A concept visual of the new Waikato Regional Theatre (Photo: Supplied)

Waikato theatre set to be built on urupā, says local iwi group

Despite changes made to original plans to ‘avoid’ the Hua o te Atua Urupā, an iwi group says the Waikato Regional Theatre is still set to be built on their burial ground. 

A group of rangatahi from Kirikiriroa iwi Ngāti Wairere says a big part of the community wasn’t consulted on the Waikato Regional Theatre development, and it’s set to be built on an urupā.

The development is planned for the current site of the old Hamilton Hotel on Victoria Street, Kirikiriroa, but Charm Skinner, speaking on behalf of the Ngāti Wairere rangatahi group, says despite what council believes to be the Hua o te Atua urupā boundary, Māori knowledge tells a different story of where the burial ground lies.

“We have so much oral tradition in our history that’s been passed down to us by our older people, and it says in their stories that the whole area itself is the urupā, and there’s a whole lot of tapu and sacred knowledge that’s associated,” Skinner says.

Developers Momentum Waikato started consultations with local iwi representative groups Te Hā o te Whenua o Kirikiriroa and Ngā Mana Toopu o Kirikiriroa in late 2018. Chief executive Kelvyn Eglinton says they have been open to speaking with anyone who has concerns about the site, including individual whānau members.

He says the rangatahi group has denied multiple meeting requests with Momentum Waikato, and they’re unsure how to progress with the communication if they don’t want to meet face to face.

“I think it’s a real issue for New Zealand to make these processes less complex, not just for us as a promoter of a civic project for the community, but for iwi to be engaged at all levels, and I think that’s what we’re seeing… if there is a group who feels left out or can’t access that information, that’s a real issue that we have to address.”

After a Facebook post detailing the situation received hundreds of comments and shares, Skinner says Momentum Waikato did reach out, but the rangatahi group was hesitant to continue discussions just as Momentum Waikato and Heritage NZ are due a for consultation to talk over design changes.

“We did not want to engage in these issues with the developers because we had a fear that it would be a way for the developers to say ‘we’ve spoken to the rangatahi’, but from our perspective that wasn’t true and meaningful discussion.”

Skinner says developers and council need to be a lot broader in their approach to iwi, and can’t rely on a few people to speak for everyone. The group of rangatahi Māori want their voices taken seriously in the fight for the preservation of their whakapapa.

“We are so diverse as collective peoples that I really think they need to be more mindful of how they go forward. This is a problem across Aotearoa – young people’s voices do matter, and especially young Māori voices, and the way we’ve been treated for the last 180 years by the crown is not OK.”

Their group is yet another in a line of rangatahi-led movements pushing for better representation in decision-making. Last year Pania Newton and land protection group Soul led the action to save their whenua from development at Ihumātao; climate activism group Te Ara Whatu have taken their kaupapa to the UN a number of times; and the petition started by Ōtorohanga College students calling for local histories to be part of the New Zealand curriculum bore fruit in 2019 when the prime minister pledged that New Zealand history will be taught in all schools and kura by 2022.

In 2008, during the construction of a second runway at Auckland Airport, 85 kōiwi were dug up from a 600-year-old sacred urupā, despite iwi warning Auckland International Airport Ltd where the burial sites lay. This exposed a contrast in the way Māori knowledge is regarded compared to that of surveyors and archaeologists. Skinner and the rangatahi group are cautious that this history is repeating.

The land on which the Waikato Regional Theatre development sits was confiscated from Māori during the land wars in the 1860s, and Skinner is concerned that the placement of the theatre not only disrupts the tapu site, but erases the Māori narrative of the area.

“Not only is this a cultural issue, but it’s about telling the correct narrative of what’s happened in the area. This is western-framed ideologies conflicting with our te ao Māori world view.”

The location of the Waikato Regional Theatre development, at the Hamilton Hotel site in the South End of Victoria Street (Photo: Momentum Waikato)

Development has been halted on the site awaiting further discussion with Heritage New Zealand in the Environment Court, after the Heritage New Zealand Māori Council requested that Momentum Waikato change the design to avoid the urupā. Eglinton says that feedback was happily taken on, and changes were made to the northwest corner of the development so the urupā would remain undisturbed.

“The Māori Heritage Council quite rightly said it’s culturally inappropriate, so we acknowledged that and we have redesigned,” he explained. But according to the rangatahi group, the urupā stretches a lot further than the council reports state, so the small amendment doesn’t move the theatre off the burial ground.

“Our urupā is larger than what is being stipulated within the district council’s planning. There is a conflict here because the two differing ideologies are not synonymous. The mapped framework of our urupā’s boundaries is not a reflection of how our people viewed the land, its boundaries and its purpose for our people,” explains a statement from the Ngāti Wairere rangatahi.

Eglinton is keen to get in touch with the group for a meeting to talk through their concerns. He is aware there are problems with the way developments are currently consulted on, but says the developers can only go off the information they are given, which in this case are council reports and iwi consultations that place the urupā to the side of the current development.

“If they have a different view then we have to understand what that is, because all the archeological evidence doesn’t support that view and all of the cultural evidence doesn’t support that [the urupā] is bigger.

Skinner says the fight is not against the theatre, but against where it is, and she would love to see it go up in one of the other suggested locations, leaving the Victoria Street area for a memorial.

“We want to see the area be transformed into a peaceful memorial, where people in Kirikiriroa can enjoy it as well as our own people who have felt this mamae for such a long time.”

The group plans on fighting for the preservation of their land, and wants it to be a lesson for developers in how to carry out consultations going forward, with rangatahi Māori included. 

“We want to show our narrative, because there is a narrative out there at the moment from the developer’s perspective, but that’s not an account of our true history of Kirikiriroa.”



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