A centuries-old māra kai site at risk from a housing development in Ngāruawāhia is a vital part of the town’s identity, protesters say, and the fight to save it has united generations.
The peaceful protest at Ngāruawāhia starts at 10am each day with a karakia. Each day ends with one too. It’s clear that tikanga is central to this protest. Throughout the day, protesters gather on either side of the road holding tino rangatiratanga flags and signs that read “we are the whenua” and “protect our story”. At times, it’s hard to hear anything else but the chorus of beeping in support of the protest from cars and trucks passing through on the busy Great South Road.
The group, led by local hapū Ngāti Tamainupō, is protesting for the protection of historic Māori food pits at risk of being destroyed by a proposed housing development. On Friday, June 12, after 37 days of protest, the group made a hīkoi to the Waikato District Council. A petition using the hashtag #protectpukeiāhua, started online four days ago to protect the food pits, already has more than 2,500 signatures.
The pits are an intrinsic part of the town’s history and identity. It’s name, Ngāruawāhia, means “the opened food pits” – a phrase that comes from the story of 17th century Waikato chief Te Ngaere and Ngāti Maniapoto woman Heke-i-te-rangi. When they eloped, their feuding tribes were reconciled at a huge feast, where Te Ngaere began the festivities by saying, “Wāhia ngā rua”, meaning “break open the food pits”. In the 19th century the town was renamed Queenstown; in 1870, it became Newcastle. The name Ngāruawāhia was returned to the town in 1877.
According to research by Ngāti Tamainupō, over 140 borrow pits or rua were part of the extensive gardens making up Pukeiāhua Pā. These rua would have been used as a source of soil for growing kūmara more than 300 years ago.
“Out of the 140 rua pits that we’ve identified with the pā site, only seven are remaining,” explains protest organiser Kimai Huirama. These remaining rua are located on the section recently sold to the Brian Perry Group, which plans to develop the site as part of the River Terraces residential development in the town.
“The proposed site is where the māra kai or gardens were, which played a functional role in the settlement at the time,” says Huirama. “It’s a heritage site for us and so we feel strongly that it needs to be preserved.”
An archaeological authority for the proposed subdivision was approved on March 25, a day before the nationwide lockdown began. Because of an apparent administrative error, Ngāti Tamainupō wasn’t notified properly as mana whenua. This meant they also weren’t provided with an opportunity to make an appeal.
Excavation began at the site on May 6. The next day, concerned hapū and community members turned up at the site to protest further digging. As a result, the developer has agreed to suspend works on site, for now.
And the protesters have been showing up ever since, including many local kaumātua. Lena Huirama, Kimai’s aunt, is one of these kaumātua supporters – and it’s her first time participating in a protest. “I’m here because I married into the family, this is my family.”
While younger protesters stand with flags and cardboard signs, most kaumātua watch on from their fold-up camping chairs set up near the tent behind; welcoming people to the protest and waiting on more of their friends to arrive for the day.
“I just do the baking, I’m not up there with the flags.”
Lena Huirama has been showing her support through baking cakes; banana, chocolate and carrot. Mostly it’s been banana cakes though, as boxes and boxes of bananas have been donated by the local community.
She believes the involvement of kaumātua is mutually beneficial for the wellbeing of both the protest and for kaumātua. “It strengthens what’s going on; it strengthens me personally by being with family.”
After weeks of lockdown, being able to spend time with friends and whānau at the protest is a welcome relief.
It’s vital that this protest has intergenerational support and representation, says Kimai Huirama. “You’ve got rangatahi and that real energy and whawhai and then you need the balance of kaumātua to bring those years of wisdom.”
And it’s wisdom that Huirama believes the council and developer are lacking, in terms of knowledge around whānau, hapū, iwi and how these structures operate.
She questions how these authorities can properly fulfil their responsibility “to make sure this process is being adhered to correctly and that it honours the principles of Te Tiriti, if they have only a very basic understanding of how hapū and iwi actually work”.
The varied history of Māori groups and movements at Ngāruawāhia means the pits may not hold the same importance and connection to other iwi and hapū that were consulted for the development. Essentially, unless your tūpuna were there 300 years ago, it’s unlikely the rua will be as significant.
“We are saying to them that they are significant to us because our ancestors, our tūpuna, put them there,” Huirama says.
As the protest continues, Huirama believes there needs to be accountability for the mistakes made in the process, and is looking to Waikato District Council to make amends. The hapū has claimed that in this instance, council processes have failed to uphold their right to protect their taonga as tangata whenua. Their hope is that Waikato District Council returns the heritage site to mana whenua and the community.
“The last seven rua that are on this site are taonga that we want to preserve for future generations,” says Huirama. “We don’t want our mokopuna learning about these rua and our māra kai practices through books, we want them to be able to walk through the whenua, we want them to be able to lay their hands where their tūpuna 300 years before laid their hands and created these remnants that are part of that legacy.”
“We haven’t gone anywhere in 300 years, and we ain’t going away now.”
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