Ngarimu Blair, the deputy chair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust, was interviewed by Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q + A last Sunday morning. Their kōrero (lightly edited here for clarity) covered the iwi’s changing fortunes, the ongoing challenges to its mana whenua status in Tāmaki Makaurau, and why co-governance with Māori (already happening in Auckland) is nothing to be feared.
Jack Tame: Nō hea koe?
Ngarimu Blair: Nō Ngāti Whātua ahau, despite my Ngāti Porou-sounding name. My great-grandmother named me. She’s from Pouto-Te-Uri-o-Hau. I grew up in Te Awaroa, in the South Kaipara, with our people there, around Helensville. Then I moved here to this beautiful papakāinga with our Ngāti Whātua ki Tāmaki people in the Ōrākei Village. And I’ve been here ever since.
We’re here at Takaparawhau, Bastion Point, perhaps the most beautiful part of Auckland. You were just a toddler during the occupation here. Do you remember anything from that time?
My only memory — I must have been three years old, going on four — was coming to my great-grandfather’s house down here. He, Piriniha Reweti, was one of the elders who’d been labelled, I guess, as conservative. Other elders of his generation were negotiating with the government for land to be returned before the occupation, during and after.
I just remember being at his house and being shooed away because Piggy Muldoon was coming. I got to eat a lot of the cakes out the back of the house with some of the hard-case uncles. That’s my only memory.
Piggy Muldoon? You remember that name?
Yeah, when we were kids, that was what everyone called him.
How do you think that occupation has influenced you as a leader?
Looking back and listening to stories from the different families involved, it was momentous and huge. Really stressful as well. It put a lot of strain on the people and the relationships here.
[In 1984, a group of Ngāti Whātua of Ōrākei lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal. A revised claim was lodged in 1986, supported by the whole hapū. Following the Tribunal’s 1987 decision, the government paid $3 million to the iwi and passed a new law, the Ōrākei Act 1991, recognising the rights of Ngāti Whātua of Ōrākei under the Treaty of Waitangi.]
We had the conservatives with the radicals come together to present our case before the Waitangi Tribunal. It takes all different ways to get a result. So we had the families come together, present the story in one coherent way emotionally — and the net result is that we have much of this beautiful land back in our control.
As a leader, what did that resistance teach you?
The perseverance of our people. The ‘78 occupation was a culmination of over 100 years of opposition to the loss of our estate here in central Auckland, and the petitions of various chiefs to get title to this land.
Te Kawau and his nephew Tūhaere constantly petitioned government on the loss of the lands, particularly in Parnell, Taurarua, and the headlands over here. There was Ōtene Pāora, my great-great-grandfather, Renata Uruamo, and so many others — right through to the generation of Uncle Joe Hawke and Sir Hugh Kawharu and Mike Rameka. The occupation was a culmination of all of their efforts.
We are just another chapter, our generation — learning from that, being inspired by it, and ensuring that we stay humble and with our feet on the ground.
Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei once had control of 80,000 acres of land. When you were born, that had been reduced to a quarter-acre urupā. What were you taught about that as a kid?
I grew up in the Kaipara, so I was more familiar with our land loss in those areas, and our parents’ fight up there. And then we were brought here as kids to our great-grandparents’ house and to understand what happened here in Tāmaki.
We lost the vast majority of our tribal estate, right from North Kaipara through to Auckland, before the 1860s, before the Native Land Court was set up. It had a huge impact on us, on our generation.
I mean, we grew up in an era where it was not that fashionable to be Māori. You walked around the streets in the town feeling less than others. And so, most of us have committed ourselves to recover our reo and our stories, so that our kids can learn them and take them for granted, and they can walk tall wherever they are in our tribal area.
Were you taught about injustice?
Oh, yeah. You could see it all around us growing up. My dad was a teacher, so we weren’t as badly off as other whanaunga. But seeing people living in poverty around us, being treated differently in our communities, while knowing that our ancestors were basically the masters of the isthmus and the masters of the Kaipara, and within six or seven generations, that changed to us being paupers — it has a significant impact.
In the time since, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s fortunes have changed — and I’m careful to use the word “fortunes”, because I know that, actually, you probably would suggest that fortune has nothing to do with it. Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei has become the envy of iwi and hapū around Aotearoa. What do you reckon the assets are worth right now?
