefly mana, celestial guides, physical strength, tenacity and endurance as well as ancient funeral rituals, not to mention the coveted title of warrior … this unknown ‘New Zealander’ appears to have gained most of his ‘unique cultural identity’ from Māori history and tradition.

The karanga inscribed around the base of the tomb also gains its potency from the way it brings to mind the wailing karanga sung by kuia to call manuhiri on to a marae, a practice most New Zealanders would either have heard in person or seen on television at official events. I have heard many karanga and these calls, sung in a single breath, often by a woman who is very elderly, never fail to send shivers through my whole body. The tomb’s karanga says:

Te mamae nei a te pouri nui
The great pain we feel
Tenei ra e te tau
Is for you who were our future
Aue hoki mai ra ki te kainga tuturu
Come back return home,
E tatari atu nei ki a koutou
We have waited for you
Nga tau roa
Through the long years
I ngaro atu ai te aroha
You were away. Sorrow
E ngau kino nie(sic) i ahau aue taukuri e
Aches within me.

The Māori and English words, so perfectly chosen and composed, evoke the same ache contained in painter Ralph Hotere’s Sangro paintings and the poetry of Cilla McQueen that is incorporated into these works. The art of Hotere and McQueen mourned the death of Hotere’s brother who was killed on the Western Front in World War I, and the pain his people continued to feel at his distant burial place, his far-ness from his place and his people.[15] This pain of distance is felt by all Māori and Pākehā whose loved ones died while serving in overseas wars; but it is especially acute in Māori communities where the two world wars claimed the lives of so many young men who had been ordained as future tribal leaders.[16]

It is appropriate that the distant deaths of so many young Māori and Pākehā people be commemorated through a beautiful and poetic monument such as the new Tomb. It would be an unfeeling visitor, indeed, who could fail to be moved by the sentiments expressed in the tomb’s karanga. But my sadness was not so much for what was there as for what was not. There are many other bodies — brown and white — waiting to be called home to the centre of national remembrance, waiting to be tracked and treasured and honoured with a mantle of bronze and greenstone, a skirt of stars.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was unveiled in the very year when the linking of my grandmother’s name with a Māori land trust development had shifted our family, quite irrevocably, from a state of uneasy kiwi-ness to one much closer to the more difficult but satisfying position of iwi-ness. My doctoral research on Parihaka has contributed, in small part, to this process.

Many of the men who lived at Parihaka had been famous military adversaries of the Crown. But at Parihaka residents had rejected violence as a way of fighting colonisers. The community’s non-violent strategy was partly pragmatic — by the 1870s Māori were greatly outnumbered by Pākehā, so military victory was unlikely; but it was also ideological, growing from a sophisticated pacifist culture developed by Parihaka leaders.

The men and women and children expressed resistance in a firm but gentle manner, through actions that are the opposite of the Māori warrior mystique embedded in phrases such as ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior’. In the twentieth century, there has been a noble tradition of non-warrior behaviour among both Māori and Pākehā. For instance, poet James K. Baxter’s father Archibald was a conscientious objector who was tortured for refusing to join up in World War I. Sedition, Russell Campbell’s film about pacifists during World War II, documents the suffering and beliefs of those who refused to fight a generation later. In 1977, Ngāti Whātua and their Māori and Pākehā supporters invoked the non-violent legacy of Parihaka during their 507-day-occupation of Bastion Point, Auckland. The tradition has continued. Under the leadership of Helen Clark, New Zealand shifted its military spending from war to peacekeeping operations.

It has occurred to me that New Zealand could express its cultural difference in a radical way now — before a local and global audience — by erecting a bicultural ‘Tomb of the Known Non-Warrior’ at its national war memorial. My ancestors, Mohi and Awhi Parai, could be named on such a memorial. Like hundreds of others, Mohi and Awhi were arrested for ploughing and fencing land around Parihaka and sent, without trial, to prison-exile in the South Island. Prisoners en route from Taranaki to the South Island were held in Wellington while they waited for their transport ship to arrive. The men were locked up in the barracks built by Governor Hobson in the 1840s on Te Āti Awa land at Pukeahau (which he called Mount Cook).[17]

The barracks, which could house 200 troops, was built to withstand Maori attack that never came. The barracks were demolished in 1882, and replaced with a prison built by prisoners from bricks made from clay taken from Pukeahau. In 1894, another smaller red-brick barracks was built. This building still stands, an office for a kitchen design firm. Five cells, with grille doors and prison bell, remain intact but disused at the rear.

This building is at the corner of a large pohutukawa-covered rectangle of land between Tasman and Taranaki Streets. The site, fronted by Buckle Street, is a palimpsest of competing histories and uses. Most of it is occupied by the National War Memorial, an enormous carillon housing 52 inscribed bells of varying shape and weight, built atop a ‘hall of memories’, and by the former National Art Gallery and Museum, which is now leased by Massey University from the Wellington Tenths Trust, and used as a design and art school.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is on the steps in front of the carillon. After lying in state at Parliament, the remains of the unknown soldier were put in the tomb in a bicultural ceremony that began with the carillon’s largest bell, Peace Rangimārie, being tolled eleven times (to mark the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November, Armistice Day). Peace Rangimārie is the heaviest of four new bells cast to mark fifty years since the end of World War II. Indeed, at 3 metres wide and weighing 12.25 tonnes, it is the heaviest bell to be cast anywhere in the world since 1934. It was hung, in 1995, along with Grace Aroha, Hope Tūmanako and Remembrance Whakamaharatanga. Peace, Hope, Grace and Remembrance toll for all the newly unknown warriors of New Zealand’s foreign wars; but for the participants in the wars of colonisation, they remain silent.

