AN old postcard has revealed skeletons under one of New Zealand's most popular beaches - and a leading Maori academic says proposed legislation would restrict access to similar wahi tapu sites all around the coast.
The 1911 postcard, put up for sale on Trade Me, shows Mt Maunganui's main beach littered with human bones uncovered by a storm.
Auckland University head of Maori Studies Margaret Mutu said wherever bodies were buried, the New Zealand Government's proposed replacement for the controversial Foreshore and Seabed Act lets presiding iwi restrict access.
"It makes that beach tapu because you don't want people there digging them up accidentally. Where it's known, it will be," Dr Mutu said.
"The legislation allows it, that wahi tapu must be protected."
No one should be fossicking around a beach where bodies had been buried - just like any other cemetery, she said.
"This is actually very, very common all around the coast. We bury our dead in sand dunes as a defence mechanism."
Usually, careful paths marked between sand dunes containing remains can allow access to beaches, but this is not feasible where beaches themselves have skeletons.
New Zealand National Party Tauranga MP Simon Bridges said he was very clear that public access at the Mount would remain open.
It would be "utterly unreasonable" to restrict New Zealanders from the Mount, and local iwi recognised that, Mr Bridges said.
"I'm sure there are cases where wahi tapu is reasonably and legally found to exist, but the fact of the matter is the Mount gets tens of thousands of people walking over the stretches of beach where the bones have been said to be found, and it will be utterly unreasonable to expect Kiwis to stop doing that."
"Local iwi are being exceptionally reasonable about bones of pre-European Maori that have been found, and they recognise that the Mount is for all New Zealanders."
Moreover, access could only be restricted where iwi were granted customary title, and they would not meet a requirement to show exclusive use of the beach since 1840. "It's quite clear that it has been enjoyed by all kinds of Kiwis," Mr Bridges said.
"The Mount is one of New Zealand's most iconic and quickly recognised beaches, and my view is it has to be for all New Zealanders."
Under the proposed legislation, the Marine and Coastal Areas Bill, iwi will have the ability to prohibit or restrict access to wahi tapu areas.
But this is only if they are granted customary title over the coastline, which requires exclusive use since 1840.
This is unlikely for a public beach - much less a popular one like the Mount.
However, in the Bay of Plenty, from Orokawa Bay near Waihi to Hawai in the east, Maori own 157.1km, or 21.3 per cent, of land abutting the foreshore.
Still, Dr Mutu said, the bigger problem was that the bill was silent about non-Maori owners. Private owners had the power to restrict access to beaches.
Meanwhile, the 1911 postcard on Trade Me sold for $175 earlier this month.
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