SOUL co-leader Pania Newton (left) with Dr Haare Williams at Ihumātao in 2018. PHOTO: Qiane Matata-Sipu.

Ihumātao isn’t about young versus old, but new versus old-fashioned

The land protection movement at Ihumātao may have wrongly been pitted as rangatahi versus rangatira, but there’s no denying it has given rise to a new generation of leaders and values. Have Treaty settlements and tribally controlled assets changed how iwi leaders see land, and is it time for recalibration?

The tension that gave rise to the action at Ihumātao has been framed by some as an internal struggle between young and old. Throughout the world, tension between young and old is not new. Ditto in Māori communities. While on the face of it, the action is an historical Treaty land matter, it is perhaps more than that. Ihumātao appears more urgent and future focused, a flashpoint, symbolic of the emergence of a new set of priorities and values driving resistance from within te ao Māori. The younger generation, led by young Māori women, are bringing much energy and clarity to this shift. In addition to drawing from a tradition of local indigenous resistance, those priorities and values have influenced and been influenced by environmental and other social justice movements.

The action is a delicate but trenchant nudge, a tono (a vigorous request that requires a response) to all of our leaders. If we claim that we are descendants of the land then our actions ought to reflect that. If we claim that we have the most beautiful country in the world then our actions should reflect an ethic of care towards that land. If we claim to be an egalitarian society then we ought to make sure we are working towards that.

The agreement reached between Ihumātao iwi leaders and Fletcher Residential, who plan to build on the land, might seem to have many upsides: the return of eight hectares of land, including the ‘toe’ of ancestral maunga Te Puketāpapatanga a Hape, and 40 homes within the housing development offered to mana whenua whānau at 75% market rate. Fletchers get to appear magnanimous, a socially responsible corporate working with local communities; they get to counter the narrative of corporate profits over people. The people of Ihumātao get a chunk of land back, with some houses, from a private land owner – no Waitangi Tribunal or active government intervention required.

But is a lack of government intervention really something to be celebrated? Let’s look at the history. It was and is common for the government to purchase land compulsorily, often for roads, schools or defence purposes. There are numerous cases of Māori land being taken this way but never actually used for the purpose for which it was ‘acquired’ (Bastion Point, for example, was claimed for defence against a Russian invasion in the late 1800s that never came). Though rarely invoked, until the 1990s private land of cultural significance could form part of a Treaty settlement through compulsory government acquisition. Following the Te Roroa claim north of Dargaville, the government acquired Allan Titford’s farm at Maunganui Bluff, which was sacred land to iwi. Following a racist public pressure campaign in which Titford insisted Te Roroa’s claims to the land were falsified, the National government relented and changed the legislation to exclude the return of private land to iwi. The campaign also involved accusations directed at local iwi of arson. In 2013, Titford was jailed for that arson.

The Ihumātao agreement was a significant achievement if you value land largely as a commodity and source of wealth. For hapū and iwi who for multiple generations have experienced landlessness as a direct result of colonialism, and were consequently denied potential economic opportunities, the return of some of that land is obviously a win. Generations of Māori leaders have mobilised in order to have land returned as a part of redress for historical injustices. Their hard work has been rewarded with, amongst other things, the return of land. And while only a very small proportion of the land that was unjustly confiscated or alienated has been returned to Māori, settlements have understandably been used to build an economic base for iwi.

Many tribal bureaucracies are financially successful and as a consequence also very influential. One estimate puts tribal controlled assets at about $6 billion, and the Māori asset base at about $40 billion. Where Māori entrepreneurs, collectives and bureaucracies have been able to secure capital and build assets they have demonstrated an ability to build successful business enterprises, increase asset bases and accrue capital.

While such efforts are rightly celebrated and encouraged, one thread to the tono being laid down by the younger Māori generation to tribal leadership and bureaucracies is that our relationship with the land has changed and needs recalibrating. Land is not simply an asset to be owned, controlled, nor is it just something that can be transferred for more capital, or even more land. Land has value in and of itself – that is to say land, metaphorically speaking, has its own stories, languages and traditions peculiar to that land. They are to be found nowhere else in the world and cannot be recreated anywhere else, nor with a 3D printer.

A May 2018 protest at Ihumātao, south Auckland, against Fletcher Building’s planned housing development. (Photo: Qiane Matata-Sipu)

The same could be said of our relationships with one another. While tribal bureaucracies have accrued significant wealth, there are many Māori who are suffering and doing it hard. We know the numbers, but numbers never convey the pain of poverty and discrimination’s wrath. Every now and then we are shocked into re-engaging more fully with our humanity when, for example, we watch the horrifying images of government social workers effectively laying siege of a young Māori mother and her baby.

Tribes have generally taken the position that the provision of social services is largely the responsibility of the government under Article 3 of the Treaty. That is not to say that tribal bureaucracies aren’t directing funds towards social investment programmes – they are, and sometimes quite significant amounts. However, at the very least their position gives the impression that social investment programmes aimed at improving the lives of Māori is less of an imperative than growing the asset base.

I agree that the government most definitely has a responsibility to improve the wellbeing of all of its citizenry – Māori included. However with regards to Māori the government has demonstrated a consistent and enduring inability to give effect to that duty and responsibility. We often treat that inability as if it were an aberration. However when consistent, aberrations cease to be aberrations. They speak to a system that despite many decades of active Māori engagement refuses, on occasion wilfully so, to improve services for Māori. Some are no longer willing to wait for the government to meet its own responsibilities, nor wait for tribal bureaucracies in the hope that eventually they might receive support from large tribal asset bases. Where tribal bureaucracies have been disinclined to more fully engage in social programmes for Māori, the emergence of faith movements like Destiny Church, and also the reconfiguration of some gangs, are starting to fill the vacuum and meeting the very real social needs of many Māori in a profound way.

The younger generation of Māori leaders at Ihumātao, supported by kaumātua, are not being disrespectful of Māori leadership. They are articulating and acting upon a generational shift in priorities and values, they are laying down a tono. What will the response be?

Garrick Cooper (Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Ranginui) is a senior lecturer at Aotahi School of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury.


This is part of our Letters to Ihumātao series. The movement to protect the whenua at Ihumātao is inspiring and challenging Māori all over the country. If you identify as iwi Māori and would like to submit something, please contact

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