Ngarimu Blair was still a preschooler when Joe Hawke led Ngāti Whātua’s opposition to the Muldoon government’s plans for taking their land at Bastion Point. That resistance included the iwi’s 506-day occupation of that land, starting in January 1977 and ending with the police and the bulldozers making their move on May 25, 1978.
The arrests and the work of the bulldozers were by no means a defeat, though, for Ngāti Whātua. That, as it turned out, was just a step towards a resolution of some of the Crown’s greed and blindness. And, after he’d gone on through university, Ngarimu began playing a significant role in shaping the iwi’s growing affluence and influence. He’s now the deputy chair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei.
And, as he tells Dale in this interview, Ngāti Whātua has another battle on its hands, as it fights to maintain its mana whenua status in Tāmaki Makaurau.
Kia ora, Ngarimu. And first let’s hear, if you don’t mind, about the names you’ve been carrying through your life.
I have four names. First there’s Ngarimu — and I’m not sure why I was given what most people think of as a Ngāti Porou name. It was my great-grandmother who named me while my mother was still carrying me. She was from Te Uri o Hau on the northern Kaipara. Unfortunately, I never got to meet her. That was my Nana Mihi from Pouto. She passed away a few months before I was born.
Alan is one of my middle names. It’s actually shortened from Allwyn which is my dad’s father’s name. But my mum didn’t like it. She thought it sounded too old-fashioned, so she turned it to Alan.
But that’s to honour my Pākehā grandfather who, when we were young boys, we were all very proud of. He’d been to World War II and served there as a machine gunner. And he came back home.
My other middle name is Huiroa, which probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to people now when they hear it. Huiroa is one who goes to lots of meetings — long meetings. And that was given to my mum and dad from one of our Ngāti Whātua tohunga, Boycie Komene from Ngāti Rango, in the south Kaipara. He was very influential in my life and my whānau’s life, in terms of our tikanga kawa, kapa haka, te reo, growing up in the south Kaipara.
The surname Blair is from my Scottish side. Our whānau emigrated from Biggar, a border town. I haven’t been there, but it’s on my to-do list. My father’s family went to Invercargill first, then to Wellington, and after that my father found his way to Ngāti Whātua land in Helensville, Te Awaroa.
That’s where he met the cuzzies — my uncles and aunties. He stepped off the train near the Kaipara Tavern, and everybody there fell in love with him straight away.
So yeah, I’m a product of all of those sides of my whakapapa. Proud of all of them too.
And where did you grow up?
The marae where I mainly spent my time were Reweti Marae, near Woodhill Forest, and Haranui Marae, which is on the South Head peninsula. Some people wonder about that background, because I’m often a spokesperson for Ōrākei, but that’s because the whakapapa between Haranui, Reweti and Ōrākei are one and the same.
My grandfather was born at Ōrākei, but there wasn’t much housing there — so, as an eight-year-old, he walked to the Reweti papakāinga with one of his aunties, and that’s why we grew up there.
Now your reo. Was this from your early days at school? Or did you pick that up later in life?
Still on that journey. My grandparents didn’t have the reo. My great-grandparents were both native speakers, but it didn’t get passed down. It was my mother’s generation, having babies in the 1970s, who wanted to change things. And they did that firstly by giving their children Māori names.
And, growing up with my name being butchered by most people, I guess that gives you a sense that something’s not quite right. In my case, it was my Pākehā father, Greg Blair, who insisted on giving all of his kids Māori names.
In our small town, all the Māori kids, whatever iwi they were from, had access to kapa haka and te reo, which in the 1980s was pretty hard to access. Not many at our marae, including our kaumātua, could actually speak te reo. They’d lost it — and were still learning.
Probably it was only when I went to Auckland University, and moved to Ōrākei papakāinga to be closer to university, that I started learning it more intensely. But I was stuck with a big student loan at the end of it, which sucks in a way — having to pay the government to learn the reo that they took away.
