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March 13, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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History Never Repeats: Steps to the end of a lie

The Occupation at Ihumātao

We are told, through the myriad of news outlets that create it, that ours is an age of post-fact. Competing powers vie for our attention, each with a different story about the world. In our feeds and on our screens we see lie after lie laid bare, “alternative-facts,” and the rise of a noxious populism. However, this is not limited to the White House or Russia, but cast deep in our history and the truths we left behind.

Time and time again we are told that things are fine, that our past is behind us, that New Zealand has the greatest race relations in the world. (For further reading, see: 100% PURE New Zealand; reddit: The big list of John Key’s lies).

As Vincent O’Malley explains in his new book, The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000, the myth of good race relations was seeded early in our history. At the 50-year jubilee for the battle at Ōrākau, the final in the Waikato War (but not, however, the Land Wars), the colonial government commemorated “50 years of peace,” and praised “the glorious tradition of the courage and heroism and devotion to duty” shown by both Pākehā and Māori.

The truth was decidedly more bitter. In reality, it was Māori who displayed the values celebrated. Three hundred defenders faced down 1400 British troops and, with water, food, and ammunition running out, refused to surrender. The famous reply, “E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke!” (Friend, we will fight on forever, forever, and forever!) was followed by further resistance and a bold attempt at escape. However, when Māori broke through the surrounding cordon, they were pursued and killed, with both men and women (who made up a third of the defenders) bayoneted as they lay wounded — to the horror of interpreter W.G. Mair, who wrote: “I am filled with disgust, at the generally obscene and profane behaviour of the troops, as well as their vaunting, yet almost cowardly behaviour.”

In glossing over these realities, the government helped to create “a highly sentimentalised version” of events, one that suited their “own nationalist and nation-building ends.” While the jubilee was highly attended by Pākehā, many Waikato Māori stayed away — for obvious reasons.

It is something of a truism that there can be no future without a past, and yet the past we’ve inherited as New Zealanders, or more specifically Pākehā New Zealanders, is one that makes our continued movement increasingly difficult. As the Waitangi Tribunal have noted, it is only through a proper understanding of history that we can progress: “While only one side remembers the suffering of the past, dialogue will always be difficult. One side commences the dialogue with anger and the other side has no idea why. Reconciliation cannot be achieved by this means.”

This is an idea echoed by former New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd, the man who calls himself a “recovering racist.” Elected by a comfortable majority in 2013, Judd declined to run for re-election. His decision to push for the creation of a Māori ward in Taranaki (a move aimed at increasing Māori representation) lead to a backlash that saw him out of favour and the move crushed in a public referendum.

However, despite the outpouring of hate that this instigated, Judd has continued to promote his cause, using his own failings as a means to advance the conversation. In a number of unusually candid interviews he explained how he too used to feel averse to Māori interests, citing his upbringing in a Pākehā community and the subsequent unwillingness to learn that this engendered. This all changed when Judd won the mayoralty. He attended a protest against possible iwi occupation at Waitara and, despite his intentions to support the Pākehā residents, found himself “captured by the history.”

While Judd’s advocacy earned him a lot of ire, there was support too: from iwi; from Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy, MP Marama Fox, and the “Andrew Judd Fan Club” on Facebook. As Judd himself notes, it is a broader understanding of history that is key to reconciliation: “For me, ignorance is one thing. But to realise it and then look past it would be indefensible. So I’m addressing Pākehā. I’m reflecting on what I’ve been through. And I’m saying: ‘We’ve got it wrong. We’re a major part of the problem. We’ve never acknowledged it because we don’t talk about our past. But we need to talk about it in order to understand.’”


This bring us to Ihumātao, Auckland’s oldest settlement and what is shaping up to be yet another showdown between resident Māori and large, abstract interests.

The area in contention is a 33-hectare block bordering the historic (and protected) Otuataua Stonefields, a waahi tapu or sacred site for Te Wai-o-Hua, a short drive down the road from Ihumātao itself, a small papakainga (village) where a number of tangata whenua still live.

Fletcher Residential have permission to build 480 houses on the block, which was designated a Special Housing Area (along with 40 others) in May 2014 under the emergency conditions of the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013, a process that has been much criticised for its speed and its removal from those it will affect.

In Fletcher Residential’s way stand Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL), a group of locals opposing the development on the grounds that it will destroy an area of important cultural and historical significance. Their demands are simple: to have the land added to the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, as was promised in 2007 by Manukau City Council.

Joe Hawke and his whānau visit the Kaitiaki Village. 2017. Rebecca Hobbs. SOUL.

Joe Hawke and his whānau visit the Kaitiaki Village. 2017. Rebecca Hobbs. SOUL.


The ins and outs of the case are tricky, reflecting the bureaucratic maze that the Resource Management Act has become, and are perhaps peripheral to the issues at stake. In short, the landowner previous to Fletcher Residential, Gavin H Wallace Ltd, challenged the proposed status of the land, eventually appealing to the Environment Court, where they were successful in having the land rezoned as a “future development zone.” This allowed them to move towards selling it, and it was offered to the Council who couldn’t provide the price sought.

