With 84% of Māori now living in urban areas, away from ancestral lands, it has become difficult for many of us to maintain a sense of tūrangawaewae. Meriana Johnsen finds out how Māori stay connected living in the cities and how some iwi are working to bring their people back home.
This is the first in a series on Māori land and housing.
It is an uncharacteristically hot, windless day in Pōneke. The sun bakes my back as I sit down with a coffee at Greta Point, overlooking from the west the inlet of water by the Wellington Airport. For many patrons it is an opportunity to grab some brunch while enjoying the view of the glassy water and watching the planes roll in and out. But for Holden Hohaia, it is more than just a pretty lunch spot. This is his papakāinga; his ancestors once walked and lived on this whenua.
Just around the corner is a newly-developed block of 14 units built by the Te Aro Pā trust who represent descendants of the original inhabitants from Taranaki iwi and Ngāti Ruanui whakapapa. Between the two blocks of units is a lawn adorned with two pou carved by Ihaia Puketapu. The pou are striking, standing stark against a backdrop of bush with the concrete unit blocks pressing in on either side. Stones from two prominent Taranaki rivers have been placed under the lawn, named Orimupiko and Ramanui – taken from the Waiaua and Waingongoro rivers respectively. A geometric design printed on the side of the units adds a modern touch. It has become the symbol for Te Aro Pā, Holden tells me.
He is greeted by one of the residents; his cousin Karmen. She lives with her two daughters in one of the three-bedroom units, while next door, other cousins’ Ben and Matt live in the one-bedroom units. Roughly half of the 14 units are tenanted by people who are descendants of the Taranaki iwi collective.
“[There are] good connections in here, just having that whakawhānaungatanga that allows us to leave our doors open when we probably shouldn’t otherwise,” Karmen says.
This sense of community even goes as far as calls to be picked up from Courtenay place at 2am from her neighbour – another cousin. The property managers take good care of them, she says, though she’s not so sure about the landlords, with a cheeky grin in Holden’s direction.
“You are the landlord,” he laughs.
On this small stretch of land in an inner city suburb, the descendants of Te Aro Pā have reestablished the home fires almost 200 years after they first touched down on this soil.
A place to stand or tūrangawaewae is a fundamental part of what it means to be Māori. It is often affiliated with our ancestral lands where we trace our whakapapa back to. It is the whenua where our maunga, awa and marae reside and somewhere we feel connected to the mauri or life-force.
Prior to World War II, 90% of Māori lived on their papakāinga in the rural regions. This trend was almost reversed by the 1970s and currently 84% of Māori live in cities or towns. What is often referred to as the ‘urban drift’ could more accurately be described as a “tsunami” according to writer and filmmaker Bradford Haami. His new book Urban Māori: The Second Great Migration documents the history of Māori moving away from their papakāinga to the urban centres in search of greater opportunity. On moving into the cities, Māori were encouraged to adopt the Pākehā way of life and government policies were put in place to assimilate them. This included pepper-potting – placing a single Māori whānau within a Pākeha community to encourage integration.
Bradford writes in Urban Māori: “A house in the city with a small patch of grass for a flower bed or a vegetable garden became the new family tūrangawaewae.”
Many whānau resisted buying their own home in the cities as they planned to return to their rural heartlands. The first generation of Māori city dwellers would visit home frequently for tangi, or to visit the wider whānau. However, as time and financial constraints made it more difficult to return home, the second-generation of urban Māori visited less and less. However, they still wished to maintain their Māoritanga and urban, pan-tribal marae like Hoani Waititi in West Auckland arose to cater for tangi, kapa haka, kura reo and other gatherings for Māori living in the city.
Urban marae such as Hoani Waititi allowed for tikanga to still be explored and carried out in the lives of Māori, but it was no longer based on an ancestral whakapapa. For the thousands of Māori now living in Auckland, urban marae and kinship with other Māori in the city created a turanga hou (a new standing place).
Bradford says many of the whānau he interviewed for his book resisted the label “urban Māori” – they preferred to say they were part of a community whakapapa alongside their tribal whakapapa. Some families considered where they lived their tūrangawaewae and weren’t interested in going back home, while others mourned being geographically disconnected.
“The geographic areas where our tribal backgrounds are that’s where a lot of our identity is birthed there through lineage but also through place – the place where things occurred, where ancestors lived, where grandparents planted their gardens. Over generations there’s something of that imbued in our identity.”
“I think the desire of families to hold on to their whakapapa and their links back home is still very strong, I don’t think you’ll ever lose that, but I think the urban world is doing very well – the urban authorities, the urban marae are doing very well to maintain what being Māori is, even though we’re living in a city landscape.”
