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New Zealand Institute of Architects









Ruapekapeka Pā

For the second year running, Jade Kake (Ngāpuhi, Te Arawa, Whakatōhea) won the Warren Trust Writing Award, this year for her moving essay about Ruapekapeka, a ruined pā that was the site of an infamous battle.

Uncovering your own history often feels like solving a riddle, or a mystery, the details unearthed piece by piece.

It’s digging in the National Archives during your Master of Architecture thesis year, seeking evidence of the layout of the kāinga, seeking to understand how your tūpuna would have lived, and finding detailed drawings of Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka, painstakingly produced by British engineers after the battles were lost.

It’s walking through another pā site in the Waikato, far from home, interviewing the hapū lead on a contemporary reconstruction project, an innovative creative reinterpretation, and discovering the shared connections that lead back to home, through whakapapa, through time and space.

It’s standing by the kitchen sink, in a rented house opposite your tūpuna kāinga, washing dishes and listening to a radio documentary on the New Zealand Wars (hosted by a broadcaster you rather admire, and featuring the voices and whakaaro of your whanaunga – you never realised they knew so much).

It’s attending yet another Hui-ā-Hapū, and this time hearing your whanaunga provide the hapū with an update on the upcoming commemorations, to be held up at the pā site, and realising how eager you are to contribute, how little you know, and how impatient you are to avail yourself of that knowledge.

Te Ruki Kawiti (Ngāti Hine) has been credited as the architect of Ruapekapeka Pā. A brilliant military tactician, Kawiti sited the pā carefully. Isolated, far from munition supplies, it was a site that could be occupied and abandoned easily. This pā represents the pinnacle of military pā construction and provided the blueprint for modern trench warfare (a claim disputed by the British, contemporaneously – in the form of disbelief that the natives could do anything so clever – and, later, by military historians).

Ruapekapeka, consisting of a series of underground rooms, was so named because of an association with the bat’s nest. It was a colony of bats, personified by the people submerged in the tunnels. Woven flax screens, protecting against musket fire, formed the inner perimeter; the outer was a wooden palisade constructed of giant pūriri posts. Whare hovered over pits, suspended on thick pūriri rafters. Trenches and palisades: enough to withstand cannon fire.

When I interview Moko Tauariki (Ngāti Naho) about Rangiriri Pā, I am surprised to find the connections. He tells me that the two key engineers of the site – Te Uriuri (Ngāti Koro ki Kahukura) and Te Wharepū (Ngāti Mahuta) – had utilised techniques at Rangiriri that they had learnt from Ruapekapeka, from my tūpuna, from Te Noorta.

“We took the trench idea from Ruapekapeka,” he tells me, “because Ruapekapeka is fashioned around the bats, the holes or the caves they lived in in the ground. Ngāpuhi, Te Tai Tokerau, experienced raupatu well before Waikato did. And so, it made sense for us to use their engineering brilliance to help aid us with our engineering tactics down here in the Waikato.” [1]

In this moment, I feel my heart swell with pride, although I am only learning about this for the first time. Moko Tauariki tells me that he has learnt most of what he knows through the process of conserving and reinterpreting the pā, and it reminds me that knowledge-holders are grown and nurtured over time, and that knowledge, though it belongs to us, is not necessarily innate or inborn.

All paths lead to home.

The road veers away from State Highway 1. A cloud of dust envelops the car, and I slow down. Window up, air conditioning on. The road is long, winding. I wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn, even though there are no turns to make. My memory is hazy. I haven’t been up here since I was a child; maybe I’m remembering wrongly.

Eventually I reach the site. A sign comforts me, beckons me, and I pull into the carpark. The perimeter of the carpark is thick with harakeke, permitting no views to the pā itself. A winding path plunges into the ngāhere [bush]. It’s cool and dark here, and as I meander a breeze ripples past and gently caresses.

The bush opens up, and there’s a pause, a waharoa [gateway] visible in the distance as the bush thins. I walk through a wooden gate and cut across a trail, headed for the waharoa, eyes skyward.

I pass through, ascending slightly. When the path emerges, it’s onto a flattish area. There’s a lack of signage, but from what I remember this is the British forward position, located just beyond where the British camped for ten days, watching and waiting. I gaze in the direction of the pā and try to imagine what it must have looked like from this vantage point, although empathising with the colonial forces is hardly my strong suit.

