The Māori Land March on the outskirts of Palmerston North, October 1975. (Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: EP/1975/4202/8a-F)

Last week, we ran a piece from Matariki Williams, one of the editors of Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance, a new book about the history of protest in New Zealand. This week, we’re following up with an extract from the book, taken from the memoir of activist and writer Tama Te Kapua Poata. This is his account of the historic 1975 Māori Land March. 


Issues like those in Te Karanga a te Kotuku were among the reasons the Māori land march of 1975 took place.

Led by Whina Cooper, from Te Hāpua in the Far North to Parliament in Wellington, it gave a clear indication of Māori unrest. Te Roopu o te Matakite was the name given to the group of people involved with that march. It’s an old name and refers to those who had extra vision.

I was a marshal and one of the organisers of the 1975 land march. I decided to go up to the march, and this was not a decision I made lightly. I realised the sacrifice, not just for myself but for my family. The decision to participate was made in conjunction with my wife.

The slogan of the march was Not one more acre of Māori land. Since then, acres and acres of Māori land have gone, so the cry has obviously fallen on deaf ears. Politicians have patronised the leader of the land march, Whina Cooper, by paying tribute to her as “the Mother of the Nation”, yet continuing to utilise the laws to alienate more land from Māori . . .

We were lucky enough to arrive just before the pouwhenua and the great white flag of Te Matakite were being raised. People were marching out of the marae gates, so my hopes of leisurely exploring the Far North were diminished. We realised that we had missed breakfast and although we were tired and hungry, we were grateful to have arrived in time to participate in the history of the occasion.

As soon as we leapt out of the car, we had to start marching back to Wellington with the rest of our Matakite comrades. But we had made it on time and to us that was all that mattered. All this, after leaving Wellington a week before the march was to take place! It seems funny now, but it certainly wasn’t funny at the time.

I felt there was something working against us to get to Te Hāpua, but whatever it was, we got there and participated in the land march and were grateful for being able to do so. I am forever grateful for the generosity of that young solo mother from Marton, Pam, and words cannot express my aroha to her.

That experience indicated the tenacity of three adults and a child. If we really want something done we will do it, one way or another. Barney, Pam and I felt happy with ourselves in passing what we described as our first test. We didn’t know what we were getting into and how we would be received; we only knew that we had left, we were going to march and nothing was going to put us off that. What we were marching into and what we were about to face were burning questions in our minds. . .

When we left and started walking from Te Hāpua, the organisation of the march wasn’t anything to write home about. They did have one bus, belonging to the People’s Union in Auckland, and it looked as if it wouldn’t last as long as our truck did. Strangely enough, even though it did have a couple of minor repairs on the way down, it lasted all the way to Wellington. You could say that it grunted to Wellington, and it got there in better shape than some of the marchers.

Barney and I went to Te Hāpua to just participate in the march, but I became part of a march committee. After the first day, most realised the necessity for a planning group for the day-to-day running. There was already organisation of the food and cordials during the march, with a group of people who were allocated a small runabout truck and responsible for the daily refreshments on the road.

Others travelled in advance of the marchers. They had their problems of liaison and schedules being kept — marchers not arriving at the scheduled places to eat and drink at agreed times, and some people slowing the fast walkers down. Slow walkers were being asked to get on the vehicles; some were almost dropping.

There was constant insistence to get on the bus or other vehicles so that we could maintain our schedule.

A march committee had been organised from Auckland on the basis of just grouping together and deciding who the committee was. Some of the people on the committee were there by decisions of meetings before the march. For example, Whina Cooper was elected to lead the march. Her son Joe was a committee member. Nicky Clark was the secretary and was responsible for money that came in, and receipting it. Betty Wark was responsible for the group preparing the drinks and food on the road. Ama Rauhihi was responsible for the itinerary, the marae we were to call at.

The result was that those people were absent on occasions because they were part of the advance party. Because of this, there was no organising on the day-to-day affairs and during the actual routes — the times we had to do those stretches of road in, the type of terrain we would be marching over (such as gorges and unsafe areas), tapping the knowledge of local people who were marching and who were familiar with the roads we were going through.

Since I had never been north of Auckland until this march, I wasn’t aware of what was ahead of me. But at night I could find out what to expect, by talking with people from the area we were to traverse the next day.