They’re valued at around $1.5 billion currently. That’s public. That’s in our annual reports. We’re a very transparent iwi about how we manage our finances. But, you know, I still say we’re only getting back to where we were in 1840.
As I said, we were masters of the isthmus through the 1840s and 1850s. We were trading in Rarotonga. We were importing mangoes and bananas. We had seven schooners going across the Waitematā and also the Kaipara. We were practising our rangatiratanga and mana motuhake while working with our new friends and new settlers.
But that all changed in the 1860s, and we’ve been fighting our way back ever since. Really, we only have a small fraction of what’s needed to repair the damage of the last seven generations.
What is needed?
We need the economic strength to be able to stand on our own two feet. So that where the government and council programmes fail us — and they continue to fail us, we all know that, in education, health, environment, everywhere — we ourselves can invest in the things that need to be invested in, without going through endless meetings and bureaucracy and talking to our Treaty partners.
Do you feel like there has been a shift in the last few years, that there is a renewed sense of energy around the revitalisation of te reo Māori and the participation of people in te ao Māori?
It’s been huge. So much so that many Māori can’t get places on te reo courses now because they’re filled by Pākehā. But that’s a healthy problem to have. There’s a real thirst for our culture, but none more so than among our own people. As a result of Covid, we’ve actually had a massive upswing in uptake in our cultural programmes here in the village. We get nearly 200 people now online for our te reo courses.
Covid changed a lot of things for the better, particularly that first wave. I think people wanted a deeper connection. Everyone got to slow down and stop. They connected with the environment. They got out there. They saw fish that they didn’t usually see. They noticed insects they hadn’t seen before. And then people wanted to connect emotionally and spiritually.
So, we had a lot of people reaching out to us — and we were ready for them. It kind of felt like a tide had turned. Finally, our people were ready to learn the language and reconnect with themselves.
With all the lockdowns, there’s a bit of weariness now. But we haven’t seen that around our culture. More and more people are connecting. And now we say to our whānau: “Look, if you miss a couple of classes, we have lots of other people who are all knocking on the door!”
What else do you think the urutā whānui, the pandemic, has illustrated about the status of Māori in New Zealand?
I think our manaakitanga. Our Pākehā friends saw how Māori quickly swung into action. We didn’t wait for the government bureaucracy to move. Right from our small marae and villages through to our large entities, we swung into action. Looking after kaumātua, cooking kai and distributing it to those in need.
We saw how quickly a marae, despite everything they’ve been put through by the local community, the local council and different government departments, is always ready with the doors open — firstly, to look after their own, and then to see what they can do for the wider community.
What do you think of the shift towards more of a co-governance model in New Zealand?
We’ve been co-governing this beautiful piece of land now since 1991. We even own the beach down there, below us, at Ōkahu Bay, where, on a balmy summer’s afternoon, we’ll get a thousand people sunbathing on a Māori-owned beach. We own it in title, and we co-govern it with Auckland City Council.
And I don’t think there’s anything to fear. We’ve brought our values to the table and now we have over a million native trees planted across this landscape. That wouldn’t have happened if not for us. And we still have it for public enjoyment and access as well.
The government’s Three Waters proposal faces a lot of opposition from New Zealanders, and a large part of that opposition stems from the idea of Māori co-governance over those water assets. What would be your message to New Zealanders who feel anxious about Māori having that kind of governance status over those assets?
I think there is more of a genuine concern, and rightly so, around the perceived loss of assets and control by local communities. But, at the end of the day, all Kiwis will own them still, and they will be protected from private sale and privatisation. So, there’s that.
As for the other concern around co-governance, I just say: Look at our track record as Māori in every part of the country. Māori opened the doors for settlement. Look at this city behind us, where we formed a joint venture with the Crown to make thousands of acres of land available for settlement. We housed and fed the settlers.
We didn’t do too well out of that deal in the last six generations, and when we came back to the table to settle all of that, we humbly settled for 2c in the dollar, where most Kiwis know these settlements should be worth a hell of a lot more.
But out of those settlements from the 1990s, we’ve had co-governance here on this land. Think of the Waikato people with their huge losses at the point of a gun. They settled for their river. That is now co-governed, and they are working in partnership.
