New Zealand's 20 cent coins issued since 1990 feature a remarkable Maori carving. This is no generic image. Rather it is a reproduction of a specific carving of an 18th century Maori warrior leader called Pukaki, who was a Rangatira (Chief) of the Ngati Whakaue iwi of Te Arawa in the Rotorua district.

The carving was made in 1836 and today it can be viewed in the entrance of the Rotorua District Council.

The front of the 20 cent coin featuring Pukaki and a close-up of the coin showing the detail in the Pukaki image

Pukaki in history

Pukaki's birth was the result of a peace-making marriage between Ngati Whakaue and Ngati Pikiao of Rotoiti around 1700. Pukaki grew up during a time of armed conflict both within Te Arawa and against wider Bay of Plenty-Waikato tribes. He lived on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua and then at Parawai, which is now surrounded by the Ngongotaha township.

In Pukaki's later years a major tribal war under his leadership resulted in Ngati Whakaue defeating their Tuhourangi relations, forcing them back to Tarawera and taking over the lands of Pukeroa-Oruawhata, where sits today's city of Rotorua. Most of Ngati Whakaue then left Parawai to take up permanent occupation in the village of Ohinemutu, which remains to this day as a distinctive part of Rotorua. Around this time Pukaki passed away and he was buried in the Mamaku foothills, where the descendants of his elder son, Ngahina, still watch over him today.

The Carving

In 1836 — three generations after Pukaki's passing — Ngati Whakaue strengthened Ohinemutu in preparation for an impending attack. At that time, the Pukaki carving, as depicted on the 20 cent coin, was created as part of a gateway to guard the southern entrance.

Pukaki was expertly crafted by Te Taupua of Ngati Whakaue from one large piece of totara timber, originating from the Ngongotaha Stream. The gateway used to stand over 5 metres tall. The carving commemorates Ngati Whakaue's conquest of Pukeroa-Oruawhata. Pukaki is depicted holding his two warrior sons Wharengaro and Rangitakuku, while between his legs can still be seen the remnants of his wife Ngapuia.

In the 1850s, Pukaki was brought down and his lower portion removed, thus transforming him from a gateway to a statue (tiki). He then stood upon the principal marae within Ohinemutu beside the Tama te Kapua meeting house.

Pukaki today

In 1877 Ngati Whakaue gifted Pukaki to the Crown as a symbol of trust regarding the Crown's promise to develop the Rotorua township for the benefit of Ngati Whakaue. Much happened in the interim, and years later Pukaki ended up in the Auckland Museum. In 1997 the Auckland Museum, with the assistance of its local tribe, Ngati Whatua o Orakei, returned Pukaki home to Ohinemutu. On that day, exactly 120 years after Pukaki had left, the Crown was at long last able to take proper receipt of Pukaki with a promise to protect him and the future interests of Ngati Whakaue in Rotorua.

The Crown, Museum, City and Tribe all agreed that the Rotorua District Council was the best place for Pukaki to rest. He was transferred there with due ceremony on 2 October 1997, where he remains to this day, gifted to the nation for all to enjoy.

Today, on behalf of the Crown, the Pukaki Trust provides for the care, conservation and custody of Pukaki. More information about Pukaki can be obtained from a book by one of his descendants, Dr Paul Tapsell, entitled Pukaki: a comet returns.

Pukaki on the nation's coinage

Pukaki came to the attention of the Reserve Bank as a result of the 1984-87 Te Maori exhibition and the use of Pukaki's image on a particularly striking Maori Language Commission publicity poster. At the time the Reserve Bank was looking for a new image to put on the 20 cent coin, given that the kiwi was being moved to the new $1 coin. The first Pukaki 20 cent coins were issued in 1990. More recently, a gold $10 collectors' coin featuring Pukaki has been minted.

Pukaki being moved to the Rotorua Museum in 2011

Photo credit: New Zealand Herald