A culturally rich and diverse area the region has been a significant area for Maori for centuries, since the great voyaging Tainui waka (canoe) made landfall and also the base for the influential Kingitanga movement, European settlers and their descendants have also thrived in the region, creating a cultural heritage based on agriculture and more recently economic and creative industries.
History is around every bend in the majestic Waikato River which gives the region its name and gave the early Maori inhabitants a source of nourishment and life. Their spiritual relationship with the river, which they regard as an ancestor, is summed up in the famous saying: "Waikato taniwha rau, he piko he taniwha." (Waikato of a hundred taniwha, every bend a taniwha.) The taniwha (water monsters) are also a symbol for great chiefs so the second line can also be translated as "Waikato of a hundred chiefs, every bend a chief".
Maori place names tell the story of the region, starting with the name Waikato itself. The great voyaging Tainui waka (canoe) passed by the river's mouth during its migration to Kawhia on the region's west coast. It is said that when it did so, the river's current could be seen exerting a pull (kato) in the sea -- so the river was named Waikato (with "wai" meaning "water"). Sometimes the name is simply translated as flowing water.
Even the haka made famous by the All Blacks has links to the area. It was devised by the chief Te Rauparaha, who came from Kawhia. "Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora" (I die, I die, I live, I live) he chanted at the start of the haka, after a brush with death.
The story of the Waikato region is also the story of Kingitanga (the King Movement). In the nineteenth century, the area became the home of the Kingitanga, which was formed to unite Maori tribes throughout New Zealand indefense of their land and independence in the Waikato Land Wars of the nineteenth century. History has moved with them and today the Maori King has his impressive base at Turangawaewae in Ngaruawahia just north of Hamilton.
Several historic sites mark the 19th century Waikato wars fought between Maori and the advancing colonialist army. Today visitors to sites including Rangiriri in the north and Kihikihi (site of the Orakau battle) can stand on these deceptively peaceful spots and get a sense of the courage of the Maori as they defended their land. Kingitanga has its base at the impressive Turangawaewae Marae (meeting place) in Ngaruawahia.
For those looking to find out more, Te Ara Wai Journeys is a free self-guided tour which explores culturally-significant sites throughout the Waipa district, and the Waikato War Driving Tour also provides a great insight into the Waikato's history.
Heritage on Show
Taonga (treasures) of Tainui are held in historical places and museums throughout the region including the Waikato Museum in Hamilton. Situated in Hamilton’s CBD, the Waikato Museum has more than 38,000 taonga/objects in their Visual Arts, Social History, Tangata Whenua and Science collections. The collections contain important historical Maori taonga (treasures) from the early years of European settlement to today, our regional art and history, and national events which impacted upon the region. A feature is a magnificent 200-year-old carved waka taua (war canoe) overlooking the culturally significant Waikato River. As a further marker to the region’s history, on the far bank of the river from the museum the shell of the Rangiriri paddle steamer is on display.
Further south, the Te Awamutu Museum holds the figure of Uenuku – one of the most valued taonga (treasures) of the Tainui people.
The region is dotted with good museums, including the distinctive Firth Tower Museum in Matamata, Cambridge Museum and the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre, a collector’s dream.
Art for All
As well as covering the region’s history, the Waikato Museum also regularly mounts major art exhibitions including local and overseas exhibitions. Work from Waikato’s leading artists can often be found in exhibitions at the ArtsPost building right beside the Waikato Museum.
Several galleries around town and the wider region also feature local artists’ work, and many are showcased in a Hamilton Art Trail. The Waikato also has a rich craft tradition, with artisans producing lovely pieces for sale all around the region.
The coastal town of Raglan also shines in the arts sector, with the Raglan Arts Weekend event held each January, and a variety of artists along the Raglan Arts Trail. While other regional galleries and artists such as the Wallace Gallery, Inspirit Gallery, Adrian Worsley Sculptures, Tony Sly Pottery, and more also call the region home.
Not to mention a variety of performing arts which are regularly showcased through the regions theatres.