Andrew Robb has led an unusual life for a Pākehā, including, for instance, working as a reo Māori journalist on radio and television. Before that, as a university student, he joined the Bastion Point occupation in 1977. He was there on May 25, 1978, when the 506-day occupation came to an end with the eviction and arrest of 222 people. Last weekend, he was there again for the 40th anniversary of the eviction.
As a relative newcomer to the Māori world in 1977, I was excited by the Bastion Point occupation, but pretty clueless.
I remember going into the Māori Studies Department of Victoria University — it must have been in March that year — to see the secretary, the redoubtable Mere Te Awa. Mere could be very intimidating, but that day she was bubbling with goodwill and excitement.
She showed me a photo in the Herald, a terrific shot from a low angle looking up, across blades of grass and the tines of a rotary hoe, to the serious face of Eruini “Eddie” Hawke, as he ploughed a garden on Bastion Point. I thought: “Gosh, this is serious. They’re planning to be there for a while.”
But Mere couldn’t suppress her laughter. “It’s not even … ” Her voice trailed off into giggles as she tried to explain why it was so funny. “It’s just a … THING!” she exploded, gasping for breath and dabbing the tears in her eyes.
What she meant was that it wasn’t a proper garden. She knew it was far too late in the year to be planting kūmara. It was actually a challenge to the authorities. A very Māori assertion, that the land provided sustenance to Ngāti Whātua: physically, culturally, spiritually, and now politically.
Mere was in a good mood because she knew that Eddie Hawke and his whānau were sticking it to the government, on behalf of all Māori people.
Over 40 years later, just over a week ago, Joe Hawke’s daughter, Sharon, told a crowd on Bastion Point that the late great Denis Hansen had derided Eddie. He said the garden, and perhaps by implication, the whole protest, was too late.
At the end of the season, Eddie presented Denis with a box of kūmara from the garden. The kūmara were so big that three of them filled the box. Denis wept. Perhaps he saw a sign that Rongo, god of peace and agriculture, blessed the occupation.
My first visit to Bastion Point was at Easter that year. A group of friends and flatmates drove up from Wellington in my old van. At the gate, we were stopped and asked if we could take the van to collect some carpet for the new meeting house, Arohanui. I was directed to a school, which had some old carpet stored underneath the buildings. We took it back to Bastion Point, rolled it out, then laid out our sleeping bags.
During the pōhiri, I was struck by Eddie Hawke’s reo. I was not a fluent speaker then, so I could be quite wrong about this. But I got the clear impression of him as a man who didn’t regularly speak Māori. He was obviously a native speaker, but it was as though he was reaching back in time, perhaps to his childhood, for the language spoken by his tūpuna. It sounded archaic, a link to a distant past, to the mana o te whenua.
We woke on Sunday morning to find that Eddie’s wife, Piupiu, had gathered all the children round her for Sunday School. She was a pool of calm amid all the activity, and the kids listened quietly to her story of the persecution, crucifixion, and resurrection of a social justice activist.
Back in Wellington, our flat became the unofficial centre of the Bastion Point Support Group. We organised meetings, hosted speakers, stuck up posters and handed out pamphlets.
We returned to Bastion Point more than once when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon threatened the occupation. During winter the camp was wet, windy and freezing cold — and the ground became a bog. The physical and emotional demands of staying on the land saw numbers dwindle to just a few people each night. But, whenever the government prepared to pounce, supporters rallied and hundreds returned to the camp.
Five-year-old Joannee Hawke died in a fire at the camp one night. I thought about the emotional burden on the leaders, and wondered how the occupation could continue. It suddenly seemed like a life and death struggle. But they proved that they were deadly serious.
Spring came, a year had passed, and the occupation remained strong. Then autumn heralded another winter. Could we last another year?
We’ll never know, because Muldoon appeared on TV one night, assuring the people of New Zealand that the protesters would be gone within a week. This was it!
I was sure the eviction would happen in the early hours of the following Monday morning. In Wellington, I went to a party on Saturday night, committed to going to Bastion Point if I could persuade one other person to join me. Everyone had better excuses than me, so I decided I’d have to go to represent them all.
I set off hitchhiking on Sunday morning. By 3pm I was only in Levin. The next driver to stop was someone I knew from school, who was teaching in Taupō. He offered me a bed for the night, but I really wanted to get to Auckland before the arrests. So he dropped me beside the road out of Taupō, saying he’d come back in an hour to see if I was still there. (No cellphones then.) That meant I could decline a ride that might leave me stranded in Cambridge.
It was pitch dark and freezing cold in Taupō. A driver stopped. He was going to Hamilton. I accepted, because someone who’d been at the party lived in Hamilton, and he owed me a bed. Plus, I might still get to Auckland before dawn.
