Whakaata Mai te Kūkūwai: Reflections from the wetlands

In Aotearoa, and particularly Te Waipounamu, we are fortunate to have some quite spectacular landscapes like the icy slopes of Aoraki | Mount Cook, the wild coastlines of Te Tai Poutini and the plains of Waitaha. Equally as spectacular (with their impact and importance not to be misunderstood) are our wetland areas. Not only are they pleasing to look at, but they also support huge ecosystems of plant and animal life in their watery surroundings and are essential to the health of our environment. The exhibition Whakaata Mai te Kūkūwai: Reflections from the wetlands explores through object and image, our people.

The exhibition named Whakaata mai te Kūkūwai meaning reflections from the wetlands, takes you on a journey of some significant Kāi Tahu wetlands. It shows how they were used and current conservation efforts. Featuring on the wall to your left is an image is actually a sketch of Te Taumutu on the southern shore of Te Waihora in 1874. At the water’s edge it outlines two people hauling in a net probably full of fish as one watches from just behind on the beach and another from a nearby canoe. Its abundance is not surprising when you  consider other names for Te Waihora are Te-Kete-ika-a-Rākaihautū and Te-Kete-ika-a-Tūtekawa - the fish baskets of Rākaihautū and Tūtekawa. Surely Te Taumutu was the place to be for its great source of tuna, pātiki and aua to sustain this kāinga.

To feed your whānau meant being able to navigate a vast landscape, find food sources and gather it up to bring home. This kind of gathering happened a bit differently from strolling up and down supermarket aisles slowly filling up a trolley as you go, although the expert Kāi Tahu knowledge of the landscape and wildlife over many generations meant that their food ‘trolleys’ were always kept full. These traditional food gathering practices and mātauranga are called mahinga kai. A helpful interpretation of mahinga kai comes from evidence given by Henare Rakiihia Tau as he remembers the teachings of his pūkōrero, in the Kāi Tahu Māori Trust Board Claim before the Waitangi Tribunal,

“Ngā hua o te whenua, ngā hua o Tāne me ngā uri o Tangaroa.”

Interpreted as “the resources of the land and the resources from the bush and forests which includes all birds and animals dependent upon these resources. The uri o Tangaroa refers to all living things within the waterways which include all water be it lake, river, lagoon or sea water.” It’s clear that Kāi Tahu were experts on this land.

The images on the right of the gallery as you enter the exhibition portray current conservation projects undertaken by iwi members and organisations to restore, protect and promote the health of these once flourishing environments that have supported so much life. They show our rangatahi wielding spades and buckets in an effort to play the game of conservation. Large adult tuna (eel) are also seen being carefully released into the lower part of the river to migrate to sea and thus continuing the centuries old life cycle. The display of intergenerational knowledge is integral and forefront in this exhibition, showing the responsibility we have as people to preserve these places and creatures for future generations.

‘Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri ā muri ake nei’
‘For us and our children after us’

Also included in the exhibition is a series of videos played on loop showing various Kāi Tahu mahinga kai practices and where they are undertaken. The beautifully produced films by Kāi Tahu can also be found on their website and bring to life the images and objects in the exhibition so well, giving them movement and voice.

Central also to the use of wetlands are the objects and tools used to navigate, collect and store wetland resources. These objects are generously loaned for the exhibition from the Canterbury Museum. Their team worked hard on not only opening up their collection to the group but also to photograph and annotate the loaned objects. We are grateful to them for allowing us to exhibit the unique collection items that show the extensive and expert use of wetlands and their surrounding environments by Kāi Tahu whānau. We have a range of māhē showing their signs of use as well as intricately woven pārengarenga whītau made from harakeke fibre. On display up front and centre is the stunning 1.7 metre long kupenga īnanga from the Tuahiwi area, capturing your attention as you flow into the gallery. It was used up until it was gifted to the Canterbury Museum in 1939, and has tears and brittle areas in its expertly woven harakeke netting revealing years of use to provide sustenance for its people.

The story this exhibition tells does not begin and end in the gallery space, it continues on in Waruwarutū with displays of items from the Ngā Pounamu Māori collection. If you manage to visit, follow the pākura and you’ll see them! It is also timed to coincide with the 2021 International Wetlands Conference (11th INTECOL) held in Ōtautahi.

Whakaata mai te Kūkūwai is a moment for us to reflect on the key roles our wetlands have played in our history and to marvel at their abundance. It also reveals our responsibility as people to look after these precious taonga so they’re still around for our mokopuna.

I hora te mahi a te repo, a kai, a tangata.
Wetlands in abundance, food in abundance, people in abundance.

Christchurch City Libraries are proud to be hosting the Ngāi Tahu exhibition Whakaata mai te Kūkūwai – Reflections from the Wetlands in Te Pito Huarewa / Southbase Gallery, Tūranga. The exhibition is open from Sunday 10 October 2021 until Monday 7 February 2022.

The Whakaata mai te Kūkūwai – Reflections from the Wetlands exhibition is brought to you by:

  • Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu
  • Canterbury Museum
  • School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury
  • Christchurch City Libraries
  • Christchurch City Council

Ngāi Tahu videos sharing the kōrero of this exhibition:

Exhibition worksheet

Images of the exhibition

View images on the Whakaata mai te Kūkūwai – Reflections from the Wetlands exhibition on Flickr.
Whakaata mai te Kūkūwai – Reflections from the Wetlands exhibition


  • Aotearoa me Te Waipounamu – Kāi Tahu name for New Zealand
  • Te Waipounamu – South Island
  • Te Tai Poutini – The West Coast of the South Island
  • Waitaha – Canterbury Plains
  • Kāi Tahu – South Island based iwi
  • Te Taumutu – Kāi Tahu village on the shores of Lake Te Waihora
  • Te Waihora – Lake Ellesmere
  • Tuna – Eel
  • Pātiki – Flounder
  • Aua – Mullet
  • Kāinga – Village
  • Whānau – Family
  • Mātauranga – Māori knowledge
  • Pūkōrero – Authoritative and knowledgeable person
  • Rangatahi – Youth
  • Māhē – Sinkers
  • Pārengarenga – Woven gaiters
  • Whītau – Flax fibre
  • Kupenga – Net
  • Īnanga – Whitebait
  • Tuahiwi – Township near Woodend
  • Harakeke – New Zealand Flax
  • Waruwarutū – Location of the Ngā Pounamu Māori collection on Tuakiri Level 2 of Tūranga
  • Pākura – Purple swamp hen or also known as a Pūkeko
  • Ōtautahi – Christchurch
  • Taonga – Treasure
  • Mokopuna – Grandchildren
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