An illustration of this was the Mangamuka Gorge, where the general opinion of the elders was that it was too dangerous for anyone to be walking on that road, even in single file. Even when it was suggested that the individual runners jog the difference, there was an overwhelming opinion, particularly from the old people, that no, you couldn’t do the Mangamuka Gorge because it’s too dangerous. That was the only stretch of journey that we didn’t walk.

My opinion now, after having seen and experienced the Mangamuka, is that we could have done it, but these were some of the things we had to concede for the sake of unity.

In the early stages of the march, it was seen as “rebel” or “outlaw”, so we were getting mixed support from marae and individuals. In the main, there was not much support from marae or local communities until we had arrived at these places. Then the discussions went on and on during the night between the marchers and the local people.

Our kaumātua were leading the discussions for our side because, quite frankly, the marchers were bushed, snoring in their sleeping bags and blankets. Some were even sleeping outside to get away from the talking, unaware of the contentious debate that was so much part of the march.

So while the old people were talking about the kaupapa, the alienation of land, and about history and Te Whiti o Rongomai,Te Kooti, Rewi Maniapoto and so on, as is customary in marae situations, I was immersed in the actual organising of the march.

One good aspect of the march was that the old people like Whina Cooper travelled in cars. They went ahead, and many travelled in the bus. They were able to withstand the onslaught of criticism at night and continue their discussions well into the early hours, while the younger element, the marchers, managed to sleep.

So although the march was led by the elders, it was carried and sustained by the young Ngā Tamatoa and Māori Organisation On Human Rights members. All those young people organised everything and did the donkey work. They were marshals and tireless in their allocated tasks, helping with the planning and day-to-day chores.

The young people on the committee organised the baggage and the transport, and decided the relay groups on the route for every day, and did all the little things that needed their energy. Some people regularly misplaced and looked for their missing gear — “Mr Poata, where’s my pack? Mr Poata, I’ve left my shoes somewhere. Mr Poata, my coat’s not here.” Every morning we had this ritual of finding gear and throwing it in the vehicles. Jobs that seemed to be insignificant, they picked up and did. These activities were mainly out of sight of the media but these young people were actually carrying the march.

They helped others and when new people who joined in the march were lost, they guided them and made sure they were put in the right places. They also protected people. This was to be a healthy feature of the march. Not that it was deliberate, but it seemed to be a natural development.

Mrs Cooper and many other kaumātua were out of the day-to-day running of the march. They got reports afterwards and many decisions the committee made were overruled the following day by these kaumātua. This was a disturbing aspect as far as the young people were concerned. This was one of the things that later created the polarisation between the young and the old. Often the young would make a decision on the continuation and the unity and the strengthening of the march, only to be overruled undemocratically by a decision from the top. It was difficult to maintain unity when these undemocratic proceedings reared their head.

On the first leg of the journey, the marchers weren’t fit. They were hobbling and getting blisters. The first marae we stopped at was about 25 miles out of Te Hāpua. People just collapsed after that first leg. It seemed to me that if this was going to be our march, we were going to be the laughing stock of New Zealand. While the determination and spirit were there, the physical ability was lacking. There was no question about the enthusiasm, but some people had to have medical attention and treatment.

Luckily we had the services of a qualified nurse, a young Pākehā woman who someone discovered had done nursing. Someone also produced medical equipment, embrocation and bandages and such like, and we were able to treat blisters, sprains and strains of those people who were suffering.

From that point, it was decided that we would have a group of fitter people to march longer distances than others, in order that the whole of the road and the journey from Te Hāpua to Wellington was covered.

Being refused entry on marae was a threat that came up from time to time. The few newspapers we received reported that we were approaching places where the local tangata whenua couldn’t accommodate us. Some individuals said that they wouldn’t accept us into their areas because our method was, “not the Māori way to do things”.

Our attitude was that if we weren’t accepted on any marae, we would sleep across the road from their gateways, or continue marching past.

We weren’t actually refused or denied access to any marae. There was certainly some antagonism towards us being there, but it turned out that we weren’t told that we couldn’t go onto the marae. We were relieved about that. The Memorial of Rights was carried from Te Hāpua to Wellington and it was presented at all the marae to be signed by the elders and the rangatira of those areas.

