Tongariro's Emerald Lakes and Hikers

“One’s Own Blood and Bones”

Tongariro National Park and Management Practice of Sacred Indigenous Sites

By Sierra Macdonald

Located on the North Island of Aoteoroa/New Zealand, Tongariro National Park is the country’s oldest national park, established in 1894. In 1990, it was declared a World Heritage site, and three years later it was also given Cultural World Heritage status. Tongariro is a popular tourist destination, drawing nearly one million visitors each year to the ski fields of Mount Raupehu or the hiking trails throughout the park, and the landscape itself is one of stunning natural beauty and volcanic drama: all three mountains within Tongariro National Park – Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Raupehu – are active volcanoes, with eruptions as recent as 2012 (Department of Conservation, n.d.).

The three peaks of Tongariro…have this same power.

I visited Tongariro National Park in the fall of 2017, and the mountains dominated the skyline of the park: heading southbound on Highway 47 from Lake Taupo, they were the undeniable center of attention, golden in the light of the setting sun and drawing the eye back again and again even from miles away. In his book Rising Ground, Philip Marsden writes of Armenia’s Mount Ararat as he saw it from the capital city of Yerevan, how its “snowcapped presence…dominate[d] the city, so much that when it was hidden behind a block, I found myself walking faster to see it again. I could feel it at my shoulder when it was behind me” (71). The three peaks of Tongariro National Park have this same power; even with eyes closed, I could feel their presence and a sense of orientation in the landscape that was not dissimilar to the prickling feeling of being stared at from a distance.

Tongariro was – and is – a place of great spiritual and cultural significance.

The beauty and power of this landscape, its role as a major tourist attraction on the North Island, and the preservation of the area via its national park designation and Cultural World Heritage status, however, are part of a lengthy and complicated history. Long before it became a national park or World Heritage site, the Tongariro region was – and is – a place of great spiritual and cultural significance to the Ngati Tuwharetoa, the indigenous Māori iwi (tribe) who call the region home (Baird 2012). In 1887, post-European colonization, the Paramount Chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa at the time gifted the land of the Tongariro region to the British Crown to protect it from division into parcels; this became known as the Gift of Tongariro (Baird 2012). Its establishment as a national park, of course, followed shortly thereafter, with its designation as a World Heritage site and late a Cultural World Heritage site taking place in the next century. While this may seem an impressive example of the successful preservation of a site  with both ecological and cultural importance, the details of the matter speak to the complex history of legal relations between the Crown and the Māori people, the shifting narratives and interpretations surrounding the “Gift of Tongariro,” and the ethical questions that are brought to the forefront by the management of sacred indigenous sites through non-indigenous organizations. As someone who is neither a member of the Māori community, a resident of New Zealand, nor affiliated with any of the aforementioned organizations, it is not my intent to speak for any of those parties. Instead, it is simply to examine the history of Tongariro National Park to better understand the relationships between indigenous groups, their sacred sites, and the concept og heritage, and to ask several important questions: what are the narratives of environmental preservation and cultural heritage that are involved in the protection of sacred sites? What does it mean for a site to be truly “protected” – that is, in whose hands must it rest to be considered as such? And, in a world shape largely by colonial histories, how might we reexamine the discourse and practice of the stewardship of indigenous sites? Though discussed here in the context of Tongariro National Park, these questions have relevance in any situation which involved negotiations and land rights issues between colonial governments and indigenous residents, and especially in today’s political climate are worth examining with greater intent and urgency.

On the Tongariro Road

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand: Photo by Antoine Barres


Double Narratives: A Brief History of The Treaty of Waitangi and The Gift of Tongariro

The story of the Tongariro National Park begins over a century ago with the Treaty of Waitangi. Signed in 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and Māori leaders, the Treaty of Waitangi is arguably one of the most important exchanges in New Zealand’s colonial history. Jacinta Ruru, New Zealand’s first Māori professor of law at the University of Otago, provides a description of the intricacies of the Treaty:

“There are several written versions [of the Treaty] including one in English, one in Māori and various English translations of the Māori version. In the English version, Māori ceded to the British Crown…without reservation all the rights and powers of sovereignty; Maori retained full…possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties; and Maori were granted the same rights and privileges as British citizens living in Aotearoa/New Zealand. However, in the Maori version, Maori only ceded to the British Crown governance, and retained tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) over their taonga (treasures). Most Maori present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi “were probably left with the idea that their authority over their customs and law would remain intact, that their tribal rangatiratanga would be enhanced, and that British governance would restore law and order…” (2004).

In other words, while the British Crown viewed the Treaty of Waitangi as primarily a way to “secure control over land and regulate trade,” the Māori leaders who signed the Treaty understood it as “an alliance…[and] a ‘chiefly gift exchange, ensuring the retention of Māori authority'” (Baird 2012).

