The taonga (sacred treasure) is of extreme significance both to the local Tainui Māori people and also for its archaeological value. The carving is unique in form, and bears a noted resemblance to Hawaiian carving styles. Tradition would suggest that it dates from circa 1400 CE, an era known to New Zealand ethnologists as Te Tipunga or Archaic period, although recent work by the museum has shown that it is made from New Zealand Totara, a common native New Zealand hard wood.
Te Uenuku (literally "The rainbow") represents the tribal god Uenuku. It is 2.7 metres in height and consists of a simple upright post, the top of which has been carved into a spiral form. From the top of this spiral emerge four waving verticals, reminiscent of the teeth of a comb. The form, though seemingly simple, often causes a powerful reaction in viewers of the artifact. In appearance the carving is very striking and different from the style of carving seen in the later Classic period.
The form of Te Uenuku is a popular motif for New Zealand artists though they must exercise care in its use because of its sacred significance to Māori. It is used in stylised form as the logo of the Māori Broadcasting Agency Te Māngai Pāho.
According to Māori verbal history, around 1800 the Waipa District of the Waikato was invaded by a strong force led by Ngati Toa chief Pikauterangi. In the Battle of Hingakaka between Tainui and Ngati Maniapoto warriors close to Lake Ngaroto, the sacred carving of Te Uenuku was lost. The carving was found buried close to the lake's shore in 1906 and spent some time in the R.W. Bourne collection before being acquired by the Te Awamutu Museum.
The work was the centrepiece of the Te Maori exhibition which toured North America and New Zealand in the early to mid-1980s. Te Uenuku was on loan to Te Papa museum in Wellington till September 2011 then returned to its usual resting place at a refurbished display in the Te Awamutu Museum in New Zealand.
- "Uenuku". Te Awamutu Museum. Waipa District Council. Retrieved 21 September 2013.
- Simmons, D.R. (captions), Brian Brake (photos), and Merimeri Penfold (translations) (1986). Te Maori: Te hokinga mai, the return home, Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery. ISBN 978-0-86463-148-0. pp. 14–15.
- Museum website