It was signed by many of them, but there were probably some rangatira who avoided signing it. Although the antagonism and undercurrents began to ease from Wellsford (just north of Auckland) when the groundswell was more apparent and people were travelling from greater distances to join the march.

The publicity we received and the attention of the news media seemed to stir Māori in outlying areas to rally to the call of Te Matakite. With this groundswell like the proverbial snowball gathering in size, people were drawn towards it — for their own reasons. The call of Te Roopu o te Matakite — that not one more acre of Māori land should be alienated — was the rallying cry, and people rallied to the march.

In the end, on 13 October 1975, there were over 30,000 people gathered outside Parliament in Wellington.

Often I’ve been asked to describe a typical day on the land march, but there was no such thing as a typical day. Each day had a new look and its own excitement.

Every day we walked new areas and met different people, and there were always things happening — just a group marching and chatting quietly, with the constant tramp of our feet on the gravel and tarseal. We would crack jokes, and it was good to have the humourists there such as Hone Tūwhare and Rowley Habib to help us forget the aches and pains of the task ahead.

Whilst trudging along the road, many people filled pleasant hours relating their reasons for being on the march. Getting an insight into other people, young and old, and their reasons for their participation in the march helped me to clarify my own reasons and consolidate their own principles.

Most typical of the early stages of the march were the aches and pains of the previous day, when we were ready to start out again, but with nagging doubts about our ability to see it through. We all had these pains, but some of us were more skilled at hiding them. While many of the marchers gave the outward appearance of being fit and nonchalant about the walk, I’m sure they were physically suffering in silence. I know I was. It wasn’t till later on that these pains started to disappear and we became conditioned to the marching. Three-quarters of the way down the island, we were much fitter and could have broken into a jog at any stage of the journey if called upon — at some stages we did.

Typical again were the regular speeches at night between our kaumātua and the tangata whenua of the particular area we were in. The march seemed to bring out the best in people. Newcomers arrived; some had hitchhiked, others were dropped off by friends or relatives. We welcomed them and tossed their packs into any vehicle handy at the time. They would join the march and it would renew our excitement, a new personality to discover, a new identity to open up our own souls to, another someone to identify with.

Sometimes they arrived in groups. Some would be uncertain how to approach us. It was heartening that after an hour or two these new arrivals would blend in with the march group and immerse themselves on the marae and identify with the whole concept of a land march. Newcomers were arriving at the start in dribs and drabs and then in waves.

On the approach to populated areas, we would have overwhelming support of locals swelling the march as we walked through their home towns. This was always a boost to us and replenished our strength to carry on to the next main centre.

The first major challenge was with the authorities on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. On our approach, word was sent to us that no way were we going to be allowed to cross the bridge. Some people were all for striking out around the long way, leaving the bridge out altogether and going around the coast road.

Luckily for us, the “militant section” prevailed. The first real signs of division were shown among our people, but we kept on trying to win the bulk of our people over to taking on the authorities and confronting them at the Auckland Harbour Bridge. We had decided that if the march wanted to go the long way around, we would endeavour to rally up as much support as we could and take on the bridge ourselves regardless of the leadership. The leaders of the land march were made aware of the differences and knew that a section of the marchers wanted to confront the authorities and march over the bridge in defiance of them.

When we were two or three miles out from the bridge, we learned that a letter of agreement from the Auckland City Council allowing us to march over it had been dispatched to Whina Cooper. We had mixed feelings towards this news but were relieved because we didn’t want to create division in the march at that early stage of the journey, and particularly when we had hit Auckland, our first major city. We could march over the bridge undivided and in unity on our kaupapa.

Discipline flowed and ebbed from time to time, but one of the most memorable areas of discipline was on the Auckland Harbour Bridge when the bridge started to sway with the momentum of the marchers’ bodies and created alarm, fear and near hysteria.

The discipline of the marshals conducting the marchers over the bridge was something that must be acknowledged. Without them, there would have been incredible panic on the bridge, and without their directions, we could have had a major tragedy on our hands.

