The 1994 chainsaw attack on the pine tree atop Auckland’s Maungakiekie / One Tree Hill wasn’t a simple act of vandalism, as many assumed at the time – it was an act of protest informed by centuries of history.
“It is people who have interests, rights and dignity; not trees.” This is the final line of an obituary published in the NZ Herald in October 2000, written for the lone pine tree at the summit of Maungakiekie.
The tree was felled six years after Mike Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) cut into its base with a chainsaw, and one year after an unknown person (or people) repeated Smith’s act, presumably seeking to finish what he had started. The obituary sits alongside a number of articles published on the pine’s final removal, many echoing a frustration that an iconic signifier of the natural world had fallen privy to human concerns.
Certain trees – pōhutakawa, pūriri, kahikātea, kauri – still tell the story of Tāmaki Makaurau. How it was once covered in lush vegetation, a volatile landscape periodically ruptured by volcanic activity, only to reestablish itself on the new and fertile soils left behind. Our human engagement with Tāmaki’s unique environment is recorded in oral histories and place names: Maungawhau, Maungakiekie and Maungarei each refer to the specific ecologies of their volcanic cones.
The elevated sites of Tāmaki’s maunga lent themselves to human occupation. Maungakiekie was established as a pā by Kiwi Tāmaki of Waiohua, its terraces providing food, shelter and protection for up to 4,000 people. A single tōtara, planted at the top of the pā on the birth of the son of a local rangatira, gave the mountain its other name: Te Tōtara-i-āhua, the tōtara which stands alone.
Smith was told the story of Te Tōtara-i-āhua by Tauiwa (Eva) Rickard (Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Toa, Tainui, Taranaki) before he took to the pine. At some stage the tōtara was felled and a pōhutakawa planted in its place – it was this pohutukawa that inspired John Logan Campbell to nickname Maungakiekie “One Tree Hill”. That tree was in turn chopped down in the mid-nineteenth century, “levelled by some goth for firewood’s sake” according to an 1875 article in the Daily Southern Cross.
By that time, ownership of Maungakiekie had been split between the Crown and Pākehā property speculator Thomas Henry, who began to clear the native fern, mānuka and flax in order to convert the land to pasture. Not long after, Henry’s property was purchased in part by John Logan Campbell and William Brown, who continued to work the land for stock and agriculture. Campbell, who is buried on top of Maungakiekie, put the land in public ownership in 1901.
To Smith, and to others, the pine’s history and the place it held in Tāmaki’s collective consciousness were emblematic of the systems of land transfer and confiscation which were central to the city’s settlement by Pākehā, as well as the over-inscription of the landscape’s cultural narratives with monuments to the colonial process.
“Good evening,” newsreader Richard Long opened the One News bulletin on October 28, 1994. “An attempt to chop down a national landmark at first appeared to be a simple act of vandalism, but it quickly developed into a political protest. The man accused of attacking the lone pine on One Tree Hill with a chainsaw says he was drawing attention to Māori grievances… It comes on the anniversary of a little known Declaration of Independence by Northland tribes in 1835.”
He Whakaputanga o te Rangatira o Nu Tireni, the Declaration of Independence, was signed by 34 rangatira at Waitangi in October 1835 and by another 18 chiefs over the following four years. The reo Māori document declared Aotearoa to be whenua rangatira (an independent state) of the “United Tribes of New Zealand”, and asserted the collective authority of the tribes to kīngitanga (sovereign power) and mana i te whenua (authority over the land). The rangatira agreed to send a copy of the document to the English King and asked that he protect the newly established state in exercising its independence.
One of the rangatira who signed He Whakaputanga was Ngāpuhi leader Hōne Heke. Heke was the 34th signatory to He Whakaputanga and the first to sign Te Tiriti o Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Over the coming years he would grow increasingly frustrated by the Crown’s failure to honour the principles of both documents and in 1844 attacked a flagstaff flying the Union Jack at Kororāreka: a symbol and statement of British authority. “The Flag takes possession of the land,” Heke said. “It was chopped that it might fall.”
The pine on Maungakiekie didn’t fall in 1994, but the illusion of its immutable sense of belonging to the landscape was shattered, bringing down with it the idea that the history of Pākehā occupation and ownership of, and subsequent identification with, the whenua was something natural and inevitable.
To many, both Māori and Pākehā, the pine’s health suddenly became a question of the sanctity of New Zealand’s national and cultural identity. “The 90-year old tree is extremely sick tonight, and the Council describes its condition as precarious,” reporter Simon Shepherd solemnly informed viewers in that One News bulletin on October 28. “All councillors could do was apply a bandage and hope the heart of the tree wasn’t pierced.”
Smith was surprised by the public reaction to his action. He felt that his ambition to raise awareness about contemporary Māori issues, and in particular the National government’s proposal to settle all historical Treaty claims within a predetermined “fiscal envelope” of one billion dollars, was almost lost in the “outpouring of grief towards the tree”.
A comparison of the weapons involved in this confrontation returns us to the problems Smith sought to address. On one hand government policy, legislation, the mechanisms of the legal system, relentless media attention; on the other a chainsaw.
In the darkness of night, with a borrowed Oleo-Mac and some money for petrol cobbled together by mates, Smith struck right at the heart of the precarious conditions which had come to define the reality of Māori mana i te whenua: the idea we should look to Te Tōtara-i-āhua and see a pine.