The chainsaw Mike Smith used on Maungakiekie One Tree Hill in 1994 (Photo: The Single Object)

The Single Object: The chainsaw heard across Aotearoa

Māori activist Mike Smith’s chainsaw attack on the lone pine tree atop Maungakiekie / One Tree Hill was one of the most memorable New Zealand news stories of the 1990s. In this episode of The Single Object, he explains why he did it.

Late one October night in 1994, nearby residents heard the unmistakable sound of a chainsaw coming from Auckland’s Maungakiekie / One Tree Hill. Moments earlier, activist Mike Smith had approached a car full of teenagers parked on the summit. “You’re in a dangerous place here,” he warned them. “I’m just about to drop this tree, and it’s gonna fall on your car.”

What Smith did next remains one of the most memorable – and polarising – acts of protest in New Zealand history.  

“The reaction I was hoping for was a sense of public outrage about the latest shonky deal that Māori were being expected to swallow,” he says. “That was completely drowned out by the outpouring of grief towards the tree.”

The shonky deal Smith refers to was the government’s new fiscal envelope policy – a proposed billion-dollar cap on Treaty settlements, with full and final settlement. In other words, an expiry date on the Treaty of Waitangi.

Māori activists around the country were united in opposition to the fiscal envelope. “If [the government] were going to try and sweep [te Tiriti] back under the carpet, we were going to emblazon its philosophy and kaupapa in the minds of people so that it wouldn’t be forgotten by anybody,” Smith says.

While the plight of the 90-year-old pine may have dominated headlines, Smith and his chainsaw had ignited the fires of occupation. At every consultation hui across Aotearoa, people were united in opposition to the fiscal envelope – and in 1996, the policy was dropped. 

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