The driver and I talked. He was recently out of prison, travelling round, looking up mates, sorting out connections. We talked about Bastion Point. We got to Hamilton, and he asked where I wanted to go. I didn’t really know Hamilton — so he said he might as well take me to Auckland. Right to the gate of Bastion Point.
We arrived after midnight. I was questioned by the sentries. How to explain? Then a voice from the dark asked: “Is that you Andrew?” It was my old flatmate Tiata Witehira.
The next week was a life-changing experience for me. My most vivid memory was of working in the whare kai attached to Arohanui.
The facilities were basic. Water came through a garden hose, from a house 100 metres away, to a tap in the kitchen. The wood stove was specially built by boilermakers in the Ōtāhuhu railway workshops. It had a big central firebox, an oven on each side and about four rings on top for big cooking pots. A generator powered a small TV and a couple of electric lights. Water was heated on the stove.
The food supply was a magical mystery. Just when you got down to the last sack of spuds, a truck would miraculously appear with a load of donated cabbages, or a van with trays of fish heads or boxes of taro — and everyone would sigh with relief.
Over the final days, a tide of thousands of people streamed on to the marae from dawn till dark, to share stories of their own oppression and dispossession, with haka and waiata. We could hear them through the walls. I’ve never been on a marae that hummed with energy like that.
When each pōhiri finished, the manuhiri came for a kai. There were 60 seats, 60 plates, 60 knives, 60 forks, 60 cups. People were politely asked to eat up quickly and bring their dishes to the sink. Within seconds, the dishes were washed, dried, refilled and set out again. And again and again, all day, day after day. Everyone got a feed.
As we worked, we listened to radio news reports of convoys of army trucks crossing the city, of all police leave being cancelled, of Muldoon repeating his threats to clear the protesters off the land. I was high on adrenaline.
It was a Wednesday or Thursday when the eviction took place. We were briefed before dawn on the importance of non-violence. One of the four protest leaders, Roger Rameka, was told by Eddie Hawke that he must stay outside the gate, because Eddie wasn’t sure that Roger could contain himself. It was a bitter blow to Roger — but, to his credit, he complied.
I was inside the meeting house. We were told to sit down, to avoid violence. We could hear a helicopter, but the windows were too high for us to see much, except the head of a protester who was standing against the outside wall. We heard a voice using a megaphone.
We heard skyrockets being fired from the roof, to alert Auckland that the eviction had begun. A ladder went up, and we heard footsteps overhead, then boot heels dragging across the corrugated iron as Doc, one of the protesters, was arrested. Suddenly two police helmets appeared at the window and then another protester was also led away.
As the arrests began, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Tears streamed down my face, not because I was scared or angry, but because, at that moment, there was nowhere in the world I’d rather have been than right there with those people. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
We were led on to a bus, and, as we were driven out the gate, I saw Roger marching up and down the fence line, like a raging bull. With tears streaming down his face. On the way to the police station, our bus was overtaken by a car. There was Roger, pumping his fists in the air, still in tears.
After we were processed and released, I got a ride back to Bastion Point in a shuttle car that had been organised for us. It’s hard to describe the scene. The land was still cordoned off, and police were everywhere. Lands and Survey staff were still demolishing the huts that had been peoples’ homes for a year and a half. The meeting house had been bulldozed and the people had almost all disappeared.
The Auckland supporters had gone home, of course. But I was from Wellington, and I had nowhere to go. I retrieved my bags from a shed at Ōrākei marae, and just waited for a while. Then Dianne Prince appeared, and a small group of us established ourselves in another shed at the marae.
We spent a few days there, feeling pretty much out of place. Dianne produced meals from next to nothing — a raw potato became a delicious grated potato fritter, and a fish head kept you going for a couple of days. The crushing force of the eviction left us feeling stunned. But, after a couple of days, the defence committee started organising meetings to help all 222 of us deal with our court cases. Feeling much better, I went back to Wellington to pull myself together.
I returned to Ōrākei just over a week ago for the 40th anniversary of the eviction. The dawn karakia at the memorial to Joannee brought all the memories flooding back. The view of Rangitoto from the camp, the flags, the cold showery weather — and the mud. Without the occupation, this park would all be exclusive housing today.
Ōrākei marae is a different place these days. I love visiting because the changes over 40 years are so striking.
As we were called on to the marae, a school group performed a powerful haka pōhiri in the rain. I couldn’t help being moved to tears again. Those young people were so good — staunch, together, culturally-literate and articulate, confident, playing an important role in their community. There was Taiaha Hawke on the paepae, a schoolboy himself 40 years ago, now holding his own against the best speakers.
