A red brick house sits on Fletchers'-owned land between the Ōtuataua Stonefields and the 'Wallace block'. SOUL activists now occupy the brick house as their base of operations. Photo: Leonie Hayden

Ihumātao: a field of stones and flags

Activist group SOUL Solidarity Pōneke will march through Wellington to parliament tomorrow to protest development at Ihumātao in Auckland. Catherine Delahunty takes a stroll on the whenua to remind us why Ihumātao’s supporters can’t give up yet.

On a quiet Tuesday morning, I went out to Ihumātao and went for a short walk with Pania Newton and her sister Kahu. They had been so busy in the weekend running the Reclamation Festival where some of us danced like crazy to Upper Hutt Posse and NRG Rising. We had eaten vegan burgers and pineapple with ice cream. The sun had been fierce on the grass and the stone walls, but the crowd was mellow and relaxed. All was quiet now in the Kaitiaki Village and a light breeze ruffled the flags along the road way.

I was reminded of those visits I made years ago to the noho at Takaparawhau/Bastion Point. Different story in some ways but at heart, all about contested lands with deep history and continuing controversy. I sat on the red bench in front of the brick house and thought about the role of the Crown in dividing and ruling marginalised tangata whenua over the same issue since colonisation started – the issue of whenua (land). The Crown is comfortable to keep up this practice as long as the inexorable privatisation and ‘development’ of land continues.

The Ōtuataua Stonefields historic reserve (Photo: Andy Day).

Fletcher Building Ltd is also comfortable in their role as developers who work with the Crown, be it special housing areas or anywhere else there’s a buck to be made. In shaky financial times, they push harder, promise more and offer unaffordable deals. If Pania and her cousins had a spare $30 million then they could buy this land, or so Fletcher says (CEO Steve Evans is reported to have said that the company is “open to offers”).

The Crown gives tax breaks to cultural enterprises like Weta Workshop, but I guess fancy prop making for the movies is more important than looking after Ihumātao and the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve next door. 

Read more: Bringing the fight for Ihumātao to K Road

Pania, Kahu and I walked past the wild avocado orchard and climbed the low ridge which gives a sweeping view from the Ihumātao village, the quarried maunga, the Puketutu sewage treatment plant, and the distant inner city/outer Manukau. At our feet were the stone fields where mana whenua had built marae, whare and maara kai, using the stones on site as they did in the Waipoua forest. There are many stories which belong to the hapū connected to this extraordinary site. I know so little, but standing in the sun I felt ancient Tāmaki Makaurau shimmering just below the surface of modern Auckland. The green fields that surround the stone fields are the necessary buffer for this very old and powerful place we need to protect. 

There are critics on all sides calling Pania Newton and her cousins different names. But essentially they have responded to the threat of 480 new houses (48 of which may be available to local iwi) on the land around their village by asserting its value and its history. As one banner says “Auckland, Ihumātao has given enough.” Every legal avenue has been pursued from the Environment Court to the United Nations but sometimes lore and law don’t hear each other. Sometimes standing your ground is required. 

Photo essay: Taking a stand on the land

The place to learn the history of this country is on the marae with the kaumatua. But failing that, we can read the references to Ihumātao in the Vincent O’ Malley book The Great War for New Zealand. In 1863 Governor Grey and friends drove the people of Ihumātao and other villages out of their homes. They lied that Tainui was about to invade Auckland and all had to leave or swear allegiance to the Queen. They had little choice but to join their whanaunga across the line at Mangatāwhiri and prepare to fight.

SOUL protesters (Photo: Supplied)

That time of hardship and injustice has haunted these hapū ever since. The giant sprawling city has dug up their sacred maunga and pumped human waste into their food basket. The sky is dominated by air traffic and the casino needle Sky Tower glitters on the far horizon. Like Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei they are squeezed on all sides and have drawn a line. Not everyone agrees with that line. But standing in the morning light with these passionate young wāhine, I could not imagine why they would carry this huge weight and stress except for the love of whenua. 

When we got back to the brick house, which is their headquarters, various people dropped by: the conspiracy theorists, the generous supporters, the whānau. Everyone was welcomed and given respect. The whānau were preparing for the trip to Parliament this week carrying the 17,000 strong petition asking Parliament to intervene. Fletcher is also preparing to enter the land they have purchased. But purchase does not give a divine right and they have met a resistance driven by a different kaupapa. As always, it’s complex, but both tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti heritage live at this place. In 50 years, will Auckland be thanking these people for taking a stand for the land, or will the open space where the flags fly beside the ancient stones disappear and be privatised forever? 

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