Before last week, most New Zealanders didn't know the name Ihumātao. Though a battle has been raging there for generations, it largely flew under the mainstream radar, as many Māori stories do. Until recently, I knew very little about it. Like most of us, I wasn't adequately taught about our history at school. When Ihumātao hit the media, I was again reminded of my ignorance.
Since then, I've read everything I could find on the subject. I'm just beginning to grapple with the details, and what I've learned fills me with sadness. It also fills me with a sense of dread. I know too well the kind of backlash Māori issues inspire in the mainstream.
For a group of New Zealanders, what's happening at Ihumātao is just another example of the bloody Māoris squabbling between themselves and standing (with their hands out) in the way of a housing development Auckland needs. As they were, presumably, when they stood (as legal owners) in the way of land that settlers needed to build farms. To this group, the occupiers are troublemakers. As were the people who occupied Bastion Point. I would say that we all know how that turned out, but many don't. And so history is doomed to repeat itself.
Māori issues and politics are notoriously complicated. Our country consists of two worlds, te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā, and while Māori are forced to engage with the Pākehā world daily, many Pākehā have little experience of te ao Māori. As a result, Māori histories are often contorted into Pākehā frameworks that misrepresent them, or consigned to "the past" and ignored.
But Ihumātao is a story of continual oppression that can't be simplified into a couple of bullet points. Ihumātao was confiscated by the Crown in the 1860s. It was taken, not purchased. A phony rebellion was concocted by Governor Grey to justify taking the land. It was then granted to Pākehā settlers, while the mana whenua became landless and impoverished.
A small portion of the land was eventually returned to iwi, and they lived on that tiny sliver of their former estate. In the 1950s, their ancestral mountain was quarried into rubble (to the great profit of its Pākehā owners). In the 1960s, the harbour (their main food source) was closed to them to build oxidation ponds for the city's sewerage system. The iwi's ancestral river was also closed. Adding insult to injury, they weren't connected to the city's sewerage system until 20 years later.
The land in dispute arguably hasn't been appropriately settled by the Waitangi Tribunal. There was a claim in the 80s, but at the time the Tribunal was legally prohibited from considering anything that happened before 1975. The Tribunal did, however, strongly recommend that the Crown needed to find a way to redress the original land confiscation and other illegal actions. A settlement was reached with one iwi in 2014, but Ihumātao was not protected, and other iwi with ties to the land were not included.
In 2008, earthworks at Auckland Airport – which sits on land originally owned by mana whenua – unearthed 90 skeletal remains of their ancestors. Mana whenua had told developers of the burial grounds they were about to disturb. They were ignored.
Until 2012, Ihumātao was legally protected from development by Manukau Council, but its Pākehā owners took the newly formed supercity council to the Environment Court arguing to allow future development. The Court acquiesced, and in 2014 the land was turned into a Special Housing Area, and later sold to Fletcher.
In 2014, when the council turned the land into a Special Housing Area, councillors had three hours to go through 88 proposals. The proposals had been organised into a traffic light system. Councillors were provided with only three pages on the development at Ihumātao. The developer had a green light, as did the engineering firm. The iwi consultation light was yellow, while the local board's was red. Still, the development went through.
Since then, a group called SOUL – made up of mana whenua of all ages, along with supporters from other areas and backgrounds – has been fighting the development using every possible avenue. Before Fletcher purchased Ihumātao, SOUL suggested that they instead bought nearby land owned by Watercare for their development. Fletcher rejected the suggestion. They bought Ihumātao knowing full well that iwi in the area had major concerns.
SOUL next went to councils and courts, with no luck. Not that such a result is surprising. Government and courts have always been adept at taking Māori land. They even went to the UN, which agreed with them, but it wasn't enough to stop the development.
Fletcher consulted with Te Warena Taua, the chief executive of one of the iwi in the area. Taua originally opposed the development, but later tried to get what he could for his people out of the deal. Fletcher agreed to give back a small portion of the land, and to a few other small concessions. While some supported Taua's approach, others were diametrically opposed. In te ao Māori, consensus is key.
Does this story sound fair to you? It sounds familiar to me. It has happened all around Aotearoa. Māori land taken for "public works" that never happened, then sold to Pākehā buyers instead of being returned. Māori landowners billed for compulsory Crown-required land surveying, then forced to cede their land to repay the debt. Even Māori claimants in the Native Land Court being plied with alcohol by Crown agents and encouraged to sign their land away while drunk. All of these things are part of our history, though most of us don't know anything about them.
It's time for that to change. If we want a country where conflicts like Ihumātao become a thing of the past, we need to understand the roots of them, as gnarly as they may be. We must learn about our history in all its complexity and darkness. Only then will we find the light.