Where’s whare? Parihaka and the sacred medicine whare

Peter Wood’s paper on Parihaka-tecture introduces several original insights into the architectural richness that lies still relatively untapped at this pa. A further insight was introduced as part of his presentation (not covered in his paper), a challenge to what has become generally accepted as historical fact. Peter’s analysis of photographs of the pa from the 1880s led him to question whether the wharenui at Parihaka was actually destroyed following the invasion on 5 November 1881, or whether we have actually been taken by an architectural misunderstanding and misidentification.

Media reports of the invasion of Parihaka by the Armed Constabulary noted – without particular emphasis or accent – the destruction of a number of buildings at the pa. Most of these were wharepuni, pulled down to reduce the risk of the expelled inhabitants returning to live at the pa. But one got special mention, “a very substantially built one called sacred medicine whare, no persons being allowed to enter unless barefooted.” [New Zealand Herald, 22 November 1881, p.5] Recent writers have interpreted this to mean a wharenui, obviously guided by the tikanga reference and perhaps also the use of ‘sacred’. Once the Parihaka story reached a popular audience (in the late 1970s), the meeting house was well established as a (perhaps the) symbol of Maori culture and life, and so the interpretation as wharenui added significant weight to the story.

The image Peter drives his question with is from the Alexander Turnbull Library, described as a scene with unidentified Maori meeting house and surrounding buildings, in Taranaki, possibly Parihaka. ‘Probably Parihaka’ would be more accurate, since the building in the background is more than likely Miti Mai Te Arero (Te Whiti’s meeting house), and the structure just behind matches that in Fox’s watercolour of Parihaka. The two buildings at the centre of the image are not part of the main Parihaka settlement, but placed just to the south-west tucked behind one of the small hills surrounding the pa. The larger building seems to be a wharenui of some sort (though not a whare whakairo), but it is the smaller building in front that attracts Peter’s attention. With a chimney on the side, and small courtyard with low fence at the front, Peter speculates whether this is in fact the ‘sacred medicine whare’ spoken of.

Scene with Maori meeting house, Mount Taranaki district

Scene with Maori meeting house, Mount Taranaki district. Preston, G M :Album of Maori photographs. Ref: PA1-o-423-08-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Judith Binney identified a similar building at Maungapohatu in 1975. Her article notes that it is a whare mahana (warm house or heat house), built to improve the health of residents and in particular the children of Maungapohatu. Binney notes:

“The community was well aware of the vulnerability of their children in the cold Urewera winters. Somewhere between 1933 and 1935, they built for themselves a new whare mahana, or warm house, which was used particularly for confinements and for those with pneumonia. It was dug into the hillside, its floor excavated and its outside walls packed with earth to keep in the warmth. Raupo bundles, placed under a sheathing of totara bark, were used for extra insulation on the wooden walls (Figs 7 and 8). A fire of maire wood, whose smoke does not irritate the eyes, was kept burning inside.”

While the building Peter identifies at Parihaka does not appear to be dug into the hillside (though perhaps a touch sunken?), the presence of the chimney certainly suggests a ‘medicine’ house or whare mahana. We also know that Parihaka pa was noted for its cleanliness and lack of disease, and the presence of a whare mahana would support this. Its presence on the outskirts of the pa also fits with the notion of quarantining those with influenza or other illness. But if this was the ‘sacred medicine whare’ that gets special mention as being destroyed, it is hardly central to the pa (speaking literally or symbolically). It seems odd – though not impossible – that the destruction of a building on the edge of the pa would get mention.

Judith Binney Whare Mahana at Maungapohatu

Image of Whare Mahana at Maungapohatu by Judith Binney

But what of the building at the centre of Fox’s watercolour? It looks like a whare whakairo, right in the centre of the pa (at least the centre as presented to us by Fox). It fits the commonly held view that the Armed Constabulary destroyed the wharenui at Parihaka. But it doesn’t fit photographs of Parihaka from a similar date, none of which show a building like Fox had painted at that location in the pa. This doesn’t mean Fox misled us – timing differences between his painting and the photographs open the chance for such a building to appear in-between, and the lack of a definitive birds-eye view or layout of Parihaka gives a slight chance of his wharenui being hidden from view in the photographs (either literally hidden behind other buildings or hidden due to the field of view).

[Fox, William] 1812-1893 :Pariaka. Te Whiti's Pah 1882 Taranaki.

Fox, William (Rt Hon Sir), 1812?-1893. [Fox, William] 1812-1893 :Pariaka. Te Whiti’s Pah 1882 Taranaki.. Ref: WC-028. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Detail of [Fox, William] 1812-1893 :Pariaka. Te Whiti's Pah 1882 Taranaki.

Detail of William Fox watercolour with wharenui at centre of Parihaka settlement

Maybe there was no wharenui at Parihaka. Fox may have painted one in because he deemed that such a settlement should have one, rather than one actually being there. Newspaper reports of the wharenui destruction could be architectural misreportings or mistranslations – again more a case of reporters and invaders assuming all such settlements must have a wharenui and then nominating an existing (non-wharenui) building this role. Or perhaps Peter Wood is right and the wharenui spoken off didn’t exist at the centre of Parihaka, but was on the edges of the settlement.

Either way it is clear that there is an architectural richness to Parihaka that we have yet to fully appreciate.


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