Although the actual value of the sale isn’t public, it is alleged that Fletcher Residential paid $19 million for the site, conditional on it being accepted as a Special Housing Area and a plan change being passed changing it from “future development” to residential — all of which came to pass.

Throughout this, SOUL has been present, staging protests, speaking to the Auckland Council and the Independent Commissioners involved in passing the plan change, and now occupying the site. Their case is strong: it is ancestral land, whenua to which they have a deep connection, of great historic significance, and a unique area for Auckland. Graeme Campbell, former Auckland Conservator for the Department of Conservation, calls it “a 5000-year old story” — the end point of the Pacific migration. Archaeologist Dave Vert compares development to “building houses on the fields alongside Stonehenge.”

On the other side is Auckland’s demand for housing, corporate interest, the myth of progress, development, and the improvement of lands left bare — the very rhetoric that drove confiscation. For despite all that would be said about “wasteland,” “primitives,” and “productivity,” an examination of history shows that Māori played a far more significant role in the establishment of Pākehā settlement than is credited.


As the “musket wars” cooled, Tāmaki, which had been abandoned for much of their duration, began to be repopulated. In 1835, Waikato-Tainui rangatira Te Wherowhero escorted those tribes who had been sheltering with him back to Auckland, of whom Te Wai-o-Hua were one. In return, land was made available, and Te Wherowhero established a trading base in Onehunga, and settlements on the Awhitu Peninsula and in Remuera. This was seen as desirable, not just for the protection he offered Tāmaki iwi, but also for that offered to settlers in the newly formed township of Auckland. In 1845, when the Northern War broke out and a delegation came south to seek Te Wherowhero’s support for an attack on Auckland, he refused, allegedly warning Hone Heke: “kia tupato ki te remu o taku kakahu” (beware the hem of my cloak).

Te Werowero, or Potatau, the principal chief of all Waikato.  1847. Angas, George French. 1822-1886. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Te Werowero, or Potatau, the principal chief of all Waikato. 1847. Angas, George French. 1822-1886. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The introduction of European crops and technology had been met eagerly, and, in addition to the military protection they provided the fledgling city, Te Wherowhero and Waikato-Tainui were also a huge economic force, supplying much needed produce to Auckland, Australia, and California. This too was at play at Ihumātao, where the rich volcanic soil and warm microclimate fostered an abundance of gardens. This output from Māori was such that in 1844 the Southern Cross noted that, but for their support, “the present European population… would have been literally starved out of the country.”

What followed was a long history of injustice as Pākehā sought to consolidate power. In the lead-in to the Waikato War, tangata whenua at Ihumātao (along with other Tāmaki settlements) were effectively evicted, their villages looted, razed, and eventually confiscated then sold to settlers under broad-brush powers granted at the end of the Land Wars. The guarantee of article two of Ti Tiriti, the right to undisturbed possession of Māori land, was disregarded, and the document on which Māori had relied declared “a simple nullity.”

For the people at Ihumātao, there were further insults. Their maunga, the sacred volcanoes Puketapapa and Otuataua, were quarried to build roads and runways. Their harbour, source of food and mana, was polluted, and the sewerage treatment facilities responsible weren’t made available to the village until some 20 years later. In 2009, construction for Auckland Airport’s second runway bulldozed through a 600-year old urupa (grave), unearthing 89 graves. In 2013 an industrial dye spill catastrophically affected all life in their local stream and river. Add to this the ongoing outcomes for Māori following the process of land confiscation: the over-representation (prisons, unemployment, poverty); the under-representations (governance, business, home ownership) — layer upon layer of insult, year after year of coping.


In his announcement that he would not be attending Waitangi events at Te Tii Marae, current PM Bill English said: “there was a time when the protest at Waitangi was nationally relevant — 15, 20 years ago. That time has passed because we have made so much progress on relations with Māori and the Treaty settlements.” (In lieu of a full reply: treaty settlement payouts represent 0.1% of the value of the land confiscated.)

Later, in his Waitangi day address at Bastion Point, English praised Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei for their economic success while noting the key role their occupation of Bastion Point played — a contradiction solved by time: then was good, now is bad. Or to bring it back to policy: it’s about development.

However, in an apt trick of fate, one recipient of that korero, Joe Hawke, had just a month and a half earlier gone down to Ihumātao to show his support. Hawke, who was instrumental in the 506-day occupation of Bastion Point, told the protesters to “fight for as long as you have to until victory is gained,” echoing the call from Ōrākau some 150 years earlier.

Now as then, those who promote colonial objectives are celebrated, the “good” natives, while those who refuse the narrative given are labelled as troublemakers, terrorists, rebels. Which is to say, it’s not just Trump who twists facts.

And yet, we are not all so divided. In history is connection, the chance to listen and move forward. Speaking on an earlier protest, during the resource consent process, SOUL member Frances Hancock talked about the diversity of the crowd: “Most importantly, we’ve got Māori and Pākehā standing together, which is what our treaty was all about — working together to protect what’s most important, which is the land that feeds us and looks after us.”

As Ta-Nihisi Coates writes, “the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” In a complex world there are few simple solutions — and yet, what’s more simple than standing?  

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