The airfield in Raglan is set to return to Māori ownership 82 years after it was taken by the Crown.
Angeline Greensill, the daughter of land-rights campaigner Eva Rickard, and Allan Sanson, the mayor of Raglan, tell Connie Buchanan why the decision will help heal a painful history.
Angeline Greensill, Tainui waka
Up until 1941, our people lived their lives on the land which now includes the Raglan airfield. Our name for that land, and the area around it, was Te Kōpua.
Te Kōpua was a really important site. It was the tūrangawaewae of the Tainui people of Whāingaroa. Our people built a meeting house there called Mīria Te Kakara for King Te Rata who ascended the throne in 1912.
It was a thriving and sustainable papakāinga and home to families who lived off the river, the sea, and their gardens. They had 30 cows and were self-sufficient.
In Raglan in those days, the old settlers and Māori got on reasonably well. The settlers had been there for generations, since the ships first came in, and Māori who’d been there for centuries were still living in our own communities on our own land.
When World War Two broke out, our boys from Te Kōpua were blessed by our local tōhunga and they went off to fight in the war. Some of them were just 16 years old.
When they left, they were farewelled from their papakāinga. But when they returned, there was no papakāinga.
Before the war, in 1936, the government had been looking for an emergency landing site between New Plymouth and Auckland, mainly because the postal service at that time was by air. They’d looked around the Raglan area but most of the sites were on Pākehā farms. One of the government officials, Gibby Gibson, spoke to a couple of kaumātua downtown and were told they could use part of Te Kōpua.
Nothing happened until 1940. Then the government used the Public Works Act to take 89 acres for defence purposes. It was made up of 75 acres of Te Kōpua, nine acres of Pāpāhua One, and five acres of Pāpāhua Two.
At that time, Tainui whānau were still living at the southern end of the land. They had no idea that their papakāinga and wharenui were going to be destroyed and they would be homeless.
One of the letters, written by Te Uira Tuteao Manihera to the government at the time, asked: “Why are you taking our land? We need our land to look after our boys when they come home from war.” But, of course, all of that fell on deaf ears. In 1941, the Public Works Department came in with bulldozers.
Imagine coming back after fighting for God, king and country to find your papakāinga destroyed.
My uncle Hāmi (Sam) Kereopa was one of those young men. He served in the Māori Battalion and, like the others who’d returned, he was angry. He spent years regretting not being here to defend his own land.
His mother Riria, who’d refused to move away, was still living south of the airfield on what is now Riria Kereopa Memorial Drive. She sent Hāmi away to live at Te Whaanga (Whale Bay).
For the rest of his life, he used to patrol that whānau land with his gun, protecting it and keeping surfers and disrespectful people out. He was determined that no more Māori land would be taken.
In July 1972, when the Raglan County Council zoned Whale Bay as a scenic reserve, he picked up his gun and threatened to call in the Battalion and fight to the death. The land remains today in whānau hands.
The Raglan County Council, which was the predecessor to the Waikato District Council, had a shocking record in our area. Waitangi Tribunal reports show how, despite opposition, the council used various acts to take Māori land for roads, reserves and other public purposes. The public today enjoy access to lands and beaches while being totally unaware of the history of those places and how they were taken.
After the land was taken, most of our people ended up leaving the area. They moved to Frankton in Hamilton, or they moved up to Auckland, to look for work. They’d never had to work for others before because they’d always lived on their own land, where they were in charge of their own lives. They found work in the railway yards, meat works, or in market gardens. Some of them went overseas. A couple became singers in Australia. Our whole tribe scattered and disappeared.
My mother, Tuaiwa Hautai Kereopa, was born at Te Kōpua. Her whānau was one of the few that refused to move. They managed to stay in the area and she went to the Pākehā school in Raglan, where the teachers gave her the name Eva.
After the war ended, she went to work at the Raglan Post Office, where she met and married my father, James (Tex) Rickard. They helped set up the Tainui Awhiro Young People’s club to fundraise to build a new marae at Rākaunui, across the river.
When my grandparents died, my mother ended up dealing with land and other matters affecting our whānau and hapū. I can remember, in the late 1960s, going with her to a public meeting with the council in the Raglan town hall. It was to discuss plans for a new golf course on land that had been taken at Te Kōpua.