You say that your dad, Greg, is the one who championed your taha Māori side. What does it say about his attitude towards . . . well, not towards Māori, perhaps, but towards love?
We’re pretty lucky to have had a father like that. I don’t fully understand what was in him that meant he could cross the cultural bridge so quickly. I think my mum being beautiful was a big part of it, so my dad was a lucky man.
All I can say, perhaps, is that coming into a tightknit Māori community, he felt the connection and the love between the different families. And I think they saw in him someone who could really help our marae and our communities — especially in communicating better with Pākehā.
With the primary schools, with the high schools, the council, and the power-brokers in the Pākehā community he became a conduit. He was able to translate what our iwi were wanting in those areas, and that made it easier to achieve a few things.
For instance, he was a key figure in having a 10-acre block returned in the township of Helensville. One of our tūpuna, Otene Kikokiko, had gifted it to the community for community use. But the Crown and the council had disrespected that koha. So he worked with Sir Hugh Kawharu and my grandad, Wiremu Reweti, to have the remnants of that block put back into the title of the iwi.
Is Greg still with us?
No, he passed away just over two years ago. And my mother passed away in 1998, when I was 22. She passed away at 46, which is what I’m due to turn this year. So, hopefully I can surpass her.
And who are the rest of the Blair clan?
There’s six of us. Three boys, three girls. Tracy-Wiremu, Tarati, Renata, Mihi and Tui. I’m the youngest boy and in the middle. The mediator I guess.
Bastion Point was influential not just for the people on the hill, but also for what occurred afterwards. You wouldn’t have been old enough to witness what was going on then. But, naturally, those events have had an impact on you.
I was a three-year-old, going on four. My only vivid memory of that time is being at the house of my great-grandfather, Piriniha Reweti. He was one of the elders — and they were labelled “conservatives”, doing the backroom deals.
My memory is being at his place, with everyone getting ready for a hui because “Piggy” Muldoon was coming. That’s all I remember. Just that name “Piggy Muldoon”, and being shooed out of the lounge when the Crown limo arrived, but getting to the morning tea cakes before everybody else.
Obviously, I’ve learned a lot more about the different perspectives of that period since then. There was the brave stand that Uncle Joe Hawke led, which I’m absolutely in awe of, and all of those who stood with him. The uncles, but also the aunties, often unsung, all keeping the homes running.
I’m also in awe of the various kaumātua who maintained lines of communication and negotiation with the Crown officials.
It takes all sorts of activism to bring about a result. We need the people who push the boundaries, who test things in a more direct manner. But equally, what’s needed are people who are able to negotiate satisfactory deals which bring together something that everybody can agree with.
When we look at that era, when Uncle Joe and Sir Hugh Kawharu came together in front of a Waitangi Tribunal in 1987, what we have is the beginnings of our revival up at Ōrākei, with the return of some land and of the mana of the marae.
And that was immediately given back to the people. Perhaps too many of our Treaty settlements have seen incredible generosity from our people, bearing in mind the huge losses they incurred and that the settlements were never going to square off the injustices that we suffered.
Yeah, I guess on one level there’s a lingering feeling of anger about not being able to have full tino rangatiratanga over the land. I mean, I wouldn’t mind having a house right on the point there like those on Paritai Drive.
But I think what it shows is that there’s a bigger picture at play, with who we are as Māori, as Ngāti Whātua. I’ve seen it in this case and in other cases too.
Whenever our mana is formally and properly acknowledged and respected with dignity, we will respond by doing something that most people don’t expect — which is to open the door and provide an opportunity leading to greater partnership and closer relationships.
Takaparawhau, Bastion Point, is one such example of that. It just shows the vision. I’m so glad that it isn’t covered in houses. It’s a huge statement of mana that it has its korowai of Papatūānuku growing back, and all of the birds and the insects and other creatures that come with it.
Some years after that successful Bastion Point challenge, you went to varsity in Auckland. What stands out for you during that time?