I walk into the pā site itself, the earth pockmarked with large pits. It requires some imagination – the pā has long been abandoned, since 1846, since the battle (at least as a living site, although it has been revived and restored in recent years, post-corpus). Grass and wildflowers (weeds, really) lend the site a slightly discordant bucolic feeling. I wander hazily for a time.

Only towards the end do I spy the signage, a visual descriptor, filling in the voids in my own errant imagination. The cross-section is astonishing: a series of palisades, mounded earth, trenches, whare over bulbous pits; successive lines of defence; the passages that burrow away to safety (escape routes to the rear). On the interpretation board, I read that by the time the British reached Ruapekapeka, the pā was nearly empty.

Beyond the edge of the site, the ngāhere returns, quickly swallowing me whole as I descend. A large pūriri tree stands here, beyond the battle site, a reminder of the pieces of the pā that have long since disintegrated, thick timber beams laid across deep pits.

Other associations surface – kūkupa drunk on the berries; leaves encircling a woman’s upoko – ka mau te tauā ki te mātenga i te haerenga ki te tangihanga; te pū o te riri, a history more recently learned (a play on words?).

After the battle, I was told, Te Ruki Kawiti travelled to Pehiāweri Marae (where the bones of my tūpuna lay) to return the bodies of deceased whānau, and to heal the bodies of his wounded soldiers and allies. It is here that Kawiti had his moemoeā [vision], and made his famous final prophecy, delivered atop Pukepoto:

“E te whānau, i te pakanga ahau ki te Atua i te pō, heoi kīhai ahau mate. Nā reira, takahia te riri ki raro i o koutou waewae. Kia ū ki te whakapono, he poai pākehā koutou i muri nei. Waiho kia kakati te namu i te whārangi o te pukapuka, hei konei ka tahuri atu ai. Kei takahia e koutou, ngā papa pounamu a o koutou tūpuna e takoto nei. Titiro atu ki ngā taumata o te moana.”

[My illustrious warriors, I fought with God last night, but I did not die. Trample anger beneath your feet, hold fast to your beliefs. Learn the ways of the pākehā. You must wait until the sandfly nips the pages of the book (the Treaty). Only then will you stand to challenge what has happened. Lest you desecrate the sacred signatures (marks) of your ancestors placed upon the book. Look to the horizons of the sea (the transformation of the future).] [2]

Here the stories muddy (or conversely, the healing waters. I’ve traced paths along waterways, but I’ve never been certain of their precise location). A tūpuna whaea (nō Ngāti Hine, I think), they say she was a matakite, but maybe that was another era, maybe the dates are wrong. Radio static and radio silence. (I always did love to mix metaphors.)

Those who could not be healed are buried in our urupā. Or so I was told. I think of graves filling up with water. Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou.

Ruapekapeka – both a site and an event, a place where the whakapapa of Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Manu and Te Kapotai intertwine, and I have scarcely begun to unravel these threads.

What have I learnt so far?

In this process of breathing, being, becoming, I try to embody my ancestors. Try to walk the well-worn paths they have taken. Try to understand and trace the thread connecting from my tūpuna, since mai rānō but especially to the time of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, to me, now. I try to understand the relevance of my profession and my place within it, a built environment overwhelmingly imbued with the colonial, an architectural tradition steeped in a dormant violence. These are some of the connections I can begin to forge as I learn the stories of our ancestors: Te Ruki Kawiti, Te Uriuri, Te Wharepū.

All my impulses tell me that war, in and of itself, is not something to celebrate. But survival is worth celebrating; resistance is worth celebrating. Ingenuity, skill and technical brilliance are worth celebrating, cutting through all the lies you were told about yourself, those self-justifying colonial myths, because colonisation means technology and progress, and cessation of sovereignty is a small price to pay.

As I stand within the ruins of pā, I ruminate on the last line of Kawiti’s famous ōhākī – “Titiro atu ki ngā taumata o te moana” [Look towards the horizons of the sea]. I choose to interpret this as a reminder to us descendants to hold fast to the things that we were taught. I try to remember this in the myriad of large and small ways in which we seek to uphold our tino rangatiratanga – through politics, through activism and resistance, through architecture, through maintaining our core traditions of manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga – as I look out to the horizon, towards a bright and shining future.


1. Jade Kake (presenter), “Rangiriri Pā”, audio podcast (7 September 2018) in the series Indigenous Urbanism. Producer: Jade Kake. Retrieved from

2. Kene Te Uira Martin, “Te Ruki Kawiti” in The People of Many Peaks: The Māori biographies from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Vol 1., 1769–1869), Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1990.