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Pania Newton and Qiane Matata-Sipu (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Pania Newton and Qiane Matata-Sipu (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

BooksJuly 23, 2023

Reclaiming Ihumātao: ‘We wanted to be able to tell our kids we tried everything we could’

Pania Newton and Qiane Matata-Sipu (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Pania Newton and Qiane Matata-Sipu (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

Today marks four years since eviction notices were served to a group of kaitiaki who were living on the disputed land of Ihumātao. This edited excerpt from Fierce Hope: Youth Activism in Aotearoa recalls that day, and the efforts to protect the whenua ever since. 

The long, hard struggle to reclaim and protect Ihumātao was spearheaded by a group of six cousins who shared ancestral links to the land. When they first heard of Fletchers’ plans for a high-cost housing development at Ihumātao, they met and formed SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape), which would later morph into Protect Ihumātao.

“We wanted to be able to say to our children: ‘We tried everything we could.’ What we wanted to achieve was to allow the people of Ihumātao to determine the future of our whenua” (Qiane Matata-Sipu, Te Waiohua (Te Ahiwaru, Te Ākitai), Waikato, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pikiao). 

Qiane Matata-Sipu. Image from a forthcoming BWB Talk, filmed at Ihumātao.

The land in question had been confiscated from local iwi in 1863 by the colonial government and later sold into private ownership. 

The campaign to determine the future of the land began in 2015. One key strand of actions was designed to educate people about the whenua. The second centred on the overlapping roles of kaitiaki and ahi kā. Pania Newton (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Mahuta and Waikato) led the occupation of one of the houses on the disputed land in 2016 and established Kaitiaki Village. They gardened and cared for the land, “keeping the heart of Ihumātao and Kaitiaki Village pulsating so that people continued to find purpose within the campaign”. 

Pania Newton. Image from a forthcoming BWB Talk, filmed at Ihumātao

We began the research with Protect Ihumātao in 2018 as part of a larger Marsden-funded project about youth-led activism in Aotearoa, bringing together researchers from Otago, Victoria, and Auckland Universities.  

In 2019 the people living in Kaitiaki Village were evicted from Ihumātao, this time by Fletcher Building. On the morning of 23 July, the small group of kaitiaki living on the disputed land were served eviction notices by a bailiff accompanied by more than a hundred police. Widespread outrage at such heavy- handedness brought thousands to the whenua. 

When we interviewed people about their memories of that day, “the emotional roller- coaster” was evident in tears and the weight of words: “I just felt so angry, so, so emotional that . . . I just wanted to storm through the police and then come to see if my whānau were alright, but we weren’t allowed to do that.”

The protectors claimed the nearby road intersection in front of a police cordon positioned to prevent anyone returning to Kaitiaki Village. One of the protectors described how the road intersection was transformed into a paepae: “The first three days for me, you could see the paepae forming every day, turning into a paepae, turning into an ātea, and I was like we’re ready for Saturday, because we all knew Saturday was the big day that thousands were going to turn up.”

Three days after the police eviction, New Zealand’s prime minister at the time, Jacinda Ardern, halted Fletcher’s housing development until a resolution could be found. Despite the halt, the sheer number of people who came that first weekend consolidated into a mass occupation and reclamation. 

We witnessed first-hand the support and manaakitanga offered to all who showed up to protect Ihumātao. Karen Nairn, who led the project and is based at Otago University, was there the first weekend. She remembers being warmly greeted when she arrived, the volunteers making sandwiches and preparing hāngī food to feed the masses, and the heated exchanges on the paepae. The crowd was diverse. There were all ages, Māori were in the majority, lots of families, babies in pushchairs, people in wheelchairs, people pushing walking frames, young people, Pākehā families, Muslim families, someone mentioned a bishop being there, a Somali group turned up later in the day.

One of the research interviews took place on the frontline some weeks after the eviction when there were fewer police present. Claiming the front line to discuss what the protectors had achieved felt alive with significance. One of the cousins summed it up:  “I think the peaceful, passive thing has really opened a few people’s eyes, because a lot of people are used to going into these things on full force, and they can see that being peaceful and passive actually gets you somewhere. Like the police leave when you’re peaceful and passive. And the government pays a little more attention to you.”

Qiane Matata-Sipu initiated Voices of Ihumaatao as “a comms strategy” to “push the narrative that this is a whānau issue, that this is a number of generations of people, it’s people of different experiences and different backgrounds”. Voices of Ihumaatao is a series of interviews with whānau about why they were there, which was filmed by Conan Fitzpatrick and made available on YouTube. A young woman, Torerenui a Rua Wilson, was part of this series. She imagined her ancestors enduring the eviction of 1863 and described the eviction of 2019. She connected Ihumātao to the whakapapa of Māori resistance movements.

On 17 December 2020 the government announced that it had purchased the disputed land at Ihumātao, and signed He Pūmautanga, a memorandum of understanding between Ahi Kaa, the Kīngitanga, the Crown and Auckland Council to decide the future of the whenua.

As a result of multiple actions on multiple fronts, halting the development was achieved by the courage and vision of the protectors, who inspired so many to support this political movement. Sustaining a political movement is akin to paddling a waka. Different people paddled at different times – some visible, others invisible – all playing a role in the success of halting the development through a kaupapa of peaceful, passive, positive resistance.

Protect Ihumātao marks both a recapitulation and an extension of the defining elements of Māori political movements. The cousins skilfully wove historical knowledge into contemporary protest. They continued important historical legacies, notably the philosophy of peaceful, non-violent resistance; the mahi of younger generations combining with the mana of older generations; and Māori women’s leadership.

The book Fierce Hope documented the political movement to protect Ihumātao from 2018–2020. As the fourth anniversary of the eviction looms, Karen visited the whenua and the newly established offices of Te Ahiwaru, the ahi kaa hapuu, near Makaurau Marae. The kaupapa has reinvigorated hapū and whānau governance, strengthening the collective and uplifting the wellbeing of whānau.

The recovery and healing of land previously used for dairy farming is in full-swing. Central to healing the land is the Repo Project to restore wetland ecosystems, bring native species back, and create a carbon sink. More than 16,000 harakeke and other native species have been planted. The old dairy shed has been repurposed as a nursery for raising seedlings and seed conservation is underway. Vegetable gardens and orchards have been re-established on land with a long historical record of producing fresh vegetables and fruit. The regular monitoring of the landscape to record the recovery of birdlife, waterways and habitat underpins workshops about climate resilience and rongoā Māori. 

During the week of Matariki, Te Ahiwaru launched Te Ihu o Mataoho, an ahikaa-led tourism social enterprise. Diverse groups, including schools, continue to visit Ihumātao to learn about its historic and contemporary significance. The old barn has been refurbished for wananga and the sharing of knowledge. Staff from Te Ahiwaru guide these visitors and are preparing educational resources to enrich these visits and serve the New Zealand history curriculum, which is now compulsory in 2023.

To return to Qiane’s words:

“We wanted to be able to say to our children: ‘We tried everything we could.’ What we wanted to achieve was to allow the people of Ihumātao to determine the future of our whenua (Qiane).”

The people of Ihumātao are living the future of their whenua now.

Fierce Hope: Youth Activism in Aotearoa, written by Karen Nairn, Judith Sligo, Carisa R. Showden, Kyle R. Matthews and Joanna Kidman (Bridget Williams Books, $40) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

Keep going!