Even at Kaipara College there was an expectation that our whānau would go to university. I nearly didn’t make it. I attended only just enough days of my seventh form year to be considered for uni. I was off playing a lot of sport — touch and rugby. So, consequently my marks weren’t that great. I just scraped in with University Entrance.
But university, at least initially, was a fantastic experience, being treated like an adult. Coming from a small country school, walking into my first class of 500 students in a geography lecture was both daunting and exciting. And I really thrived at university, academically at first, and socially right the way through.
Spent far too much of my student loan at Shadows Tavern, but I met some great people there of my generation. Like Moana Tuwhare who is doing some special stuff in the north, Rangimarie Hunia, Rawiri Bhana, and Selwyn Hayes. Someone else who stood out was Nanaia Mahuta, who’s someone with a lot of mana.
You still go back there, speaking on the Māori history of Tāmaki, don’t you? Is this an area in which you took a particular interest?
Initially, I had full intentions of being one of these Māori lawyers who’d get our land back. But I didn’t get very good grades. So that meant I had to take some other subjects to get into law school, and the subject I took was geography, which I enjoyed and stuck with — and I ended up with a BA majoring in geography.
But a conjoint with te reo Māori gave me the opportunity to start looking more deeply at the history of Aotearoa and what happened to our people. Particularly, the lectures by Dr Ranginui Walker — how privileged I was to be sitting, listening to his lectures, and also reading his writings in Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou.
It was a period where I determined that I’d probably be focused on resource management and heritage issues, and on how our values were being represented — or not — in Auckland city.
I’m imagining a guy in his early 20s, where you’ve just got your degree. Step us through your career moves, because you’ve started focusing on tribal issues and environmental issues. A love for a whenua and a love for our people. So what geared you up for tribal politics, and how old were you when you first got into that?
My mum shielded me a lot from tribal politics, because there was a lot of inter-whānau tribal debate about who has the right to represent the hapū and the iwi. She shielded me from all of that until I graduated.
Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, through its education grants, which I had applied for along with many of my other cousins, were monitoring who was doing what, and they shoulder-tapped me to apply for a job which was to become the conduit between the tribe and the then Auckland City Council, on resource management and policy. So yeah, very privileged to fall into my dream job.
They’re saying that with the replacement of the RMA (Resource Management Act) they want to give Māori more say, but I fear that it may dilute our role. What would you say of the expected RMA changes and how important might they be to us?
I’m pretty hopeful. Over the last 20 years, what I’ve seen has, in some ways, swung too far. There’s been a Māori over-engagement on resource management issues.
We believe, as Ngāti Whātua, that the Auckland council is consulting too many iwi who shouldn’t have a say in our part of the isthmus.
Still, I’m fairly hopeful that the RMA changes will keep evolving for Māori, that iwi will keep investing in good representatives who can challenge policy and can challenge district plans.
But not only that — also follow through with quality kaitiaki advice around providing infrastructure, green technology, ecology services and all of that.
There are 18 or 19 iwi and hapū who have mana whenua status with the Auckland Council, which I’m sure must frustrate you, and others as well, because consulting with all of the groups is almost impossible.
But this is the way it’s panned out. You’ve worked more with the council and the supercity, probably more than any other Māori I know. What would you say of their willingness to accept all and sundry into the mana whenua pool?
We’re disappointed about their recent approach to mana whenua. One only needs to engage, at a superficial level, with the stories and the histories of the establishment of Auckland, to easily determine who has the mana whenua in the different parts of the wider region.
I think most Māori have a sense about that. So yeah, it’s disappointing that there is a perception that everybody is mana whenua, equally, everywhere. That idea offends most Māori people anywhere in the country.
Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei services a population of about 6000 and has a billion dollars in the bank account. Are we witnessing some tribal jealousies there?
Well, no one was jealous when we had one-quarter of an acre. No one was jealous when we had the city sewer pipe spewing tiko and baby foetuses and amputated arms and legs right in front of our meeting house. No one was jealous when we were pushed to the margins of the city.
