Is enough being done to protect New Zealand's Māori history?

When you think of our country's 'heritage', wooden colonial buildings might come to mind - much like Antrim House on Boulcott Street.

Built in 1905, it now houses our country's archaeological agency, Heritage NZ. 

But its chief executive Andrew Coleman says there's actually much more to our country's heritage.

"If you look out the window today, you won't see that deep and rich history because it's under the ground," he told The Hui.

That is especially true for Te Pokohiwi o Kupe (Wairau Bar) in Marlborough, our country's most archaeologically significant place. 

Filmmaker Keelan Walker (Rangitāne ki Wairau) knows his iwi whenua well and is committed to protecting it. 

"We don't have history books. Our history is embedded in the whenua, in the names," he said.

Archeological evidence shows that Wairau Bar was where some of our earliest Polynesian ancestors landed and made a home in the 1200s. 

Walker spends much of his time out here with his cameras. 

"Photography and filmmaking is a passion for me - but so is learning about our history here and learning about our stories, and I realised a few years ago that, the combination of the two, it's a powerful tool."

But this significant place is fighting for space with a billion-dollar industry. 

A whopping 80 percent of all grapes harvested for wine in the country come from this region, and vineyards have grown five times the size in just two decades.

"I'm not against development. I'm not against... growing wine. But I think it has to be done ethically, with respect, especially when there's wāhi tapu," Walker said.

That hasn't happened in the case of one land block down by the Wairau Bar. 

The area is part of Kōwhai Pā, home to the people of Rangitāne until Ngāti Toa invaded in the early 1800s. 

"You know, people were shot and buried there. We know that given the scale of the battle, certainly there's blood in the soil," Walker said.

In recent times, this land block has been the subject of an ugly and protracted court case. 

Montford Corporation Limited pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March with modifying a heritage-protected site without authority to do so.

Suppression orders mean we can't name the company owner - but the bitter core is they are Māori, and they're actually from the local iwi. They didn't turn up to court. 

Walker did. He told Judge David Ruth: "I wanted to come and appear, and look the defendant in the eye to remind them that our values are their values, I don't know how that changed - they are our whānau." 

It is the second time charges have been laid over the desecration of this land, with the first incident in 2014. Large areas had been cleared by a bulldozer in preparation of vineyard development. 

A Heritage NZ investigation confirmed that the landowners had damaged the area without authority. 

Charges were dropped after the landowner made a $15,000 donation. 

But in 2019, the tractors rolled back in. 

"They just went out and they started to develop again," Walker said.  

Te Pokohiwi o Kupe has the highest level of heritage protection, so all work must be signed off by Heritage NZ. 

Chief executive Andrew Coleman said: "The person knew or ought to know that actually they needed to get an archeological authority, and they chose not to do that."

That was a conclusion supported by Judge Ruth in his judgement, describing the offending as "deliberate". 

"Philip Macdonald was nonetheless the person who the corporate body now accepts undertook the preparation work for the vineyard, knowing there was no authority in place."

Macdonald was a former director of Montford Corporation. 

In the end, it was the company Montford that had to pay up - a $55,000 fine. 

"The fact that this was the most, highest, penalty imposed, does signify, what New Zealand and the court system believe is abhorrent behaviour," Coleman said.

The government body issues over 600 consents every year to allow people to modify an archeological site. 

In the majority of those cases, works are able to happen, with conditions to protect the site, Coleman said. 

There are fewer than 10 prosecutions per year. 

Rangitāne ki Wairau historian Peter Meihana is concerned many more developments could be going under the radar.

"I would say there are things happening on people's farms throughout the area daily. It's just that we don't hear about them."

Coleman responded: "We are quite aware that not all developments or all land that's been developed is subject to an authority. We know that a lot of it should be."

He urged people to contact Heritage NZ if they suspected they'd found archaeological evidence - anything that predates the 1900s - on their property.

Nearby Pokapoka is an example where a significant site has been successfully preserved. 

After old kūmara pits were discovered by the vineyard owners, they contacted the local iwi Rangitāne. 

The land has now been returned to them, and is marked by a pōu whenua. 

"Because of that, we are now able to visit those sites, educate the community, and continue telling the stories of our people from there. It's a really good tool."

Keelan wants to see something similar at Kōwhai Pā.

"Unlike a page in a book, we don't just go back and read it. We have to take people to these places and have them share them with us. 

"This is our cultural identity."