UEPŌHATU War Memorial Hall at Whakarua Park in the heart of Ruatōrea stands as a commemoration to, “The war service of Māori and Pākehā of the Tairāwhiti”. It was officially opened on September 13, 1947 by the Governor-General Sir Bernard Freyberg. The project was supervised by Sir Apirana Ngata and took about three years to complete. It involved two working groups — the tukutuku (woven wall panels) and kōwhaiwhai (painted rafters) work was done by the local Ruatōrea people, while the whakairo (carvings) was led by brothers Pine and John Taiapa and done in Tikitiki.
About five to six thousand people attended the opening, which included other activities such as the investiture of war medals and civilian awards, a school kapahaka competition, an exhibition of student art work, an official ball and a game on Whakarua Park between the Māori All Blacks and Te Tairāwhiti. Four years earlier Whakarua Park was the site of one of the largest gatherings ever seen in Ruatōrea, the investiture of the Victoria Cross (VC) to the parents of Second Lieutenant Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu of C Company, 28 Māori Battalion.
Ngārimu was killed in the attack on a hill called Point 209 in Tebaga Gap in Tunisia, on March 26, 1943. Over 7000 people attended the VC hui in October 1943, including 3000 Māori servicemen, over 1000 school children from throughout Te Tairāwhiti, a 90-member party of government officials and heads of the armed forces, together with the Prime Minister Peter Fraser and Governor-General Sir Cyril Newall. All marae from Tokomaru Bay to Te Araroa were booked to accommodate the visitors. This hui was also organised by Sir Apirana Ngata.
Until Uepōhatu War Memorial Hall was built, the main building at Whakarua Park was a hall called the Pavilion and the grandstand. It stood near or on the site of the current whare-kai (dining-room). The idea of building a memorial hall was raised by Apirana Ngata before the VC investiture hui, and he raised it again during the hui itself. Support for the building grew and a project committee was formed with J.M. Penfold as chairman and H.P. Rangihuna as secretary. Various fundraising activities were organised, with a Government subsidy as well.
Foundations for the new building were laid in 1944 and carving and tukutuku work began at the same time. The building project was put on hold for about 12 months due to wartime rationing of materials, but the carving and tukutuku work continued. Ngata’s continued prompting ensured that needed materials were obtained and the project put back on track. The choice of the name Uepōhatu for the hall is not clear, although the land upon which it sits is close to the centre point of the traditional Uepōhatu boundary between Hikurangi and the eastern seaboard.
The carvings, tukutuku and kōwhaiwhai inside the hall are consistent with the style and quality associated with Apirana Ngata, to whom the revival of these traditional art forms owes a lot. To be able to mobilise Māori throughout the country, let alone in his own rohe (region) of Te Tairāwhiti, says a lot for his foresight and energy. Then again, being a descendant of Uepōhatu, this particular project, one of the last he would be involved with, stands as much a testimony to the legacy and mana of Uepōhatu as it does to the servicemen of Te Tairāwhiti, and the revival of Māori arts, as it does to Ngata himself.