Tongariro National Park:The Implications of a Joint National Park and Sacred Site

Tongariro National Park:The Implications of a Joint National Park and Sacred Site 


The story of Mount Doom is a legendary one amongst all Lord of the Rings fans: amidst a fiery blaze of lava, Golem, in an act of ultimate betrayal, bites Frodo’s finger off in a final attempt to bequest the ring, just to go falling into a pit of lava along with it, ending the evil reign of the ring powerful beyond measure.  Little do many of these fans know that the mountain portrayed as Mount Doom on the bigscreen is one with a far more legendary history than any of them even dreamed to perceive.  Mount Tongariro and its accompanying volcanoes, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, are the landmarks in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first National Park, located on the North Island of New Zealand.  This tapu, or sacred site, ( is marked by a rich history that has evolved over time; but, perhaps most pertinent to this day in history is the reality of how the park’s historical impact has shaped how we view sacred sites today.  As the first UNESCO World Heritage site, this place was designated as  a “cultural landscape,” serving as “a model for how protection of the environment and biodiversity and the preservation of traditional indigenous culture and beliefs can be mutually supportive and provide benefits to all.” (   In fulfilling this role, we are posed with a unique scenario that brings up questions of morality in how best to protect native land, while still considering a more modern culture’s desires, in order to try and appease the masses.

            Aotearoa, or New Zealand, was first settled about a thousand years ago by the Maoriare – a Polynesian people – who rowed over in their canoes.  It is the descendents of those in the Arawa canoe, the Ngati Tuwharetoa people, that found a sacred space in Tongariro. These people “identify with Ngatoroirangi, the navigator of the Arawa canoe and legendary bringer of fire to Tongariro.” (UNESCO).  According to legend, the origins of this park come from two sisters, Te Pupū and Te Hoata ,who are the “are the origin and personification of the supernatural [tipua] fire that creates volcanoes and thermal activity. They are sometimes believed to be descended from Te Rā [The Sun].” (Orbell, p. 205)  The legend goes that their brother, Ngātoro-i-rangi, a powerful tohunga, or “guardian of sacred knowledge” (Orbell, p.218), went to explore the country and climb Mount Tongariro.  Having been subjected to wind and snow storms during his ascent he almost froze to death atop the mountain, but called out to his sisters for help.  According to legend, “They made their way underground to Tongariro, with sparks from their fire becoming hot springs, geysers and mudpools.  At Tongariro their fire warmed Ngātoro-i-rangi, though it cam too late for his slave Ngātoro-i-rangi seized the fire and hurled it into the crater, where it still burns.  Then the sisters returned to their home, creating as they went the thermal activity at such places as Whaka-rewarewa, Ōhinemutu and Tikitere.  Some say the fiery subterranean channels they formed are still in existence.” (Orbell, p. 206).

But, as the Pakeha, or non-Maori people, started settling Aotearoa, the people sensed a European colonization beginning to take place.  Te Heuheu Tukino IV, chief of the Ngati Tuwharetoa at the time, feared that Tongariro would be threatened and overtaken in all its sacredness by these foreigners, who did not see the mountains as tapu.  In fact, “by the 1880s it had become evident that before much longer the land would pass from traditional tribal tenure and be owned and managed under the European system of laws. Now the only way to protect the mountain tapu was by way of a public reserve – in the event, a national park.” (Tongariro National Park – A Gift to the People of New Zealand, p.28).  And so, on September 23, 1887, Te Heuheu Tukino IV, donated the peaks of Mount Tongariro, the Ruapehu volcano, and the Ngauruhoe volcano to the state, under the condition that the land would be a protected area. (  Thus Tongariro Nation Park became the first National Park in all of New Zealand and the fourth National Park to be established in the world.  Approximately thirteen years later, in 1990 Tongariro National Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage List for its natural and environmental values.  But, in 1993, the Maori people wanted to take this one step further and, upon their urging UNESCO, Tongariro Nation Park became “the first property to be inscribed on the World Heritage List under the revised criteria describing cultural landscapes.” (UNESCO). Sir Hepi Te Heuheu signifies the great significance of these events in his writing:

