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The six cousins behind the Protect Ihumātao campaign, from left, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Moana Waa, Haki Wilson, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Pania Newton and Waimarie Rakena McFarland. (Photo: Jos Wheeler)
The six cousins behind the Protect Ihumātao campaign, from left, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Moana Waa, Haki Wilson, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Pania Newton and Waimarie Rakena McFarland. (Photo: Jos Wheeler)

ĀteaDecember 18, 2020

The story behind the fight to save Ihumātao

The six cousins behind the Protect Ihumātao campaign, from left, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Moana Waa, Haki Wilson, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Pania Newton and Waimarie Rakena McFarland. (Photo: Jos Wheeler)
The six cousins behind the Protect Ihumātao campaign, from left, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Moana Waa, Haki Wilson, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Pania Newton and Waimarie Rakena McFarland. (Photo: Jos Wheeler)

Five years ago a group of local cousins began a campaign to stop a proposed Fletcher Building housing development and restore the whenua into iwi ownership. Yesterday a deal was signed paving the way for its return. Justin Latif speaks to the woman who started it all about how they defied the odds and the doubters. 

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You could say it all started with a Facebook post.

Qiane Matata-Sipu put the call out after a meeting at Makaurau marae in 2015. The word was that a massive housing development was set to be built alongside their tiny village of roughly 80 homes in the rural backblocks of Māngere, the site of one of Aotearoa’s oldest settlements.

The most telling line from her 467-word post sums up why so many would respond to her call: “500 (sic) houses will take over our home, our way of life, and we will only be known by what is written in the history books and what we tell our children.”

Hundreds would like and share her post – but most importantly five of Matata-Sipu’s cousins, Haki Wilson, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Waimarie Rakena McFarland, Moana Waa, and Pania Newton, would respond and agree to gather at Matata-Sipu’s home. The response took her a little by surprise.

“For years I was one of very few rangatahi that would go to marae meetings and get involved in these kinds of political conversations. It wasn’t that others weren’t interested in the past, but here we were all now, at an age where we had worked in various roles gaining skills and experience, studying or had children of our own, [and as a result] we had become more politically engaged and were saying to each other, ‘what do we do about it?’”

Smiles as Kiingi Tūheita (centre) is escorted by Qiane Matata-Sipu (left) and Pania Newton (right) after the lowering of the Kiingitanga flag at Ihumātao. (Photo: Leonie Hayden)

Pā kid to leader of a movement

More than five years on, the land is returning. Yesterday the government announced it will purchase the land from Fletcher for $29.9 million and that a memorandum of understanding has been signed by the Kiingitanga, the Crown and Auckland Council which sets out how parties will work together to decide the future of the land.

But in truth the fight to protect Ihumātao goes back much further, long before 2015.

The seed of this campaign was planted on July 9, 1863, when Governor George Grey issued a proclamation, forcing the majority of the community out of the region, which was later to be declared illegal. They had refused to swear allegiance to a Queen living more than 10,000 miles away in London, when their cousin, King Tāwhiao was just down the road in the Waikato leading the Kiingitanga movement. This community would return some years later, to find that much of their land had been on-sold or gifted to settler farmers, including the Ōruarangi block that has been the focus of this dispute, which had been granted to Gavin Wallace in 1867.

And among those who returned was Matata-Sipu’s great-great grandparents.

“Land was returned to a small number of our tūpuna, and my great-great grandparents were among those,” Matata-Sipu says. “And part of that land is where I have my house right now.”

Despite some families being able to return to the area and receiving small parcels of land, the community was largely cut off from the rapidly modernising city of Auckland. Matata-Sipu says her grandmother told her stories of studying for her university exams by candlelight on dirt floors because electricity was only connected to the surrounding Pākehā-owned farms.

“My grandmother grew up in the pā and she told me a lot about her upbringing in Ihumātao. She told me how she would go down to the awa and catch freshwater crayfish and pick watercress. Her dad was a fisherman, catching kai from the Manukau. On a king low tide, they’d go out to get scallops. She remembers as a child and up until her teens they could get everything they could ever want off this land, as it was so fertile. As the eldest child she got to go to Ōtāhuhu College and then went onto teacher’s college.”

Matata-Sipu’s grandmother would marry from the closely related papakāinga of Pūkaki, which is also in Māngere. The pair would build a comfortable life for themselves, but alongside running a number of businesses, their community of Ihumātao was at the heart of everything they did, which meant it would also be the case for Matata-Sipu.

“I was raised with my grandparents,” Matata-Sipu says.

“And one of my strongest memories is sitting at my grandparents’ feet at all these marae meetings, and while many of my cousins would be outside playing, I was inside listening to reports and hanging with the oldies.

