My whānau and I have watched with growing concern the developments at Ōwairaka/Mt Albert where the Honour The Maunga community group is now well into its second month of campaigning to save 345 exotic trees from being felled.
Even though Honour The Maunga has always spoken from an environmental perspective, it didn't take long for the group to be criticised as being culturally insensitive. Yet none of the group's detractors have attempted to view the issue from a Te Ao Māori perspective that acknowledges the interconnectedness and interrelationship of all living and non-living things.
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As Ngāti Awa ki te Awa o Te Atua, my whānau and I do not own any land, but our deep ancestral, spiritual and cultural connection to Ōwairaka obliges us to protect the places of those areas where our ancestors' footsteps are imprinted. We therefore care deeply about the maunga wellbeing now and forever.
Our views on the tree felling issue need to be understood in the context of the story of our ancestor, the high-born chieftainess Wairaka after whom the maunga was named. She established her mana and mauri over it 800 years ago and her wairua (spirit) flows so strongly through the maunga and surrounds that there are many striking parallels between her own story and today's events.
Around 1250 AD, Wairaka and her extended whānau journeyed to Aotearoa from the island of Mauke in Rarotonga on board the waka Mataatua, which was captained by her father the high chief Toroa.
After making landfall at Parengarenga Harbour they ventured south before settling on the maunga, which was inhabited by Tutumaio (fairy people) led by their chief, Ruarangi. Ōwairaka's whānau lived harmoniously alongside the Tutumaio until the light-sensitive night creatures were caught in the sun and perished.
Many well-known places in the Auckland district bear the whānau names to this very day, including Muriwai (after Wairaka's aunty), Puhinui (after her mother) and Toroa Tce (Mt Albert) / Toroa St (Torbay) after her father and Ngati Awa St in Onehunga. Ruarangi Rd in Mt Albert commemorates the Tutumaio chief who died at Oruarangi stream in Ihumātao.
Shortly after their arrival, Wairaka's father blessed some karaka saplings he had brought from Rarotonga. He planted them on the summit and told Wairaka they would be a symbol of her home should she later wish to return and establish herself there. In an interesting parallel with exotic trees planted on the maunga hundreds of years later, Toroa karaka were also introduced species that reminded him of home. Yet over time we have all come to love karaka and have adopted them as our own.
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After a time, Wairaka's whanau left the region and sailed the Mataatua down the East Coast to Whakatane. Upon arrival, the men anchored the waka and went ashore to set up the camp, leaving Wairaka and the rest of the women and children to wait on board. During this time, it came loose from the anchor stone and started drifting out to sea.
Recognising they were in danger, Wairaka defied the tapu that forbade women to handle a canoe, took hold of Toroa's paddle, and brought everyone back to safety, calling: "Kia Whakatane au i ahau – I will act the part of a man". This cry is the origin of the town's name. Her bravery is commemorated in a bronze statue, which stands on a rock at the Whakatane Heads.
Wairaka subsequently married and had three children. After they grew up and left home, she decided to return to Auckland to be near to a brother, Te Whakapoi, who lived on Puketāpapa (Mt Roskill).
The maunga was still unoccupied when she returned, so Wairaka climbed to the summit and lit her fires thus creating Te Pa o Wairaka – the home of Wairaka. She lived there for 30 years, establishing herself as a brave and strong yet fair leader.
From that time onwards the name has been held because of the mana, the authority and physical and spiritual influence that she had. Wairaka became the mountain; the mountain became her.
Wairaka's spirit and memory of her strong personality also flows through the surrounding areas.
Western Springs was formed when she passed urine (mimi) there and placed her eels in the resulting pool, hence the name Te Waimimi o Wairaka. Afterwards, she buried a Keo (powerful stone) at what is now Auckland Zoo, naming it Te Mauri o Wairaka. She also created a spring at nearby Unitec by stamping her foot above the aquifer until water sprang forth. To this day the spring bears her name - Te Waiunuroa o Wairaka (the long drink of Wairaka).
The maunga Ōwairaka and her trees, birds, insects, etc., have therefore always been of great importance to Ngāti Awa whanui and the people of Mataatua through her son Awanuiarangi, who fathered the Ngati Awa people.
Fast-forward nearly 800 years and Tupuna Maunga Authority's unilateral decision to remove 345 trees from Ōwairaka/Mt Albert. We as the descendants of Wairaka weren't consulted about the proposed plan to remove the trees. It appears that nobody – Māori or otherwise – were consulted even though they should have been.
From a Te Ao Māori perspective, the authority's planned action is shameful because all trees give life and come from Papatūānuku, Mother Earth. Removing hundreds of trees all at once from Ōwairaka, and thousands more from other Auckland maunga, will harm the environment.
Furthermore, it is shameful to see this is a Māori versus Pākeha issue because back in time all of us – people, trees, birds and everything - ultimately came from the one source.
In a more recent context, Te Tawera hapū has also a strong connection with these exotic trees and to our Treaty partners, our Pākeha people. We acknowledge that we as Ngāti Awa Ki te Awa O Te Atua have Scottish family connections that put us right alongside our Pākeha whānau in protecting the trees at Ōwairaka and protecting the Treaty relationship we have with each other.
Ngāti Awa ki Te Awa o Te Atua, Iramoko Marae, Te Tāwera hapū members have on several occasions travelled to Ōwairaka to meet with Anna Radford and the Honour the Maunga group.
In meeting with them and discussing the issue, we have started to develop a strong and meaningful relationship that is based on the shared belief that all trees are the children of Ranginui and Papatūanuku.
Trees provide us with the air that we breathe. They enable us to live in the world and the environments in which we need to be one with all the elements. These trees connect us all to a shared existence in the time dimensions of the past, present and future.
We acknowledge and respect the many other tribal histories imprinted on the maunga in the centuries since Wairaka's return to Whakatane.
These histories are interwoven with Wairaka, as the first to light fire on the maunga, it should never be forgotten that Wairaka and her mana and mauri is still imbued in these historical sites. That's why we need to build positive Māori/Pākeha relationships in order to protect the memory of Wairaka and the environments that she created – at Mt Albert but also at Western Springs, where Auckland Council plans to fell 200 mature pine trees.
As is the case at Ōwairaka, we believe Western Springs' ecology and mauri will suffer if so many trees are felled.
Ngāti Awa Ki te Awa O Te Atua are in full support of Honour The Maunga's campaign to protect all the trees that are growing on our ancestral mountain Ōwairaka, named for the daughter of Toroa and wider to Maiurenui of Tainui and the people of Taranaki.
• Pouroto Ngaropo is the chairman of Ngāti Awa ki Te Awa, Te Tāwera Hapū.