Despite the guarantees made by the Treaty, “the Crown…assumed ownership and management of the natural resources in Aotearoa New Zealand” (Morris & Ruru 2010, p. 49), and as a result, most lands were remove from Māori control in the years following the signing (Ruru 2004). Unlike Western understandings of property rights and land ownership, Māori worldviews – as well as legal systems – are “values, not rules based” and “encapsulates a…way of life that depends on the relationships between all things, including between people and gods; different groups of people; and people and everything in the surrounding world.” (Morris & Ruru 2010, p. 49).

This clash between systems of values, governance, and beliefs was encoded in the double narratives of the Treaty of Waitangi, with traditional Māori knowledge and authority over their land and property largely overwritten  by European structures.

To further complicate matters, at the signing of the Treaty Māori leaders failed to reach a consensus regarding the meaning of the treaty; as a result, several leaders abstained from signing the Treaty at all. One such leader was Mananui To Huehue, the paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa at the time and guardian of the Tongariro region (Palmer & Feyerherm 2018). Though it took place several decades later, the Gift of Tongariro is thus tied inextricably to the double life of the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1887, Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino IV (Mananui To Huehue’s successor) faced pressure from European land buyers, settlers, and other actors regarding the Tongariro lands, and the lands were threatened by division into parcels or loss to New Zealand’s Land Court.

As a solution, it was decided to gift the summit of Tongariro to the Crown so that i could become a national park and remain protected as a whole (Ruru 2004) (Baird 2012)(Palmer & Feyerherm 2018).

Avoiding the division of this landscape was of utmost importance. For Māori, mountains are “intensely sacred natural landscapes” which have their own mauri (life force) and are considered tupuna (ancestors) (Ruru 2004, p.115). For the Ngati Tuwharetoa iwi, Tongariro is a spiritual an ancestral center; as Jacinta Ruru writes, “[t]he volcanic mountain is described in ancient tribal stories as a great force in a universe where everything is alive-it is “regarded with respect and humility as well as with awe” (2004, p . 122). Māori are kaitiaki (guardians) of their environments, viewing the natural world as part of their whanaunga (family relations) and caring for the landscape as one would care for “one’s own blood and bones – literally” (Ruru 2004, p.115).

Unfortunately, following the Gift, the agreed-upon national park status did not come immediately, as “the government unsuccessfully sought ownership from Ngati Tuwharetoa of the surrounding Tongariro summit land for inclusion in the national park” for the next seven years; eventually, the Tongariro National Park Act of 1894 enabled the government to simply take the land by force and establish it officially as a national park in exchange for “monetary compensation” (Ruru 2004, p.122). In common discourse, the Gift of Tongariro is lauded as an example of cooperation between a colonial government and indigenous resident, with both parties in agreement regarding the etails of the Gift (Baird 2012)(Ruru 2004); however, as Ruru (2004) writes, “while the 1887 gift illustrates cooperation, the government’s actions thereafter did not.”

From a Māori perspective, much like Waitangi, the Gift was a “chiefly gift exchange that would require reciprocity and protection” of the sacred lands and mountaintops of Tongariro; however, the Crown saw it as “a deed of conveyance that transferred ownership” with the focus resting largely on tourism opportunities in the region (Baird 2012, p. 331) (Ruru 2004). Like the Treaty of Waitangi, the Gift of Tongariro carries with it a double narrative: That which was originally intended and agreed upon by the Ngati Tuwharetoa people, and that which was interpreted and made reality by the government.


Tongariro’s Cultural World Heritage Status and the Cartographic Voice

Tongariro, with its complex history, necessarily embodies an equally complex set of meanings and interests: its spiritual and cultural significance, its ecological value, and its role as a tourist attraction. Often, these narratives are as much at odds with one another as the dual translations of the Treaty of Waitangi or the multiple interpretations of the Gift of Tongariro. Since it became a national park in 1887, Tongariro’s value as an ecological or recreational preserve and as a cultural landscape have frequently been treated as mutually exclusive. As Jacinta Ruru describes, early in New Zealand’s colonial history “mountains were ‘often viewed as wastelands, unless commodified for purposes of tourism or…recreational pursuits'” (2004, p.117). For example, the protection Tongariro received as a national park was initially seen as “allow[ing] the ‘useless’ and ‘worthless’ area to become ‘a very great pleasure resort for all kinds of people'” (Ruru 2004, p.117).

However, in the 1980s, the National Parks Act expanded this focus on tourism and recreation to include the “intrinsic” ecological value of national parks, stating that “‘areas of New Zealand…contain scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest’” (Ruru 2004, p. 128) (Department of Conservation 1980). As Ruru (2004) also notes, however, this recognition of environmental significance still does not recognize the landscape as also having cultural and spiritual importance.