“In many ways, the marae was my grandfather’s identity. He led the building of the wharenui, along with many of our kaumātua and uncles in the 1980s. I was always in the pā, and always at the marae. I even remember getting electrocuted while changing wharenui light bulbs with my papa.”

And like her grandparents, Matata-Sipu never lost her devotion to her community, but she was also becoming increasingly successful in the less-familiar Pākehā world. She would become dux and co-head girl at the local high school, and then secure a vice-chancellor’s scholarship to AUT so she could study communications. Following a stellar time at university she would launch into a career as a magazine journalist, working for Mana magazine before becoming the deputy editor of Spasifik by age 25. Alongside her developing career, Matata-Sipu was also leading fundraising drives to ensure her marae could build a new whare kai, chairing the hauora committee, becoming a reservation trustee and, organising excursions for her kuia and kaumātua.

She says her emergence as a leader at school and work was largely inspired by her grandparents’ example.

“I guess I was groomed into leadership roles on the marae by my grandparents,” she says.

“My grandfather just felt a responsibility to his people and it was based on a sense of duty – for his whānau and marae. And while my style is different to my grandfather’s style, the motivation is the same. And I always try and remember that you’re never better than anyone else, that you lead from the back and you’re never too good to get your hands dirty.”

Campaigners gather at Ihumātao in opposition to the proposed Fletcher Building housing development in 2019. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images).

‘Till the bitter end’

The campaign almost ended before it had even begun.

After their meeting at Matata-Sipu’s home, the group talked to their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties to get a sense of a way forward. Confident they had the backing of their whānau, marae and community, they were shocked to find Fletcher stating they had “mana whenua approval”, despite few in the community being consulted of the decision.

The group made further inquiries and found there were some who had already made commitments with Fletcher. Matata-Sipu says realising not everyone at Ihumātao was in agreement about the best way to proceed meant they were faced with the hard choice about whether to stop, or continue and risk creating divisions within the community.

“That was like a pivotal moment as we’d never in our lifetime moved forward without knowing everyone was on the same page.”

But at a hastily arranged meeting over an ice cream at the Auckland Airport McDonald’s, it quickly became clear what they should do. At the meeting her uncle, kaumatua Maurice Wilson Jr, reminded them of their grandparents’ legacy and in particular the philosophy of being guided by their values, rather than circumstances.

“My grandfather always used to say, ‘if it feels wrong, it’s wrong’, and it felt really wrong. That feeling has guided this entire campaign. We have led with the guidance of our kaumātua and kuia, our parents, and our rangatahi and tamariki. There were certain avenues we would try through the process and if it felt wrong, then we’d just literally drop it and go another way. It’s how we knew instinctively that our tūpuna were guiding us.”

Over the next five years, the group would name themselves Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) and grow their movement, with tens of thousands signing petitions and taking part in events and marches. The group, which grew to include dedicated locals from Māngere and Māngere Bridge, historians, archaeologists, academics and experienced kaitiaki, pursued every legal avenue possible to have the development stopped, including presenting to countless politicians, attending multiple committees and hearings. Pania Newton even took a small group on two trips to the United Nations.

“This campaign would not have got to where it did without the unwavering support of both whānau and non-whānau who dedicated years to this kaupapa. It was never just standing with signs on the side of the road, rather our approach was: how many groups can we speak to? How many politicians can we connect with? How many events can we hold to get people to connect to the whenua? How many schools can we get to incorporate this place into their history, science and geography curriculum? I don’t know how many politicians I’ve met but my dining room table should go into a museum for all the people that have sat around it,” says Matata-Sipu.

Over this same period, there would be several babies born to the original group of cousins, and their respective partners, including Matata-Sipu’s own daughter Haeata te Kapua.

“We each had different roles through this campaign that shifted as our lives shifted. A few of us were campaign spokespeople and when Pania took on that role, she thrived. It fit her so perfectly. This whole campaign has been a waka – people have got on and off, and back on the waka, depending on their life circumstance, but it has continued to move forward.”

But as the years dragged on and the campaign’s different tactics served only to delay Fletcher’s plans, Matata-Sipu, her whānau and their fellow campaigners knew an occupation of the land was increasingly likely.

“Throughout the five years we always talked about occupation, and we were never all on the same page,” she says. “Some of us never wanted to occupy, because we reflected on Bastion Point, where someone lost their life, and knew if anything like that ever happened here, it would be our responsibility. So we were always split about whether the burden would be too heavy, or whether it might just be the thing that would break the deadlock. As things started to get more intense, we met with Fletcher executives and told them not to go ahead with the sale, not to buy the land. We told them they were underestimating that we would not lie down. This is our life, our heritage, our children’s future, and so no matter what, we would fight till the bitter end.”