“One hundred years ago my great-grandfather Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino IV gave the sacred summits of Tongariro to the Government to protect their tapu. In so doing he established a three-way bond between land, Maori and Pakeha. His gift says these sacred mountains are to be owned by no one and yet are for everyone. My Tuwharetoa people wish this gift to be remembered for all time. The mountains of the south wind have spoken to us for centuries. Now we wish them to speak to all who come in peace and in respect of their tapu. This land of Tongariro National Park is our mutual heritage. It is a gift given many times over. As each of us receives it, we could in spirit join Ngatoroirangi of the Arawa canoe, Ariki ancestor of Tuwharetoa, in his invocation when he first landed in this country.” (Tongariro National Park – A Gift to the People of New Zealand, p.28)

Parc national de Tongariro

To this day, Tongariro Nation Park remains a sacred area to the Ngati Tuwharetoa people, protected by the state thanks to the initiatives taken by Te Heuheu Tukino IV.  However, the park does face a few problems, namely in the sense of tourists frequenting the park and skiiers as well; both these groups have taken environmental tolls on the park.  Annually, the park receives about a million visitors.  (NY Times).  This is a number that has skyrocketed since the release of the Lord of the Rings movies, parts of which were filmed in the park – most famously, the locations of Mordor and Mt. Doom. (New Zealand Department of Conservation).  Lord of the Rings enthusiasts are encouraged to take the hike along Alpine Crossing to visit the movie sight. (New York Times).  Likewise, skiers account for over half of all visitors to the park. (Tongariro National Park – A Gift to the People of New Zealand).  The tourism industry is having a negative impact on the park, bringing up issues such as park erosion when people go off trail and pollution.

One of the things that makes this park unique, however, is the involvement the Maori people have  to this day with how the park is run.  In fact, “The Maori tribes of the Tongariro region — the Ngati Rangi, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Tahu iwi — are consulted on all significant management issues within the park, especially where cultural values are involved, and there are several Maori members on the Conservation Board.” (  Luckily, since the park has become a cultural landscape, there has been much more awareness of Maori cultural value.  For example, “Maori have been involved in the redevelopment and creation of new displays at the visitor centers that explain the cultural and natural significance of the park and help foster respect for its careful management and conservation. They have also taken part in planning World Heritage celebrations, developing education resources and biodiversity programs, and assessing concession applications.” (  Likewise, after volcanic eruptions of Mount Ruapehu in 1995 and 1996 in the park, the park considered bulldozing a trench into the summit of the mountain to prevent potentially future volcanic mudflow.  The Department of Conservation took this up with the Maori people, who objected to this plan.  Thus, they collectively decided to install an alarm system instead to warn people of impending danger, as well as constructing a bank along the river to prevent any mudflow from going onto the highway.  This course of action not only appeased the Maori people, it also received international praise from the World Heritage Committee for its “ethical and cultural sensitivity.” (  Thus, the park has acted as a catalyst for combining the desires of both the indigenous people and the state.  Bruce Jefferies, the Chief Ranger at Tongariro National Park, explained the significance of this, stating, “Beneath the speaking mountains our two cultures have come together and must continue to meet in a strong and creative relationship. Our task is to continue to cement the ancient bonds, and to guarantee future protection of the land, so that it may continue to speak of forces beyond us.” (Tongariro National Park – A Gift to the People of New Zealand, p.17).

Sir Hepi te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, once stated of the Tongariro National Park area:

Sir Hepi te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa

Sir Hepi te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa

 “To us the mountains are symbols of the implacable authority of nature. As our ancestors saw them centuries ago, so do they now stand ageless, towering above all with sublime supremacy, immovable, immutable, and impervious to the memorable march of time. Puny man in the face of such overwhelming evidence of the inevitable, suddenly feels small and insignificant, and so the reverence for those mountains goes further deep.” (Tongariro National Park – A Gift to the People of New Zealand, p.28)

The park over the years has come to signify so much, not only to the Maori people, but also to the cultural preservation movement as a whole.  As many indigenous peoples around the world have been struggling to maintain land rights to their native areas, Tongariro National Park acts as a model of the positive relationship that is possible between tribes and the state.  While in this particular case, there were very specific circumstances that led to the present state of being, looking at this scenario can give us hope that this positive relationship can perhaps be replicated at the grounds of other sacred sites, to promote mutual understanding and happiness.





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