Māori continue to migrate from the rural areas to seek greater opportunity. For Anna Kurei (Te Whakatōhea) that meant moving from her tūrangawaewae in Ōpōtiki to Wellington for university.
Describing herself as “one of the lucky ones,” Anna lived and breathed her Māoritanga growing up in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, which has one of the highest populations of Māori and te reo speakers in the country.
Her tūrangawaewae encompasses a number of places in her hometown: her marae, Waioweka, her family home and her grandparents’ home all based in the East Coast town on the whenua of her people. Both places are living memories of her childhood – the shed at her grandparents’ home is still adorned with artworks she made in her teenage years.
“Your tūrangawaewae is just a place that you identify yourself as belonging regardless of anything, It’s something that belongs to you that can’t really be questioned and not necessarily challenged.”
Once Anna moved away to Wellington and then Hamilton to study, no longer immersed in te reo and tikanga she became incredibly homesick. A self-confessed “water rat”, Anna longed for a connection to the water again.
“The thing that hit me hard was that there was no beach around and growing up in a small place where I’m just so used to being there and having a river that I knew so well going into this new area and space, I thought ‘where do I find myself?’”
Joining waka ama kept that connection to the water alive for her. On nights when she missed home, she was encouraged by whānau to listen to recordings of the waves.
“When you live away from home you have to find yourself in the landscape – because you are away from your papakāinga you have to look at how to familiarise yourself within the area and what connections you can make to basically keep yourself stable.”
“City life is completely different from our country life where it is just go-go-go and if you get yourself caught up in that you end up driving yourself crazy so you’ve kind of got to look for something in the area you call your zen-zone, where you just pick a space and breathe.”
The pull home finally become too strong and Anna is about to journey back to Ōpōtiki. The move was bought on by a desire to reground herself in her tikanga and deepen her knowledge – particularly learning how to weave flax and carve tukutuku panels. She also wants to give back to her grandfather.
“He was the one who taught me te reo Māori and the tikanga on the marae so I feel like I need to go home not only to develop myself further but just to support the people who made me the person I am today.”
She doesn’t know if she will stay in Ōpōtiki permanently but feels it is important to come home to keep her Māori identity strong. If she doesn’t foster this she knows it could easily be lost forever.
“It only takes one generation to lose or forget or not know where they’re from or not know what it’s like to be brought up in your iwi, hapū and it takes at least three generations to get it back.”
This is something Holden knows first-hand. Of the 1,100 known descendants of Te Aro Pā very few know they are shared landowners of the papakāinga.
“A lot of the owners are disconnected from their own land – so we are doing things in many ways for owners who are absent in the hope that one day they will come back and realise they have this legacy, this taonga that we’ve hopefully built for them and their mokopuna and they will reconnect to the land and benefit from it.”
Projects like Te Aro Pā represent the future of building on Māori-freehold land but it isn’t an easy process. Banks won’t loan the money for the build as they don’t have the land as a security if the loan is defaulted on. Schemes like Kāinga Whenua have been introduced to provide a finance option for those looking to build on their freehold land where Kiwibank provides the loan of up to $200,000 to relocate or build the property and Housing New Zealand provides the bank insurance for their loan.
The scheme was initially lauded as the solution to abysmal Māori home ownership rates but since its introduction in 2010, only 25 loans have been approved, with another 17 in the process. An Official Information Act request revealed 25 loans have been declined for reasons that include poor credit history, inappropriate account conduct and “serviceability” of the loan. The scheme has been criticised by Māori Party leader Marama Fox as full of bureaucratic red-tape and doing next to nothing to get Māori into good accommodation.
Changes introduced in 2013 allowed trusts to use Kāinga Whenua loans to build on ancestral land. This scheme was used to back the build of Te Aro Pā which was completed in 2016. Holden says it will take 15 years to pay off the units, after which time he would like to introduce a rent-to-build scheme, with buyers required to sell-on within the iwi.
As rents and house prices in Auckland continue to soar, Braford suggests there is a mindset shift to return home. It is a long road to house all of our people but Te Aro Pā stands as a beacon of the future for Māori housing. Karmen and her whānau have more than a roof over their heads – they have a community and roots planted deep into the whenua. For the hundreds of thousands of Māori living in the cities, living on their papakāinga still remains a dream. For others it isn’t a dream at all – they are content with their turanga hou, their new standing place. And for others like Anna, the employment and education opportunities the city provides may be outweighed by the sense of kinship and connection that home gives.