When police finally came to evict the campaigners off the land on July 23, 2019, it could not have come at a worse time for Matata-Sipu.

“On the day of the eviction, we got a tip off that they were on their way,” she says. “I remember that day so vividly as my daughter had croup so I had to take her to the doctor. So on my way, I drove past the whenua and counted about 20-30 police cars and vans. I actually watched the eviction on Facebook live from the doctors’ waiting room. After we got home, I had to choose between staying home and looking after my baby or going to the whenua. It was a really hard decision, but I just couldn’t stay home. My thought was you might be sick now but we’ll all be sick if this development goes ahead.”

But the scenes that confronted Matata-Sipu were almost too much to take.

“I was just not emotionally prepared,” she says. “It was just before the sun set, and it was so freezing that I could see my breath as I walked up to the crowds of whānau who had gathered.

“I could hear people yelling at the police, my cousins crying, and as I came around the corner, I could see my nieces all singing really beautiful waiata.

“It was really emotional. Everyone was so upset, and as the sun set behind the police, I just fucking cried my eyes out. I was thinking about all the kids, and what they had to see and then also thinking about our grandparents, and all they had done for this place. I was mourning for everything we had lost over generations, for our tūpuna, for our whenua.

“And I thought about my grandfather and how he wouldn’t have let this happen, and as I looked at the sunset, and the maunga, and my nieces singing, I cried out to my tūpuna, saying to them, ‘we need you to be here right now, if we ever needed you – we need you right now’.”

And in that moment Matata-Sipu found the strength she needed.

“It got really dark and really cold, and I was pissed off, and a switch just flicked in me, and I thought, ‘fuck it, we aren’t going to let this happen’, and so from then until the end of November, I don’t remember what I did every day. But I hardly saw my family, I had one to two hours sleep every night. I was just wet, cold, hungry and stressed and there was just too much shit to be done.”

And shit did get done.

On September 18, 2019, following intense discussions between all iwi at Ihumātao, the Māori King Tūheitia Paki announced that mana whenua had come to an agreement they all wanted the return of the land and he called on the government to negotiate with Fletcher. Following subsequent negotiations between all parties, Kiingi Tūheitia returned to the South Auckland site to lower his flag on January 22, 2020, leading to speculation an announcement was about to be made. However no announcement was made, and NZ First leader Winston Peters would repeatedly make it clear he did not want to see Fletcher’s development stopped. The position articulated by Peters, and others, is that by doing a deal at Ihumātao it would undermine “all full and final” Treaty settlements. However, as historian and academic, Dr Rawiri Taonui, points out in some detail in this column, despite a settlement being physically signed at Ihumātao with Te Kawerau ā Maki, the settlement agreement did not include the 1860s evictions or any other ‘matters’ pertaining to Ihumātao, meaning there is no Treaty settlement relating to the land that was illegally confiscated around Ihumātao.

However with the new government elected in October with a clear majority and NZ First’s handbrake being roundly rejected by voters, anticipation was renewed that a solution could be reached by Christmas.

The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flies on the maunga at Ihumātao. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

As the land waits, its people prepare

Over the last year, a sense of stillness has settled over the land. The crowds that flocked to Ihumātao every weekend during the height of the campaign subsided, and the land and its occupiers drew breath in anticipation.

At a press conference following the announcement, co-leader of the SOUL campaign Pania Newton said it was “concerning” the government insisted the Ihumātao agreement was outside the Treaty processes, but today was just a “first step”.

“We are confident the Kiingitanga will ensure a safe process and we are really looking forward to determining what the aspirations are of our whānau and our marae for the whenua.”

For Matata-Sipu, the announcement brought mixed emotions.

“This resolution makes me feel both happy, and sad,” she said.

“Happy that we have reached this point in a very long and arduous journey, and sad that many of those who have fought for the protection of Ihumātao for years, are not here to witness it. We are only who we are because of those who have gone before us. Their dedication to upholding tikanga, their commitment to our taiao [environment], and their aroha for our whenua, awa, moana, marae and whānau is the reason we are here today.”

And even though the fight has taken a lot out of her and her cousins, they will keep going to ensure their aspirations for this land are fulfilled.

“I feel like we’ve been in a constant state of conflict for five years and actually Māori do this all the time – and it’s really fucked that this has become part of our identity as Māori, to fight and to be constantly fighting. But for Māori, it is also part of your inherent responsibility to your community and your whenua, and so you do these things, because that’s what you are called to do.”

Keep going!