New Zealand: the funeral of the Maori Queen took place near the city of Hamilton, shown on the map. The Maoris are the natives of New Zealand.

Warriors take Maori Queen on final journey
By Paul Chapman in Wellington, New Zealand

(Filed: 22/08/2006)

Tens of thousands of mourners surrounded a sacred hill yesterday as Maoris laid their tribal queen to rest with a moving ceremony on a scale rarely seen in New Zealand.

Tears flowed and dirges filled the air as the body of Dame Te
Atairangikaahu who had served as the Maori Queen for 40 years was transported on a waka, or traditional canoe, by river to the hillside where she was buried near her ancestors.

Maori pall bearers carry the coffin of Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu towards Taupiri Cemetery

Dame Te Ata, as she was known, died last week aged 75 after a long struggle with failing health.

Large crowds, mainly made up of Maoris but also including many New Zealanders of European descent, travelled from all over the country to attend the funeral, held at the Turangawaewae royal marae, or meeting house, in the small town of Ngaruawahia, near Hamilton on the North Island.

State Highway 1, the main route linking Wellington and New Zealand's capital city Auckland, was closed for more than seven hours and diversions put in place because of the sheer number of people thronging the town.

Yesterday was the climax of six days of mourning, and it began with the coronation of Dame Te Ata's successor, her eldest son Tuheitia Paki, aged 51. After the winter sun rose and early fog parted, the new king was anointed wearing the feathered cloak of his ancestors, and with a Bible placed on top of his head.

In the inter-denominational funeral service that followed, the Anglican Archbishop of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, Whakahuihui Vercoe, said of Dame Te Ata: "Many women have done excellently, but you have surpassed them all."

Messages of condolence were read from the Queen, Prince Charles and Pope Benedict XVI. When three white doves were freed to symbolise the release of Dame Te Ata's spirit, one lingered on the ground, which mourners took as a sign that their much-loved queen was reluctant to leave them.

King Tuheitia Paki sits on the throne at his coronation

A hearse took the coffin from the marae to the Waikato river, where thousands more people lined the banks to watch the royal waka, paddled by bare-chested warriors, carry it the four miles to the sacred Taupiri Mountain.

A spontaneous haka, or war dance, broke out as the waka left the shore. The outpouring of grief continued with more hakas, chants of lamentation, the sound of car horns and the wail of bagpipes as the waka made its journey.

Finally, the coffin was carried up the steep 300ft hillside on the shoulders of eight pallbearers, assisted by dozens of helpers pulling on ropes.

Helen Clark, the prime minister of New Zealand, said: "What an incredible tribute to see this vast crowd come, not only today but over the previous days, to pay tribute to an outstanding leader in Maoridom.

"This isn't some tribal event out on a fringe, this is something that goes to the heart of New Zealand, something very special."

More than 100,000 people are estimated to have paid their respects at the marae as the body lay in state over the past week.

Dame Te Ata was the first woman to be chosen as head of the King Movement, which was established by Maori tribes in 1858 when they united in response to land seizures by the early colonial government.

Although King Tuheitia continues a hereditary line of seven monarchs, succession is not automatic but rather a choice made by a gathering of tribal elders.