Why Ihumātao truly is a piece of New Zealand's soul | Lucy Mackintosh

The Guardian Opinions 1 month ago

Until recently, Ihumātao was a quiet, rural area on the edge of Auckland that few people had heard of. Situated on a small peninsula on the west coast of New Zealand’s biggest city, Ihumātao is next to Auckland airport, but locals, tourists and historians alike have tended to focus on the city’s urban areas and its northern coastline. Despite, or perhaps because of, its long, complex and difficult history, Ihumātao has remained outside the consciousness of most New Zealanders.

In July however, Ihumātao hit national and international headlines when a group known as Soul (Save Our Unique Landscapes), which had been occupying land at Ihumātao for several years to protest against a planned major housing development, was served an eviction notice. The situation escalated quickly as police arrived to enforce the eviction, and thousands of people from around the country converged to support Soul. Many saw the stand-off as part of a global movement to assert Indigenous rights that includes protests at Mauna Kea in Hawaii, North Dakota and the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Soul, which comprises mana whenua (Māori with historic and territorial rights to the land) and members of the wider community, argues the development is not appropriate because of the historical and cultural significance of Ihumātao. Some tribal leaders, however, supported the development, having negotiated with developers to ensure they returned a portion of the land to mana whenua and set aside some of the planned houses for local Māori to purchase.

The government initially refused to get involved, backing the tribal leaders who supported the development. As the situation escalated, however, it realised that many local Māori, tribal leaders and members of the wider public did not support the development. The government decided to halt construction on the site until mana whenua had reached a collective decision on the best way forward. After weeks of discussions, mana whenua announced that they would like the land at Ihumātao returned to Māori ownership, and asked the government to work with developers to achieve this.

Protestors gather at Ihumātao. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Despite widespread coverage, it quickly became clear that the government, the media, and most New Zealanders were struggling to understand what was happening at Ihumātao and why it was important. With the exception of a handful of insightful pieces by archaeologists, historians and Indigenous rights experts, there has been a dearth of information on the history of Ihumātao.

Yet Ihumātao is a place that every New Zealander should know. In a city that has destroyed or forgotten most of its past, fragments of Auckland’s deep histories still survive here. It is one of the few places in Auckland where the long narratives of human history can be found in the landscape and in the stories of the descendants who still live there.

New Zealand was the final stop on the 65,000-year journey of the diaspora of modern humans across the world. Archaeologist David Veart explains the significance of places such as Ihumātao, where traces of the earliest inhabitants still remain: “People in New Zealand often say we’ve got no history … Well, what we’re looking at is the end point of the exploration of the planet.”

Mana whenua have ancestral links to Ihumātao that stretch back to the first people to arrive in Tāmaki from East Polynesia. Archaeologists have estimated that Māori occupied the coastline from around 1450, and the lava fields at Ihumātao from the 1500s.

Volcanic rock at Otuataua Stonefields. Photograph: Supplied

Early Māori gathered up the loose volcanic rock on the warm, fertile volcanic soils at Ihumātao to clear the land for cultivation. They built complex wall and drainage systems so that the tropical crops they brought with them from Polynesia, such as kūmara (sweet potato) and taro, could survive. These systems once covered much of Auckland’s 8,000 hectares of lava fields, but have almost all been destroyed by urban development. Today, only 200 hectares remain, half of which are located on the Ōtuataua Stonefields historic reserve at Ihumātao.

Tribal connections with place were formed under as well as above the ground at Ihumātao. The dead were buried in lava caves, returned to the earth so that the past, present and future could continue to grow and bind together. At times these burials come to the surface, reminding people of the hidden histories that coexist with newer senses of place in layers across the landscape. In 2008, archaeologists uncovered and removed 88 kōiwi (human remains) during the Auckland airport northern runway development project.

As well as its deep history, Ihumātao offers very different perspectives on more recent history. After the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi with Māori tribal leaders in 1840, mana whenua invited governor Hobson to establish a government settlement on their land in Auckland. Most of the land surrounding Auckland was taken from Māori within a few years, but at Ihumātao mana whenua continued to occupy and cultivate their ancestral lands.

Ihumātao mission station opposite Manukau Heads, 1855, from Auckland Libraries’ heritage collections. Photograph: Auckland Libraries

In 1846, tribal leaders invited missionaries to build a mission station on the peninsula. Māori helped run the station and school, and built some of the first houses and gardens for European settlers. In early colonial Auckland, Ihumātao was a mixed place, one forged by both existing tribal dynamics and the structures of the British empire.

As settler numbers increased, tribal leaders in the central North Island sought to protect Māori autonomy and resist further sales of their lands by electing a Māori king, a movement known as the kīngitanga. After a series of meetings, one of which was held at Ihumātao, they selected the first Māori king in 1858.

Tensions continued to grow between the colonial government and the kīngitanga, and in 1863, Māori at Ihumātao were ordered to take an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria and give up their arms, or to leave Auckland and join their kīngitanga relatives in the Waikato area. It was a hugely distressing moment for mana whenua, but most chose to support their relatives in the Waikato. This moment, which arguably marked the beginning of the Waikato war, the biggest campaign of the New Zealand wars, has been left out of most histories of Auckland.

After the Waikato war ended in 1864, the government confiscated most of the Māori land on the Ihumātao peninsula and sold it to British immigrants. Mana whenua returned to a small reserve at Ihumātao, where their descendants continue to live today. When the Waitangi tribunal (a commission of enquiry established by the government to investigate Māori claims of breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi) investigated claims arising from the Waikato war, it found that the British invasion of the Waikato had been in direct violation of the treaty. Furthermore, it stated that the confiscations following the war had left an enduring mark on Māori. “For them”, the tribunal report stated, “it is as if the confiscations and dealings occurred yesterday.”

As Auckland continues to expand, its new roads, runways, factories and houses threaten some of the oldest and richest histories in the land. These histories are alive and present for mana whenua at Ihumātao, but they should also be known by all New Zealanders. The recent decision to make New Zealand history compulsory in secondary schools is one step in the right direction. Ihumātao is not a remote site of marginal importance, but a place that should be central to all of us, if we are to understand different perspectives on our history; even those that don’t fit comfortably or easily into the overriding European narratives that have been crafted about our nation’s past.

Lucy Mackintosh is history curator at the Auckland War Memorial Museum | Tāmaki Paenga Hira and has recently completed a PhD in history at the University of Auckland on Auckland’s historic landscapes. A book based on this thesis is forthcoming with Bridget Williams Books

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