The hall was packed with people, and there were only about five Māori there. My mother asked why the land wasn’t being offered back to Māori. There was no answer. When she later asked, “What about our children?”, the response was that we’d be allowed to walk across that airfield and the golf course, to get to school. We had no power to change what was planned.
From that point on, Tuaiwa stopped working for the community and began fighting for our land and other rights. The ‘70s and ‘80s were years of struggle. It was hard.
Mum was writing letters to Queen Elizabeth, petitioning parliament, talking to Muldoon, to ministers and government officials, getting arrested, going to courts, and trying to get justice. The fight consumed the last 20 years of her life.
In 1977, the Raglan Country Council decided to run a sewage pipe across the land at Te Kōpua and into the harbour. They built the sewage ponds on our sacred taniwha hole, Te Rua o Te Ata, which is the domain of Te Atai ō Rongo.
Then, in the summer of 1978, people began drowning off the Raglan Coast. We knew it was our taniwha. So a group of our tōhunga decided to come and see if they could pacify the elements.
On February 11, 1978, I travelled down from Auckland to watch these 12 tōhunga carry out the karakia the next day. I thought it was going to be a once in a lifetime experience, an amazing thing to see.
But even before they could start, police began arresting people. My mother, who was standing right beside me, was arrested first. They went through the crowd and picked out who they wanted.
We had our kuia trying to climb into the paddy wagon, and the police turning them away, saying: “We don’t want you, dear.” They wanted the well-known activists who were fighting for our land, reo, and workers’ and other human rights. So it was people like Tama Poata, Rowley Habib, Hana Te Hemara Jackson, Jimmy O’Dea, Betty Williams, and Grant Hawke who were arrested that day.
Our purpose for being there was framed as a protest about the golf course land. That’s how it was portrayed by the media from then on. My life changed that day. From that point on, I decided to devote my life to fighting for our rights, our environment, and our whenua.
I believe if you are tangata whenua and you don’t have land, you just float in space. I can’t live with injustice, with things that are still unsettled. To move forward, we need to address past wrongs. If we, as Tainui, can resolve long-standing land issues like the Raglan airfield, then those whānau who belong to that land can plan their future.
In 1987, as a result of the determined efforts of my mother and others, the land used for the golf course was vested back to us. But not the airfield.
So I’m pleased that we’ve got to this part in our journey where now, finally, a decision has been made to also return the airfield to the descendants of the rightful owners. The Waikato District Council has done the right thing.
I was pleased to be present when the resolution was passed unanimously. The councillors received a decent report on the issue from their staff who’d looked into it. They’d all read it and they all came to the same conclusion: Let’s start the process of returning this land to its rightful owners. They listened and they decided to do what’s right.
When I look back, the harm done by the Raglan County Council is still being felt today. They were a different group of people, most of them difficult to work with, and they had all the power. We ended up with a lot of issues that we’re still suffering from. For example, the sewage pipeline into our harbour destroyed our mussel bed, which we’ve had to re-seed.
Waikato District Council is trying to correct a lot of that stuff. It’s slow, but I believe they’re trying.
That particular part of the land, which is the airfield today, belongs to the descendants of Te Ata, Taioparenui and Potikitahi. Many of their descendants have never had the opportunity to touch the land, or to reconnect with their whānau on the Whāingaroa side of their whakapapa.
The great-grandchildren of those who left are the ones we’re searching for now. We’ve actually discovered quite a lot of them. There’ll need to be a lot of discussion among those whānau about what to do with their whenua once it’s back in their hands.
It was so easy to take the land, but it’s going to take a lot of steps to give it back. I live in hope that I will see this happen within the next couple of years. Even if it takes a bit longer, at least finally we’re moving to right a wrong. We can begin to heal the hurt that was created so long ago.
Allan Sanson, Mayor of Waikato District Council
That land has been a bone of contention as long as I’ve been on the council, which is 21 years. It’s always been sitting there as a small, festering sore. But, of course, most of us had never truly understood the history of it.
We knew some of the stuff around the golf course because that was pretty prominent back in the ‘70s. But we didn’t know the history of the rest of the land.