The divide between the recreational, ecological and the cultural was also reflected in the initial process of nominating Tongariro National Park as a UNESCO World Heritage site. As Mark Palmer and Anna Feyerherm describe in a study of Tongariro’s UNESCO dossier archives, New Zealand’s government proposed Tongariro as a mixed natural and cultural World Heritage site in 1986; however, the documents in the initial nomination dossier “presented the park as a natural, pristine volcanic landscape” with “details on Maori intangible relationships left out entirely. (2018, p.86) The dossier included maps of the region which painted a picture of New Zealand as an uninhabited landscape, largely mountainous and empty and with a focus on vegetation and topography; it was, Palmer and Feyerherm write, as if “humanity had been peeled away” (2018, p.86). The maps told the story of Tongariro as an entirely natural landscape, devoid “of…human presence and most importantly, void of Maori culture and geographies”, ascribing the region’s intrinsic value, but basing it entirely on ecological attributes. (Palmer & Feyerherm, 2018, p.86).

The first nomination dossier in 1990 was so devoid of cultural reference that Tongariro could not even be properly evaluated as a mixed natural and cultural site as had been originally proposed. The New Zealand Permanent Delegation to UNESCO noted this discrepancy, and made it clear that it was the responsibility of the New Zealand government to make the cultural geography and spiritual history of the region tangible (Palmer & Feyerherm 2018).

This motivated the gathering of a revised dossier in 1993 which — in a significant departure from previous narratives — presented a rich history of Tongariro National Park that explicitly included the stories of the Maori people. In this second dossier, maps — previously agents of dehumanization — became a powerful tool that spoke to the deep human histories and connections within Tongariro. Led by archaeologist Susan Forbes and Maori informants, the 1993 nomination included four maps: a GIS map of the region, a location map which displayed the original boundaries of the Gift of Tongariro and later additions to the national park by the Crown, and two “story maps”.

The first story map (Fig. 1) displays Tongariro’s three mountains from the perspective of Lake Taupo to the north, with a symbol on the right margin which represented “flowing air or the [breath] of the mountains” (Palmer & Feyerherm 2018, p. 88). The second story map (Fig. 2) artistically traces the journey of Ngati Tuwharetoa’s ancestor, Ngatoroirangi, from where his canoe made landfall in the Bay of Plenty inland to Tongariro (Palmer & Feyerherm 2018).

It was this revised nomination dossier which convinced UNESCO to designate Tongariro National Park as the world’s first Cultural World Heritage site in 1993. Where the Treaty of Waitangi encoded a clash of belief systems into law, the maps in the second nomination dossier successfully encoded into law an inclusive history of Tongariro National Park, which recognized its shifting physical boundaries over time and described both its environmental attributes as well as its cultural significance to the Ngati Tuwharetoa people. By including Maori informants in the process, Tongariro’s Cultural World Heritage nomination enabled authentic expression of indigenous stories through the cartographic voice.

It is useful here to think of Tongariro as being “doubly occupied” (Hufford 2002; Stewart 1996) in terms of the clashing interests of history, culture, environment, and economy. On one hand, Tongariro is occupied by the Ngati Tuwharetoa people who have lived there for generations, who act as the traditional guardians of the region, and who draw their spiritual history from the landscape. On the other hand, it is occupied by the Crown and the New Zealand government, who retain legal ownership and management of the national park and, in practice, still remain largely focused on natratives of environmental preservation and tourism — creating a physical and legal landscape which truly does embody the clash of history, culture, environment, and economy.

Maps, as in Tongariro’s designation for a Cultural World Heritage site, offer a place for this “double occupation” to become tangible and visible and thus able to be dealt with in more human terms. As Denis Wood writes, “We are always mapping the invisible or the unattainable or the erasable, the future or the past…and, through the gift that the map gives us, transmuting it…into the real” (1992, p. 5). Maps, in short, make the nebulous concrete, and in a way inform what we consider to be real. While not an all-encompassing solution, especially in terms of legal ownership and management practices, culturally conscious cartography is a valuable tool which can help us visualize the cultural and the ecological as existing side-by-side — no longer mutually exclusive, but instead engaged in a mutual effort to understand and manage a site as a holistic creature in which culture and ecology are inextricably intertwined.

Tongariro's Emerald Lakes and Hikers

Tongariro’s Emerald Lakes and Hikers


Changing The Narrative of Contemporary Management and Heritage

This history of Tongariro National Park, of course, begs the question: where does the park stand in terms of contemporary management and narratives of heritage and environmental preservation, and what implications does this have outside of New Zealand?

While the national park remains under ownership of the Crown, efforts have been made by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (D.O.C) to move towards more inclusive management practices; perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the same concept of holistic integration that cultural cartography embodies that is proving to be central in this process as well.

