AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND >> A standoff between indigenous groups in New Zealand and a construction company that intends to build homes on land considered sacred has drawn thousands of people to support those occupying the site to prevent the project from going ahead.
The intensifying standoff has challenged New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to make good on her promises to do better by the country’s indigenous people, the Maori, than previous governments did. And it has threatened to tarnish Ardern’s reputation on the world stage for her politics of kindness and tolerance.
“The prime minister has gone around the world saying that she will run a government based on kindness and openness, a progressive government,” said Morgan Godfery, a political commentator, who is Maori. “But they haven’t put in the work to create the conditions for that to actually happen.”
The dispute over the land, known as Ihumatao, threatens to upend widely held beliefs in New Zealand that any tensions between Maori and the government have already been amicably resolved, with the country at the forefront of comparable nations when it comes to relations with its indigenous people.
This week, several hundred protesters occupying the site, a short drive from Auckland Airport — the country’s largest — spent a winter evening around campfires, clutching hot tea and cookies, as a band played Bob Marley songs. Many had brought their children and pitched tents. The site, ringing with music and laughter, had a festival air.
Only the line of police officers on the far edge of their camp signaled that this was no ordinary event.
“I finished work at five o’clock tonight, and I couldn’t think straight because I wasn’t here,” said Casey McCarry — who is Maori — as she handed out chocolate cupcakes to a group at one of the fires. “I’ve come tonight just to help out where I can.”
Like many at Ihumatao, McCarry had joined the protest after learning July 23 that police officers, along with Fletcher Construction Limited — the company planning to build there — had arrived at the site and served the people occupying it with eviction notices.
Just as Ardern, the prime minister, has proved a rallying point for the politics of compassion, Ihumatao — 82 acres of mist-cloaked fields, now dotted with construction company fences — has found its champion too. Pania Newton, 29, a soft-spoken Maori woman acting as the voice of the protesters, has stirred a fervent response — particularly on social media, where young people have propelled the protest into the nation’s consciousness.
“For us, being raised in the Maori context means that when we come into this world, we have an understanding that we are kaitiaki — the guardians — of our rights and our lands and our families and our taonga,” Newton said, using the Maori word for treasures. “We’re the guardians of things that matter to us.”
Newton and members of her family have occupied the land in protest “since the building company laid out their survey pegs” in 2016.
They have an unbroken connection with the place spanning five generations, she said, with family members buried there. Ihumatao was New Zealand’s earliest market garden, and the protesters say that in terms of spiritual, historical and archaeological significance, it is the equivalent of England’s Stonehenge.
When police arrived, the group resisted, and its numbers swelled. An estimated 5,000 people occupied the site last weekend, including many white New Zealanders, as well as a large number of Muslims.
The police presence has since been reduced, but there is no resolution in sight.
“We want the land back,” said Warren Matehaere as he stoked a fire Monday night. “And I think we’ll get the land back.”
The matter is not so simple. The group leading the protest is at odds with others in its iwi, the Maori word for tribe; some of Newton’s relatives supported the land sale to Fletchers in exchange for houses to be allocated to members of the iwi.
The building company acquired Ihumatao from a white farming family who bought it when it was confiscated from Maori by the British Crown in 1863. Court challenges by the protest group over the housing development failed.
“This country likes to think that it’s got past colonization, but it hasn’t,” said Margaret Mutu, a professor of Maori studies at the University of Auckland. “Colonization relies on the indigenous people remaining in poverty, deprived, marginalized and powerless, and that’s exactly what Maori are.”
The conflict goes back to modern New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1840, representatives of the British Crown and Maori leaders signed an agreement intended to bring them together, but breaches and inconsistencies in translation caused subsequent conflict.
Maori are now among New Zealand’s most deprived people by almost every measure, with poor health and economic indicators and statistics showing they face a greater chance of ending up in prison.
In recent decades, the government has worked to reach settlements with various Maori groups to provide some redress for the confiscation of land and subsequent generations of poverty and the erosion of Maori culture. The agreements are intended to be full and final reckonings; the tribe aligned to Ihumatao settled with the government in 2014.
Mutu said young Maori were more empowered and less downtrodden than their forebears and that many no longer accepted the settlements.
“A lot of people have talked to me about settling under duress — they’re bullied into accepting settlements,” she said.
She added it was inevitable that the agreements would be reopened, “it’s just a matter of when.”
The prospect of complicated historical settlements being renegotiated is one the government wants to avoid, and many protesters occupying Ihumatao do not want that either. Instead, they said Ardern should find a way to preserve this particular piece of land as a heritage site or hand it back to Maori.
Three days after police arrived at the site and the protests escalated, Ardern met with the construction company, the Auckland Council and Maori leaders — but not Newton.
“As of now, there will be no building on the land while we take the time to try and work through a solution,” she told reporters Friday.
Godfery, the political commentator, said Ardern’s government was in a bind.
“One of the interesting ironies to note is that her party has the most Maori MPs of any party in the history of the New Zealand Parliament,” he said of members of Parliament. “Yet on three of the biggest issues in the country — all three concerning Maori — they are absolutely stuck.”
In a sign of the lingering tensions, hundreds of people descended on Parliament on Tuesday to protest the treatment of Maori families by the country’s child welfare agency.
Ardern’s name has been on the lips of many at Ihumatao. Among them was Siobhan Grace, who likened the prime minister’s stance to “a piece of white bread with a really, really thin layer of mayonnaise on it.”
“She went to go meet the queen with a cloak of huia feathers, and it’s so special to have been gifted that, to show the world that you have some kind of understanding of indigenous culture,” Siobhan Grace said, referring to viral images of Ardern wearing a Maori cloak when meeting Queen Elizabeth II last year.
“That’s seeing the mayonnaise. And then her silence is taking the bite and tasting nothing.”