The best-known Maori flag designed by non-Maori must be the banner associated with the 1835 Declaration of Independence; despite its origins in the imaginations of missionaries, this ensign has had an honourable place in many expressions of resistance to colonialism: in November 2007, for instance, I saw it being flown in Tuhoe country in the aftermath of the police raids on Ruatoki.
A later, much less well-known flag designed for Maori by Pakeha can be found in a small church in the small town of Te Awamutu.
Nowadays the town of Te Awamutu might seem, to the casual intruder, like something out of one of Gary McCormick's hokey odes to the 'Kiwi heartland' - the shops on the main street have held on to their 1950s facades, kids in long shorts kick rugby balls outside the RSA, and in the municipal garden elderly couples walk arm and arm besides beds of roses with names like 'Imperial red'. But this tranquil little place in the central Waikato was once a militarised border town, where British troops and farmer militiamen peered anxiously south from their redoubts toward the independent Maori nation on the far side of the Puniu River.
In the early 1860s, Te Awamutu was the site of the rival Maori newspapers, the anti-colonial Te Hokioi and the pro-British Te Pihoihoi Moke Moke (I described the war of words between the two papers in this piece). The presses which printed the rival papers are preserved in Te Awamutu's fine museum:
British and colonial forces invaded the Waikato in 1863, and soon war came to the countryside around Te Awamutu. It was at the battle of Orakau, a few kilometres south of the town, that the great chief Rewi Maniapoto leaped to his feet and shouted 'Ka whaiwhai tonu motu ake ake ake' (I will fight for ever, for ever and ever), a phrase which was immortalised by New Zealand's first feature film, and which still trips from the tongues of troublemakers like Tame Iti.
After Rewi retreated with his Waikato allies into the rugged country on the far side of the Puniu, Te Awamutu grew quickly into the centre of a network of colonial fortifications and garrisons designed to protect the new frontier between Christian civilisation and brown barbarism. Not until the mid-1880s was the 'King Country' opened to European settlement.
On an unreasonably hot day near the end of last year, I visited Te Awamutu with Skyler's parents and two of her grandparents. The grandparents arrived relatively recently from dear old Blighty, and they were pleasantly surprised to discover that a barabrous country like New Zealand could harbour gardens full of beds of roses with names like 'Imperial red'. They were even more surprised when I showed them St Johns, the little Anglican church built at Te Awamutu a full nine years before the invasion of the Waikato. St Johns is the fourth oldest complete church in New Zealand, and its early Victorian stained glass windows have an aged beauty which reminded Skyler's gran and pop of their driving tours of the old country's cathedrals.
The cemetery around St Johns is sprinkled with the stones of British and 'friendly Maori' soldiers who fell in the fighting around Te Awamutu - one poor Brit managed to fight in the Crimean and Taranaki Wars before catching a bullet in the Waikato.
Inside the church two banners hang above a wooden plaque on which the names of some of the victims of the local fighting are written. Alongside the musty Union Jack, a very peculiar banner commemorates the Maori who fought against Queen Victoria and her local allies.
In the nineteenth century Maori quickly adopted the European practice of flying flags on the battlefield, but the flag representing 'Rewi and his people' looks like no Maori banner I have ever seen. It looks suspiciously like a flag which was created for St Johns by Pakeha who wanted to commemorate the Maori who fought for Te Awamutu: as such, it may shine a light on nineteenth century Pakeha attitudes towards Maori nationalism and resistance to colonialism. The flag-makers have avoided any of the imagery used by Maori rebels - the rising star of King Tawhiao, the three stars and 'Ringatu cross' of Te Kooti, and the three-pronged feather of Te Whiti's flag are all absent. Do we find on this banner the earliest example of the use of the fern as an emblem representing a group of New Zealanders?
Three hundred kilometres away, in New Plymouth's museum, a more famous Maori banner is on display. Te Whiti's flag flew over Parihaka during the dramatic years of the 1880s and '90s, but it was lost sometime in the twentieth century, and this copy was created by a Waikato artist in 1973, who analysed photographs closely to make sure he got the shades of red and blue correct. Which is more authentic - the original of a fake flag, or a meticulous copy of a banner which no longer exists?