A new wave of Maori activism

Issue 

By Maire Leadbeater

AUCKLAND — The first structure to go up on the site of the occupied "Moutoa Gardens", now renamed Pakaitore Marae, was the traditional entrance gate. Tribal leaders assured the puzzled people of Whanganui, an attractive town at the mouth of the Whanganui River, that they were not being excluded but would be welcome to enter if they came to the gate and observed correct Maori protocol.

While Whanganui Mayor Charles Poynter insisted that the occupation was illegal, and attempted persuasion, threats and divide-and-rule tactics, Whanganui iwi (tribes) set about forming a thriving village. Initial media coverage emphasised the presence of "gang members" and "radical activists", but visitors like myself going to offer support met with a community united in a common purpose, taking its guidance from the kaumatua — respected elders.

Since the 1978 16-month occupation of Bastion Point in Auckland by Ngati Whatua, there have been several significant and successful land occupations. This year, however, the national government has sparked a new wave of Maori anger and frustration over land grievances. Despite rejection by a series of tribal meetings, it is pushing its "fiscal envelope" — a proposal to settle all Treaty of Waitangi grievances "once and for all" with a $1 billion offer. Treaty claims currently total $50 billion!

Since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Maori have struggled to maintain tribal control over tribal resources. As a result of the stronger Maori challenge, government documents and departments now give lip service to partnership and treaty rights, but any sharing of power is strictly limited, and the legal system continues to fail Maori. The Waitangi Tribunal, which hears grievance claims, has an enormous backlog.

Whanganui tribes have coined a new word, "Whanganuitanga", to describe the unity they have forged among the tribes of the river, and their intention to establish their own sovereign authority over their resources.

I spent an evening at Pakaitore to the process of dialogue and sharing by which the people determine the tactics and strategy of their struggle and the new law of Pakaitore. The talk is direct, the criticism is blunt, but the atmosphere is full of warmth and respect. Decision-making is drawn out and consensual.

Before the occupation, "Moutoa Gardens" was a public park remarkable only for war memorials and offensive colonial statues, one of which is a memorial to those who fought against native "barbarism" during the 1860s land wars. Now it has a rather solid wood and tarpaulin meeting house and a host of tents. Generators provide power for cooking and for the word processor in the media tent. Early morning tai chi, music, food and speeches fill the days.

Pakaitore is the place where the purchase of Whanganui lands took place between 1839 and 1848. The process involved a familiar saga of greed on the part of the New Zealand Company — the crown's purchasing agent — and agreements reached with people and tribes who had little or no title to the land concerned. Pakaitore was a traditional fishing settlement for hundreds of years and later became a marketplace. The area was considered a sanctuary — a place where all tribes were equal and the police could not enter.

Now well into its second month, the Pakaitore occupation seems stronger than ever. The 150-strong core have weathered redneck anger, police harassment, a threat of eviction and much hostile media coverage. At the same time they have received what they describe as "overwhelming" support from Maori and Pakeha all around the country. As the threat of eviction came close, hundreds flocked to give support and protection.

The Whanganui example has inspired other occupations in the last week or so — in the heart of Rotorua at Whakarewarewa, at a school in Auckland and a university in Hamilton. A new wave of Maori activism is under way and the government and its despised "fiscal envelope" can take a lot of the responsibility.

[Maire Leadbeater is an Auckland regional councillor of the New Zealand Alliance.]