Then, about three or four years ago, one of my councillors, Lisa Thomson, asked me if her sister Taruke (who we also know as Heather) could take us through it all in detail. Taruke sat down with me and a few others from our council. She spent a couple of hours going over the whole story of Te Kōpua and Pāpāhua — what happened, when it happened, and how it happened.
I’m a farmer and I listened from the perspective of my own connections to the land. My family’s been here for a hundred years. I’m eighth-generation Kiwi, so I’ve been here a long time and I have an incredibly strong bond to the land. So I could understand their ties to the land as well.
Sometimes, I did think: “Okay, is this accurate or not?” I needed to have confidence that what I was being told was factual. But Taruke produced enough evidence for me to have the confidence to say: “This is wrong.” We just couldn’t refute the history.
Basically, the Crown had taken the land at the start of the Second World War and then it was never given back. It was transferred into a Crown title, and it was handed to the Raglan County Council. And then we, as the Waikato District Council, inherited it.
At that stage though, there was still some doubt around the exact status of our ownership of it. I was under the impression we were managing it on behalf of the Department of Conservation.
It was probably about 18 months ago that we started talking about it again with our executive staff. I said to the others: “If you take on board what Taruke said as being factually correct, even though we have a title to ownership which is claimed by way of the Crown, it’s morally not right for us to hang on to this land.”
We talked to Tainui o Tainui, Ngāti Mahanga, and to the Newton family, who belong to that land, and they were pretty passionate about wanting to do something for their whānau. First, we talked about a shared role in managing it, or a transfer of ownership with us still managing it on their behalf. We looked at a whole lot of different options.
I didn’t realise at that stage that the council actually owned the land in a fee-simple title. It was only through our lawyers doing some digging that we found out we owned it outright. There was no requirement for us to hand it back to the Department of Conservation, or the government, or anybody else. It was effectively private land. So that made things easier in terms of being able to return it.
Back in about June this year, I had a round table meeting with all the parties, and I said to them: “Look, we’re very strongly of the mind to get this land back to you, now we know how it’s come into our hands.”
We put a paper to council the next month and we invited iwi to the council meeting. I gave them a chance to speak at that meeting. It was Angeline Greensill who took the opportunity to thank us for recognising the history and for wanting to give the land back.
It was an emotional thing, sitting there in our chamber, hearing Angeline speak, knowing there were more descendants of that history sitting in the back. Many of my councillors, and the deputy mayor especially, were very, very strong about us needing to do the right thing.
But we could give the airfield back tomorrow and they can’t do anything with it, because there’s a reserve status on it. Under the Reserves Act, you can’t do anything with land other than what it’s being used for currently — the law just doesn’t allow you to do that. So there’s a process to remove that reserve status.
We do need to give it back to them in a state that is usable. Do they want it back as just general rural land? Do they want it back for papakāinga housing? How do they want it back? I’m not sure whether they’ll be able to build on it because it’s now within a hazard zone too. They might have trouble there. So, the challenge for iwi now is to have a think about how they’d like the land returned, so we can address the zoning of the land.
Even though we’ve made this resolution to return it, we’ll need to go back and consult our community on removing the reserve status. Then there’ll be a hearing, because a number of people will want to submit either for or against. Once that decision is made, then we have to apply to the Department of Conservation to get the reserve status taken off. Then they make a recommendation to the minister. Then the minister has to sign it off.
You can only imagine how long any of this will take. It’s bloody rubbish, to be honest. But that’s the system we’ve got.
So the giving back isn’t going to happen overnight. My best guess is it could take anywhere between two and five years for that to happen. But the fact is that the council has agreed to do it — and we will honour that.
Councils have a lot of land around the place. We don’t even know where some of it is until people point it out to us. I would advocate that we all look in our cupboards and see what’s sitting on the shelf and learn the history of it.
I’m turning 67 next month and I’m stepping down as mayor. I’d like to think that I’ve built good relationships with iwi and hapū in our area and that I’ve recognised changing times over my tenure. My council has also recognised that what happened here wasn’t right.
The land needs to go back to where it came from.
As told to Connie Buchanan, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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.