A kauri gum commemorating Te Tai Tokerau veterans from the Māori battalion was stolen from the museum at the Waitangi Treaty grounds on November 19.
Update 5.45pm: The kauri gum has been returned by a member of the public. Police investigations into the theft are ongoing.
The Waitangi Treaty grounds, where Te Tiriti o Waitangi was first signed in 1840, is one of Aotearoa’s most important historical sites. Within it, taonga are housed that tell important tales of our nation’s story. In 2020, the Treaty grounds expanded its operations by opening Te Rau Aroha Museum of the Price of Citizenship. This state-of-the-art museum highlights Māori military contributions to protect New Zealand’s freedom. The museum strongly focuses on the Pioneer battalion of World War I and World War II’s famous 28th (Māori) battalion. In a gallery devoted to the latter, the theft of a precious taonga has left Treaty ground kaitiaki shaken.
A 30cm, roughly 2kg kauri gum was stolen in broad daylight from Te Rau Aroha by two adults, accompanied by a child, on Sunday, November 19. The taonga was part of one of two water features that allowed visitors to cleanse themselves of dangerous tapu associated with death present inside the museum. Kaitaia’s Te Ahu Museum gifted it to the Treaty grounds as a poignant representation of the 28th battalion’s A company. Troops from A company were tāne from Te Tai Tokerau, including legend Sir James Henare (Peeni Henare’s grandfather), who eventually became the last leader of the 28th battalion. Each company had a nickname, and A company’s moniker was “ngā kiri kapia: the gum diggers” – hence the kauri gum to commemorate their service.
Pita Tipene, chairperson of the Waitangi National Trust, is appalled by the theft of the kauri gum. He says it is “unacceptable to take a symbol that demonstrates the sacrifice our Māori soldiers made, particularly the soldiers from up here, on behalf of this country and especially in a place like Waitangi where it’s representative of the price of citizenship.” Te Rau Aroha curator, Chanel Clarke, is also upset by this “shameless act”. She explains that “everyone [at the Treaty grounds] is understandably pretty upset. Generally, we are just freaked out that people would do that kind of thing.”
While police are currently investigating the theft to reconnect this taonga with Te Rau Aroha, including reviewing CCTV footage, Clarke already has a rough idea of who stole it. “I have no doubt that those people who came in here have tūpuna that are in this gallery,” she says, “they probably have ancestors who served, and this is not the type of behaviour that is becoming of their whānau.” Expanding on that comment over the phone, she explained that the names of all 28th battalion soldiers from across the motu, alongside other WWI and WWII Māori veterans, are commemorated on the walls of Te Rau Aroha.
As a long-time curator, Clarke has witnessed other taonga stolen and eventually reunited with museums. Because of that, she’s confident it’s more a question of when Te Rau Aroha will get the kauri gum back rather than if they’ll be reunited. But Clarke concedes that she’s unsure whether the Treaty grounds will be playing the short or the long game.
Although she is confident Te Rau Aroha will be reunited with its stolen taonga, she‘s worried about something else concerning this theft. “One thing that is quite disturbing to me is that a child was subject to that display of behaviour from who essentially looked to be their caregivers,” she says. “Kauri gum is replaceable, but what can’t be unseen by that child is the action that took place – you have to think about that cycle. Personally, that is more disturbing than the theft itself.”
Te Rau Aroha and the Waitangi Treaty grounds urge anyone with information about the theft to contact the Police.
This is Public Interest Journalism supported by NZ On Air.