Ihumātao protectors presenting a petition to the Prime Minister's office asking her to visit the whenua. Image: Leonie Hayden

A damp hīkoi with high spirits – and an unblinking challenge for Ardern

In the ongoing battle to prevent 480 houses being built on ancestral land, a petition with more than 26,000 signatures was delivered to the Prime Minister’s Mt Albert office yesterday. Leonie Hayden was there.

Lead by the inimitable Pania Newton, about 100 kaitiaki set off from Ihumātao near Māngere yesterday morning for the 18km walk to Jacinda Ardern’s Mt Albert office, to deliver a petition inviting the prime minister to visit.

They knew it was unlikely she would be there. Yesterday was a sitting parliament day, although Ardern did make it back to Auckland to attend the Paralympics NZ annual Prime Minister’s Dinner in the early evening. But she has made it clear as recently as this week, at the coronation anniversary celebrations of the Māori king, that she was standing by her decision not to visit the ancient whenua, saying in her address at Turangawaewae marae: “On issues like  Ihumātao, the difficult issues, the hard issues, we will be there, we are there in those conversations… I’ve learned that sometimes, leadership means recognising when you need to create space for others. To let grievance be heard. To hear different ideas. To where these different ideas may compete.

“But to allow the space of others to find by Māori for Māori. I will be there for those hard conversations. I am there. But I’ll also recognise when the seat at the head of the table isn’t necessarily me.”

Still the march forged ahead, a many-headed taniwha of colourful flags and banners snaking its way through the rainy city. There were stops and kai breaks, and plenty of support from passing drivers. School children from Māngere Primary lined the street and sang waiata as the marchers passed by. Safety plans were well in place, with following vehicles to scoop up fatigued walkers and first aid officers on hand. A police escort flanked the march, with more police posted at points on the route.

A map of the route had been shared via social media a couple of days before which outlined a number of pick up points and the time the hīkoi would be passing so that people could join in. Over the course numbers swelled to about 300.

15-year-old Tina* and her cousin missed school to go along (name has been changed because The Spinoff ain’t no nark). They have been spending weekends out at Ihumātao. She told me that if she could talk to the prime minister face to face she would tell her it’s “actually really chill” out there and not to worry.

“No one wants to be angry at her, I think people just want her to feel the spirit. There’s a lot of special spirits out there and if she felt it for herself she would understand more why it’s important.”

Councillor Cathy Casey (left) was among those that approved the land at Ihumātao to become a Special Housing Area. It’s a decision she has publicly stated she regrets. Photo: Leonie Hayden

Artist Cushla Donaldson “grabbed three samosa” and joined the hīkoi in Sandringham with her mum, Erica. A long time supporter of SOUL, she passed on her hope for the prime minister: “I would like her to go to Ihumātao because I think she should just… turn up. Just stop listening to the grumpy old men in parliament and get amongst it.”

Rapper JessB is tall, a former netball player for the Central Pulse, so she stood out among the crowd. She tells me she managed to avoid the rain by joining after it stopped. “I cheated!” she laughed. She had a similar message for the prime minister. “There’s a large group of people that wanna see her do the right thing.”

As with any good hīkoi, the chants carried the crowd along: ‘Tahi, rua, toru, wha, this is Māori whenua. Rima, ono, whetu, waru, time to end this raruraru’. And the familiar cry, as old as the Māori protest movement itself: ‘Ka whawai tonu mātou, ake, ake, ake.’ Struggle without end. Young and old, prams, wheelchair users, Māori and tauiwi were all swept along in the current.

Despite battling heavy wind, rain and sleet, the hīkoi arrived only slightly bedraggled and an hour behind schedule at 2.30pm.

“Nanny Whina” urging Jacinda Ardern to visit Ihumātao. Photo: Leonie Hayden

Upon arriving at the New North Road office, a group of about 100 were already waiting for the marchers, and welcomed them with haka and mihi whakatau. Police had shut down the roads and diverted traffic, so the street quickly became a makeshift ātea for the hīkoi to come to rest after their long walk. Before long chairs appeared for a pae on both sides.