In the whare kai, the food was amazing, and the service impeccable. All those young people giving hundreds of manuhiri an unforgettable experience. It was great to catch up with old friends and with people I hadn’t really known before. And to remember those who are no longer with us.
I feel privileged to have lived to see the desperate struggle, and to have seen a dream fulfilled. I was there to support Ngāti Whātua, but I got far more out of the experience than I put in.
Nō reira Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, e kore e ārikarika aku mihi atu ki a koutou, i tū mārō atu koutou i runga i ō koutou whenua ki te whakahē i tōna murunga e te kāwanatanga.
Kei te tangi tonu ki a rātou mā kua ngaro atu; ki a Eruini rāua ko Piupiu, ki a Tumanako mā; ki a Roger rāua ko Colin i mate rā i te whakamomori ki te rangatiratanga o ō rāua iwi, ki a Mike (Jack), ki a Joannee, rātou katoa ko ngā kaitautoko i te kaupapa. Kei te mihi hoki ki a koe Joe, koutou ko Renee, ko Grant, ko Rachel, kia piki te ora ki a koutou ngā mōrehu rangatira, ki ō koutou whānau hoki.
Ahakoa ngā āwangawanga, ngā taumahatanga, ngā whakapae a ētahi, ka tūtuki pai ngā mahi i runga anō i ngā tikanga tuku iho o ō koutou tūpuna, i te rangimārie me te aroha. He huringa nui o ngā whakaaro o te iwi Pākehā mo ngā kaupapa Māori. Kei te waimarie tātou katoa i a koutou.
Ko te rangatiratanga o Ngāti Whātua i ēnei rā, tae atu ki ngā tamariki, koia te tūtukitanga o ngā wawata o te reanga kaumātua i tū ai rātou i te tau 1977. Ka koa te ngākau i te rongo i te mana o te iwi i te rā maumahara. Nā reira taku tangi, aku mihi ki a koutou katoa. Kia ora tātou.
The history behind the occupation at Ōrākei
• In 1840, Apihai Te Kawau and two other Ngāti Whātua chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Apihai then invited the first governor to establish his capital city on the Tāmaki isthmus.
• Ngāti Whātua provided over 3000 acres of land for the new township of Auckland.
• By 1855, the hapū had lost title to all their lands except the 700-acre (280-hectare) Ōrākei Block. The Native Land Court declared it to be inalienable in 1869, but appointed 13 individual owners.
• In 1886, 13 acres at Bastion Point were taken for defence purposes. In 1941, when it was no longer needed, the land was given to the Auckland City Council as a reserve.
• A sewer pipe built along the foreshore in 1912 had interfered with the natural drainage of Okahu Bay, turning the last remaining Māori land around the papakāinga into a swamp. The discharge of raw sewage into Ōkahu Bay disgusted Ngāti Whātua and many people left their village. The Auckland City Council wanted the remaining people to leave, so it refused them permits to build or repair their houses.
• In 1953, the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to drive along the waterfront past Ōkahu Bay. To remove the eyesore of the slum, in 1951 the Crown compulsorily acquired the last 12.5 acres (5 hectares) of the Ōrākei Block. The people were forced from their homes and their marae, and the buildings were burned and demolished except the chapel and urupā (cemetery). Those evicted from the papakāinga were moved into state houses in nearby Kitemoana Street, paying rent to the government that had taken everything they ever owned.
• Apart from the quarter-acre cemetery, the hapū was now landless. Adding insult to injury, in 1959, the Crown established a “national marae” at Ōrākei, over which Ngāti Whātua had no control.
• In 1976, the government announced plans to sell open land at Bastion Point for exclusive private housing. Ngāti Whātua were divided on how to respond. The Ōrākei Māori Action Committee, headed by Joe and Grant Hawke and Mike (Jack) and Roger Rameka, led an occupation of the land to prevent the subdivision.
• The occupation of Bastion Point lasted 506 days. It began on 5 January 1977, and ended on 25 May 1978 (the 507th day), when 222 protesters were evicted and arrested by police.
• After the end of the occupation, Ngāti Whātua filed claims to the Waitangi Tribunal, which the government largely accepted. The government paid the hapū $3 million to help with housing and other development, and passed legislation to recognise the Treaty rights of Ngāti Whātua.
The Ōrākei Act of 1991:
• Officially recognises the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei Trust Board as the representative iwi authority.
• Returns some hapū land in collective ownership, part of it as a tūrangawaewae, and part for development.
• Sets aside whenua rangatira, known as Takaparawhau Reserve, for the benefit of the hapū and the people of Auckland, managed jointly by the hapū and the city council.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.