We’ve suffered a hell of a lot. We’ve gone to hell and back and never once retreated. We didn’t retire to hinterlands. We didn’t retire to other parts of the rohe. Because there are no other parts of the rohe. This is it for us. And we’ve managed to maintain a foothold — and, I guess to outsiders, it seems that we are doing very well now.
However, as I say, we’ve had seven generations of hell, and why shouldn’t we now maximise the benefits of what’s grown up on our doorstep?
Waikato Tainui have recently laid a historical claim on Tāmaki Makaurau. How galling is it for you to have the Crown use a piece of prominent land in your domain as some sort of settlement with iwi from outside your domain?
The offers to tribes as part of their individual settlements, essentially as an acknowledgment of their mana whenua, right in our heartland, right on our doorstep, really is a step too far.
For example, land at Taurarua Pā in Judges Bay and Waipapa fishing village on Stanley Street, are two such sites offered to Thames-based tribes. These are literally within walking distance of our marae. Waikato-Tainui, too, now have lodged claims as have at least a dozen others over the same small area.
We were pragmatic when a number of tribes protested at our Agreement in Principle offer in the mid-2000s. And through an expression of our mana and our manaakitanga, we wanted all tribes to be able to see a pathway to settlement for themselves. Particularly our whanaunga from Ngāti Paoa and our relations from the former Wai o Hua confederation.
So we entered into the sharing of the mountains, which we say are not signifiers of who has the mana whenua.
But, in recent years, the Crown has unilaterally been using land that we gifted to them to gift to other tribes who, on the back of that, claim equal status to us. That includes land in Mt Eden, in Onehunga, and in Ponsonby, with the receiving tribes claiming they too are mana whenua.
We can’t accept that. We think our generosity is being taken advantage of.
So, we’re in the High Court. We’ll put our case, we’ll put our history, we’ll put everything on the field and leave it all out there. And win or lose, we always know that we are the mana whenua, and our mokopuna will know we put up a great fight which they can see in the historic record when it comes to their turn to fight these battles, if they need to.
Do you sense that there’s the potential for long-term damage to be done with the inter-tribal relationships of those who are challenging Ngāti Whātua’s position? Can those relationships be mended over time, or are we witnessing irreparable damage?
Potentially. We are seeing that. However, we do hold out some hope in that we’ve been able to demonstrate a way through, and we’re proud — and I know Ngāti Paoa are also proud — that we managed to negotiate a kawenata tapu.
That’s a sacred covenant between ourselves, which effectively says they recognise us as the ahi kā mana whenua of Central Auckland, while we recognise their strong historical connections and relationship with the area.
In return, we acknowledge that they are the mana whenua around Panmure-Mt Wellington, and they recognise our hononga, connections to that area. And, on the back of that over the last four years, we have a genuinely positive relationship supporting each other.
We’re also discussing the commercial opportunities in each other’s mana whenua areas, and how we might make commercial arrangements based on the tikanga of each iwi.
So that’s quite exciting. When we look at commercial opportunities in East Auckland, the first thing we do is knock on the door of Ngāti Paoa and say: “We’re interested in this property. Do you approve of us investigating it?”
If they say yes or no, that’s totally up to them. If they say no, we stop right there. It’s as simple as that. Acknowledging each other’s mana can facilitate opportunities between the parties.
Anything else as we come to the end of our chat? I know you’re a family man. Each time I ring up, you seem to be taking your kids somewhere. We’re all hoping to shape an Aotearoa that we can be proud to leave for our kids and their kids. What sort of Māori world do you hope to leave for them?
We made a conscious decision through kura kaupapa Māori, to give our kids the opportunity to move in this world with a strong and exclusively Māori lens, confident in their reo and confident in their tikanga.
So I’m hopeful that the generations following us will be conversant in te reo, conversant in our tikanga — and that they’ll be aware of our amazing tūpuna, and celebrating what they did and what they represent. That’s a huge focus of my iwi work.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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