In the section I was in control of, there were about 600 people, and it was obvious to me that panic was beginning to set in. I was right up towards the front of the column. When the bridge started swaying, you could see some people beginning to look for an escape route. Luckily for us, there were some painters or workmen on the bridge and I must mention their support. They were very co-operative with us and they clapped us and appreciated our views and attitudes, as we exchanged comments between each other. It was one of these workers who told us that we should slow the walk down. The pace we were making across the bridge worsened the movement. The bridge was swaying more and more, and the gap was widening between both bridges.

At his suggestion, we decided to relay the message back down the column to halt, stop all the marchers where they were, and that everyone was to stay absolutely stock still. We didn’t know whether this would help us at all but we were willing to take this chance, and as we looked back down the long column of marchers, we could see that the marshals were carrying out their instructions and advising participants to stop marching and stay as quiet and still as they possibly could.

Although it only took a few minutes for the message to be relayed back, it seemed hours, and it seemed longer still before the bridge ceased swaying and started to slow down. But slow down it did, and there was a sigh of relief all round.

When we could see that it was the right thing to do, we relayed instructions back through the marshals again that we would divide the column of marchers into sections and go over the bridge section by section, and that everybody must do absolutely what they were instructed by their marshals.

I was given the task of walking back along the column to relay this message (and others were also helping to relay it, going ahead of me) but I saw people in the crowd that I knew, and some people were tugging at me and asking what had happened and what were the causes, and I explained as well as I could what I was told by the workmen up top what the causes were.

As I worked my way slowly back down the column, I felt relief among the marchers themselves, particularly the old ones and the mothers with children. I could see some grateful relief in many of their faces and I couldn’t blame them one bit . . .

During the last leg, we again defied the authorities and decided to march up the motorway from Porirua to Wellington. Because we had the numbers, because emotions were high and because of other important factors like the public support toward us, the authorities were quick to back down, and they once more conceded access along a no-pedestrian motorway.

Again we had a section of the marchers who wanted to shy away from the confrontation, and march up the backroads through Linden, Tawa and Johnsonville and thus on into Wellington. But all due thanks to the militants, the back bone and the hard core of the march of Te Roopu o te Matakite, the authorities conceded and we marched on the Porirua motorway.

Rounding the bend of Lambton Quay and going into Parliament grounds was another highpoint. We were at the railway station, toward the head of the march with the pouwhenua flag fluttering bravely, when messengers from Parliament arrived with the message that they would like us to conduct the march direct from the railway station to Parliament without going through Wellington city.

The reason was that some of the members of Parliament had prior arrangements and might not be able to meet us if we delayed our arrival. They wanted us to go directly to Parliament and save two hours walking around the main streets of Wellington.

The attitude of Witi McMath was answer enough, and his reaction was immediate.

He turned to me after we’d received this message and said: “Tom, we’ve marched all this way from Te Hāpua to Wellington, we’re now in Wellington and they knew we were coming, and now they can just fucking wait for us. We’re going to march through the town, we’re going to take our time, we’re not going to rush. Our people have marched their arses off for the length of the North Island, and today, Tom, this day belongs to us. What do you think?”

Witi and I shook hands and I said to him, “You’ll do me, brother.” There was nothing else to say, and from that point onward we allowed the march to take its own speed and have its own rest stops, and allow our impact to be borne within the streets of Wellington.

This was the correct decision because the Wellingtonians — by their look, the sound, and the encouragement we got — certainly appreciated it on that day.

So the members of Parliament waited, and were there in Parliament grounds to meet us. Whina had sent down a directive to hurry up the march and arrive earlier, but, as Witi had said, it was our day and no one was going to take it away from us.

I went on the land march because I felt it was necessary to get a message across to people. There was a desperate need to do something. The Māori land question and Māori rights gave an opportunity to express how I and other Māori were feeling about being deprived and dispossessed, and generally, about being — while often referred to as tangata whenua in this country — a minority group of people constantly overwhelmed and dominated by Pākehā society and a Pākehā government.

I thought it might be an opportunity to express these feelings and bring them home to people, and to emerge from the marae situation and take it into the homes of people who were basically unaware of the situation and the depth of Māori feeling on the land question.


Excerpt from Poata: Seeing beyond the horizon: a memoir, Tama Te Kapua Poata, published by Steele Roberts, Wellington, 2012, and reprinted here with permission.

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