As Jacinta Ruru pointed out, the recognition of the park’s “intrinsic” value in the revised National Parks Act of the 1980s is a significant step; she believes that this is an important movement towards an alignment between Western ideals and Maori beliefs regarding the value of landscape, and sees the management of sacred sites as an arena where New Zealand can “move…conclusively towards partnership” (2004, p. 117). The management of national parks in New Zealand is still largely oriented around preservation, and the reintroduction of Maori methods of sustainable land use faces great opposition; despite this, the D.O.C has made significant efforts to partner more inclusively with Maori constituents, providing more culturally holistic training for current staff and hiring more Maori employees within the D.O.C (Ruru— 2004). Furthermore, the management plans for Tongariro in 2003 included a greater number of references to the Treaty of Waitangi, with the intent of giving full effect to its principles in regard to Maori rights (Ruru 2004).

Even from a conservationist perspective, Tongariro National Park faces complex issues — namely, the concern of overuse. The huge numbers of tourists that visit the park are taking a toll on the landscape; for example, hikers on the park’s many trails leave behind trash and human waste and create erosion when walking off-track (Groot 2003). Rising tourist numbers also demand increasing development of visitor facilities and roads — parking lots, restrooms, cafes, visitor centers, and chair lifts at the ski resorts, to name a few (Groot 2003).

Historic Waihohonu Hiking Hut

Development of the park at all, as Groot notes, is “a big compromise of the Park’s sacred natural state” (2003, p. 5), but even without taking Tongariro’s spiritual significance into consideration, management practice has an extremely delicate line to walk between the promotion of tourism and the preservation of the park’s landscapes.

Regardless of perspective, it’s clear that the current and _ future management of Tongariro National Park is far from simple. The many different narratives and interests that the park embodies invites us to examine in greater depth how we conceptualize sacred sites in the first place. When asking ourselves if a site is protected, we must also consider the criteria we are using to determine our answer: whose perspective are we taking — that of the government and global heritage organization, or that of the community which is associated with the site culturally and spiritually? Ultimately, we must recognize that concepts of successful site protection and management of intangible cultural heritage have more than one definition, and that these definitions do not always agree with one another. As Maori belief emphasizes, the cultural cannot be extricated from the ecological; in improving one, it is possible to improve the other, and thus safeguard more effectively both the ecological health and cultural/spiritual integrity of the places we value. This, in turn, might allow us to begin reconciling those definitions of site protection and implementing those changes into policy.

Tongariro National Park is a complex landscape in every sense of the word, and mirrors the situation of many other similar sites across the world. Bears Ears National Monument, in the southeastern region of Utah, in the United States, has been a recent focus of contention in discussions of cultural landscape and resource management. A deeply sacred landscape for Native tribes of the region, Bears Ears was originally designated as a national monument by the Obama administration in 2016; however, in early 2018, the Trump administration shrank the monument by nearly 85% in favor of making oil, gas, coal, and lumber resources in the area more accessible (The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, n.d; Turkeman 2017; Lipton & Friedman 2018). This is an ongoing issue, and shifting political landscapes and clashing value systems continue to threaten the ecological and spiritual well-being of Bears Ears.

Mahuia Rapids on Whakapapanui Stream; Photo by: James Shook, October 2005

In a world shaped largely by a history of colonialism, the existence of these types of disputes and conflicting interests surrounding land management must be both expected and accepted as reality. However, what we should not (and cannot) accept is the management practices of previous decades and centuries as the status quo. It is possible to reevaluate Western priorities of tourism and preservation, and we can improve management practices to be more inclusive of indigenous voices — and we must, at any site which finds itself “doubly occupied” by competing interests. To do so, concrete changes must be put into action. As Ruru (2004) suggests for Tongariro National Park, rather than allowing non- indigenous voices to continue speaking as experts on these matters, we can begin promoting a greater indigenous presence on management boards, integrate indigenous environmental ethics into conservation plans, and make amendments to legislation to include both the environmental and spiritual importance of protected sites (p. 136).

These solutions, of course, are not immediate, and changing the deeply entrenched land management practices in any country will inevitably be an uphill battle. However, Tongariro National Park serves as an important example going forward: both of the ways in which we must be more discerning in our conceptualization of sacred sites and what it means to protect them, and as a frontrunner in the process of shifting the historical narratives of colonial land management. Rather than exclusively privileging Western ideals and ignoring the value of indigenous knowledge — to the detriment of indigenous groups and the land itself — let us continue to envision a future in which we speak instead of mutual beneficence, and map a story of coexistence onto the landscape.

Sierra Macdonald is a freelance writer currently living in Scotland.

© Copyright 2018 by Sierra Macdonald All rights reserved.




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