A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: Northland authors breathe life into Tai Tokerau tūpuna

Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor hope their book A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru reminds people of the greatness they encompass. Photo / Dean Carruthers

Travel back in time to when Ngāti Kurī used the cries of pūpū kōrari whakarongotaua – a large leaf-eating land snail – to warn of approaching invaders.

Only those with a deep familiarity of the surroundings knew where to step to avoid the pūpū, whereas strangers traipsed on them and thus alerted their targets.

That is just one of the many memories of Tai Tokerau’s history captured in a new book by two Māori authors, whose roots lie in Northland.

Together Melinda Webber (Ngāti Kahu, Ngāti Hau, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whakaue) and Te Kapua O’Connor (Ngāti Kurī, Pohūtiare) have spent six years researching and penning the remarkable stories of 24 Tai Tokerau tūpuna [ancestors] for A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna.

Webber, a professor and Te Tumu/Deputy Dean in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education, described A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru as a book “written by the north for the north”.

“That’s the beauty of the project,” she said.

Its pages are laden with inspirational tales, from peacemakers and strategists all the way to explorers and entrepreneurs.

“This is more than just written history,” Webber said.

“We went to marae and listened to kaumātua talk about their own tūpuna, those who achieved really amazing things in challenging times.”

Webber and O’Connor explored whakapapa, kōrero, waiata and pepeha (proverb, saying) to learn about the actions, places, values and aspirations of Nukutawhiti, Hineāmaru, Hongi Hika, Te Ruki Kawiti and many more.

“The idea is that the north is rich in and full of gifted people and communities, who were originally treated as myth and legend,” Webber said.

The book is all about reminding people that these tūpuna and their actions existed, O’Connor said, and that they too can be great like their ancestors.

Renowned New Zealand artist Shane Cotton created the book's cover. Photo / Supplied
Renowned New Zealand artist Shane Cotton created the book’s cover. Photo / Supplied

The Te Wānanga o Waipapa doctoral student’s dad turned one of the book’s stories into a school production – the tale of how Tūmatahina, one of Ngāti Kurī’s paramount rangatira (chiefs), saved his iwi during a conflict between Ngāti Kurī and Ngāpuhi war parties.

“These are the school kids growing up around the corner from where history has taken place,” O’Connor said.

The moment they realise the significance of the tale to their whakapapa is “amazing”, he added.

The duo hope teachers embrace the book to help further learning about Tai Tokerau’s past so as to empower its future through tamariki.

Every part of A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru has been carefully crafted, the words existing in a Te Reo Māori edition, translated by Quinton Hita, and in English.

“The Māori edition has been translated with a northern dialect so that our kids hear themselves when they read it,” Webber said.

Celebrated contemporary artist Shane Cotton (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Rangi, Ngāti Hine, Te Uri Taniwha) designed the cover, which is reflective of his painting practice that examines Māori and Pākehā cultural histories.

Northlander and Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Kahu) penned the book’s foreword.

Kiro applauded the collection of narratives for highlighting the “adaptability and versatility” of those who came before.

“By understanding their legacy, we also better understand their lasting impact on hapū and iwi, and on the wider social fabric of Aotearoa.”

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