Ihumātao kaumatua Papa Jeff did a mihi to those waiting and called upon the atua to give the crowd strength after their long walk. There were gasps from the crowd as the winds seemed to grow stronger as he called out, “Whakatau mai e ngā hau e whā!” We welcome the four winds!

Pania Newton introduced four tamariki that had lead the way with her on the march. “These tamariki have walked 18 kilometres to get here, to deliver the 27,000 signature-strong invitation to ask Jacinda Ardern to come to our whenua.”

An important delivery. Photo: Leonie Hayden

A staff of three lead by Labour Party aide Barbara Ward emerged from the Prime Minister’s office and came out to accept the petition on behalf of the Prime Minister. Haka broke out as the petition was delivered.

Makaurau marae kaumatua Erueti Rakena thanked them and reassured them they came in peace. “We invite our beautiful prime minister – I think she’s lovely ­– to come to Ihumātao so she can come and feel the love, feel the whenua and he mea ano, we’d like to remind her that this is our last piece left. That’s why we’ve come to give you our presentation today, to let you know we really are struggling for our last piece as mana whenua.”

After a final karakia and waiata the hīkoi came to an end.

Tamariki who walked the entire 18 kilometres presented the petition to Jacinda Ardern’s staff. Photo: Leonie Hayden

Later Rakena told me: “I think [Ardern] will be very surprised about how the land makes you feel. People that have never been there before, they can feel the wairua. It’s just the land talking for itself and trying to say, ‘enough is enough’. As mana whenua and as tangata whenua, we’ve sacrificed a lot. For the airport, for the sewage treatment plants. We’ve lost a lot and this is the last bit we’ve got left.”

He said he was happy to speak for his family at the presentation, but he was clear it’s the younger generation taking the lead. “I was talking with my cousins on the way here on the bus. We’re really happy we’re fighting and that our children, like Pania and my other nephews and nieces, have taught us how to fight. We grew up in that colonised world where the Pākehā was always right. We played by their rules. We used to play on wahi tapu, we didn’t know this land is tapu, this land is sacred. We never spoke te reo, there were no te reo classes. Our kids and our young adults, they’re all speaking te reo. So the next step for us is having an equal say. That’s what the Treaty’s there for. It’s always been one sided.”

He went on to explain that for some older Ihumātao whānau at least, it wasn’t a hard decision to support the occupation of the confiscated, contested land at Ihumātao. “It got to the stage early on where they came to us and said, ‘look, we can’t go any further without your fullas’ support. The marae needs to be backing us’. So as a whānau we said, ‘Are we gonna support our children or aren’t we? Aren’t these the future leaders we’re looking for within our marae? We need to back them 100%’. So that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Land protectors are now on day 30 of occupying ancestral land at Ihumātao so that Fletcher Building can’t begin construction. Photo: RNZ

After the presentation Haki Wilson, spokesperson for the whānau at Ihumātao and co-founder of SOUL, made a statement to media alongside Newton: “The first invitation was sent 23 days ago to our prime minister to come to the whenua to feel and experience what it is like as a tangata. The next invitation was sent out by Pania and some of our whānau as well and yet still she hasn’t come. This invitation to our prime minister is not to come down and sit with us and find a solution, it’s just for her to come and feel the true essence of what we’re feeling… Our people walked all this way in the rain, in the strong winds. Dedicated to this kaupapa. I just want to thank them all. From our hearts to their hearts, thank you, thank you, thank you. And the 25,000 signatures that are on this petition are the people that are sending the invite to you, prime minister so please come to our whenua.”

Buses to return the weary marchers back to Ihumātao for hāngī and hot showers. Photo: Leonie Hayden

He ended by voicing what was at the forefront of all their minds. “I tēnei wā, ka hoki mātou ki te marae ki te kai hāngī me ngā ‘warm showers’.”

While the prime minister confirmed on RNZ yesterday that talks are ongoing through mediation with the Kiingitanga, yesterday’s action was a strong indication that SOUL, Makaurau and Ihumātao whānau will continue to apply pressure to their elected officials until a solution is found that ensures the proposed Fletcher Building development doesn’t go ahead.

In the meantime the message is clear: ‘Just come and see for yourself’.

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