Students' petition sees hundreds re-enact NZ wars in Bay of Islands

Fierce haka rang through the streets of Russell as hundreds of warriors descended on the small Bay of Islands town.

The men and women in traditional clothes gathered on the streets and at a local marae as a part of a special re-enactment of a battle in the town 173 years ago.

The performance was part of the first national commemorations of the New Zealand Wars - events this weekend focusing on the Northern battles in 1845.

"[It was] quite emotional, we stood and represented out tīpuna," performer Muritere Apiata added.

The commemorations were organised after students from Otorohanga handed a petition to the government two years ago calling for more recognition of Aotearoa's history.

"It felt like things were moving, something happening, change - change was coming from both sides, Māori and Pākehā," petition organisers Leah Bell and Waimarama Anderson told Newshub after Sunday's event at Russell.

Back in 1845, a clash in Russell came after Ngāpuhi leader Hone Heke cut down the British flag for the fourth time. He was angered in part by breaches to the Treaty of Waitangi signed just five years earlier.

Colonial forces fled Russell, which was then one of the country's major trading centres. The final battle was at Ruapekapeka about six months later.

Heke, fellow Ngāpuhi leader Te Ruki Kawiti and their people were hugely outnumbered, but used ingenious trench war tactics and underground bunkers to withstand the full might of British firepower for more than a week before decamping.

"For me it's the pride of the fortitude of the people, and their capacity to try and right the wrong," Kawiti's descendent Waihoroi Shortland said.

Breaches to the Treaty and the shifting of the central trading hub to Auckland wounded Northland economically.

People in the region, including Kawiti's descendents, say remembering our past will create a more harmonious future for all Kiwis.

"Anzac began to slip from the minds of the people in the '70s and '80s, and it's found traction [again now]. That's what I'd like to see with these events," Shortland said.

"It was a big part of how New Zealand became what it is today," 13-year-old performer Kearah Morgan-Te Wake added.

There are also renewed calls for more of our history to be taught in schools

Battles in other regions will remembered each year, with Taranaki hosting the next one in October 2019.