There are many other war stories connected with the site on which the unknown warrior is buried. In my family, those stories concern ‘warriors’ or ‘non-warriors’ called Awhi and Mohi and their father Hemi. They concern Hemi’s daughter Arapera, who married a Pākehā settler, William Ellerslie Wallace. They concern Charles (Tare) and his European wife Margaret. They concern my great-grandmother Hannah and her daughter Rawinia. They concern my dad and me. In 1987, I learnt to do the karanga in a prefab polytech building on Buckle Street, opposite the war memorial. The Kaumātua of Kuratini, as the school was known, was Te Huirangi Waikerepu.

Even so, I can't argue that Hemi and Mohi and Te Awhi and their descendants are totally forgotten at the National War Memorial. Up at the back of the site, far from the magnificent and ostentatious tomb, is a modest memorial erected in 2001 by the Wellington Tenths Trust. The memorial depicts a prisoner standing with his head bowed, wrapped in a blanket. It is made from grey stones and white pebbles. The grey stones, gathered from Taranaki streams, represent each of the prisoners who passed through Wellington in the late nineteenth century on their way to prisons in the South Island. The pebbles refer to ‘the lost genealogy’ of the men taken who ‘died in prisons’.

My family’s ‘hall of memories’ shows that what was lost can be found, what was foreign can become familiar. New Zealand’s unknown warriors have names, ranks, regiments, religions and race. They died in the back paddock, not some foreign field. They do not need pipes and stars to guide them home. They are already there, waiting to be released from the dementia wing of history, the bony archive beneath our feet.

[1] Jock Phillips, A Man’s Country? An Image of the Pakeha Male, Auckland: Penguin, 1987, 151.

[2] Phillips, Man’s Country,134–35. See also James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretations of Racial Conflict, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1986 and Belich, Titokowaru’s War, 1989.

[3] Susannah Radstone, ‘Working With Memory: an Introduction’, in Susannah Radstone, ed., Memory and Methodology, Oxford and New York: Berg, 2000, 12.

[4] Marilyn Lake, ‘Introduction’, Memory, Monuments and Museums, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006, 5.

[5] Annie Coombes, Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003, 12.

[6] Roberto Rabel, ‘War History as Public History: Past and Future’ in Bronwyn Dalley and Jock Phillips, eds., Going Public: The Changing Face of New Zealand History,Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2001, 155–173.

[7] The National Party website at that time described New Zealand as a nation drifting toward ‘racial separatism’. This process would be halted by, among other things, ‘returning the seabed and foreshore to clear Crown ownership on behalf of all New Zealanders’ and ‘abolishing the separate Maori seats in Parliament’.

[8] National Party, ‘Maori Affairs, Treaty & Electoral Law policies released’, 28 September 2008, see http://national.org.nz/Article.aspx?Articled= 28602, accessed 5 January 2009.

[9] Ken Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press,1998, 23.

[10] The first memorial erected by the Crown in honour of Māori who fought against it in the New Zealand wars was unveiled at Oakura, Taranaki in 2002. The rather ugly concrete slab honoured twenty Māori killed at Fort St George in an assault by 873 colonial troops backed up by artillery from HMS Eclipse. This slaughter was enacted in revenge for the death of one white soldier who had been ambushed by Māori some days earlier. At the unveiling, one Māori kaumātua (elder), Te Ru Wharehoka, said the fact that it had taken 139 years for the crown to acknowledge the wrong it had done was a sign that there was no genuine partnership between Crown and Māori. ‘Why did it take so long? It’s not historical, it’s hysterical’, Wharehoka was reported as saying. See Daily News, 27 June 2002, P. 3. The same day this Taranaki newspaper carried a story (on page 2) and photograph of the blessing of a stone to commemorate the death of Private Richard Absolon, a local man who was killed in 1982 in the Falklands war. The stone would be sent to England where it would be placed in a cairn for all those killed in the war. A memorial to Absolon was built in 1988 in New Plymouth.

[11] Aside from the pre-match haka, the most potent contemporary Māori warrior imagery has been produced by Alan Duff in his novel Once Were Warriors, Tandem Press, Auckland 1990, and in director Lee Tamahori’s 1993 film of the same name.

[12] Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Background Information, National War Memorial URL: http://www.nationalwarmemorial.govt.nz/unknown/index.html accessed 30 September 2005.

[13] ‘Tomb design’, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier souvenir interment booklet, 14.

[14] For a discussion of how the ‘great voyage’ myth works in New Zealand, Australia and The United states, see Davison, ‘Great Voyage’ in Use and Abuse of Australian History.

[15] Gregory O’Brien, Out the Black Window: Ralph Hotere and New Zealand Poets, Wellington: Godwit in association with City Gallery, 1987, 108.

[16] For a Te Āti Awa example relating to WWII, see Susan Love de Miguel, ‘Eruera Te Whiti O Rongomai Love 1905–1942’, DNZB, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/ updated 22 June 2007. Love was the first Māori to command the Māori battalion. He was killed at El Alamein. ‘The loss of Eruera was a tremendous blow to his family, and the ramifications were to be felt for generations…’, Miguel writes.

[17] Chris McLean, For Whom the Bells Toll: A History of the National War Memorial, Wellington: Heritage Group, Department of Internal Affairs, 1999.