So, we have all of these examples that we can point to. That’s our great opportunity as New Zealanders: to understand our history a bit better and remove some of those fears. We’ve got a bit of work to do as New Zealanders still.
Over the last few years, you and the council have clashed at times over which iwi or hapū should have mana whenua status in Tāmaki. I’m thinking of the likes of Waikato-Tainui that claim mana whenua status over some parts of Tāmaki. What do you think the council gets wrong?
The council and Crown have kicked this stuff for touch. On the one hand, they say they don’t determine who mana whenua are or who holds the mana. However, they do certain deals, land transactions and acknowledgments that, in effect, acknowledge that some other iwi may have the mana of the whenua in a particular area. So that’s an ongoing issue that we’ve had with the Crown and our council.
But just about every Māori knows that when you go to an area, it’s pretty obvious who the home people are. They’re the ones with a marae, with a papakāinga, with a kura kaupapa, with an urupā, with the waka — and the people who are moving across their lands and still performing the duties of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
For Auckland, we are the tangata whenua. No matter how many meetings council and the Crown invite these others to.
What’s your relationship with Waikato-Tainui like at the moment?
We have good whanaungatanga with Waikato-Tainui. We’re working through their recent claim over here and in the central city. We believe we can work through some nuances where they will recognise that we are the haukāinga, the ahi kā, and we hold the mana.
We in turn can also recognise some of their connections to the place, like we’ve done with Ngāti Pāoa who recognise us here now as the mana whenua. And we in turn recognise they did camp in the areas around here as well.
Do you worry that Ngāti Whātua is losing mana in Tāmaki?
Nah, we’ll never lose our mana. How could we? I can hear the kids laughing and crying and being shouted at over there. They’re the next generation. We’ll never lose Tāmaki.
One of the things that you’ve achieved here is the development of all sorts of different forms of housing. What do you think New Zealand gets wrong about housing at the moment?
It’s the land value that kills. We’re able to build housing for our whānau because we don’t put a price on the land. I mean, it’s priceless, right? So, we’re just building for the cost of construction and insurance and rates.
I think that’s something that the government should look at, where it can leave the land and perhaps get homeowners owning the chattels and the property on top, and passing those on through their families over time.
Here we have a licence to occupy. So, the mana stays with the people, which is us, but it could be government. I don’t think that concept has been fully explored yet outside of a Māori context. That could be a Māori solution for a Kiwi problem.
When you look at the city — he ātaahua, it’s beautiful — but there’s a port in the middle of it. What do you think of that, and would you like to see it changed?
We’d like to see huge changes there. We think we can do much better as a city and as a people to turn that into a great, fantastic asset for all Aucklanders — housing, tourism, business — and generate a lot more fun for Auckland and income for the city.
Give me Ngarimu’s dream waterfront?
I’d probably throw in a rugby stadium somewhere there, where the Warriors and the Blues and the All Blacks can play. And all the other codes as well.
We’ve still got a bit of a grievance over that. We may have gifted that, we may have even sold some of Remuera, but there was never a piece of paper that said we did a deal over the Waitematā.
At the very least, I would see us having strong involvement in the future management of the port. If it moves somewhere else, then we’d want to have a strong influence down there too.
With Phil Goff stepping down, local body elections later this year, do you see that happening any time soon?
Well, he didn’t do it in the last eight years, so I don’t see why he would do it in the last six months.
Okay. But with a new mayor maybe? Have you had a conversation with any of those candidates so far?
In time, we’ll meet with all of them, as we always do. It’s always important for Ngāti Whātua to ensure people understand who we are and our role in the city, no matter their political persuasion.
Have you ever considered politics?
I’ve been in politics since I’ve been about 15, I think. It’s just iwi politics. Whānau politics. I think that other politics would be a lot easier. But probably not as much fun.
Look, I get asked every now and then. You know, my name “Blair” rhymes with “mayor”, and some of my mates gee me up about that. But, seriously, all I’ve ever wanted — along with so many of my cousins now who are back home — is just to be Ngāti Whātua.
Whether the council or government listens to us, we just want to put a purely Ngāti Whātua view out into the world, just as our grandad, great-grandad, great-great-grandad, and our grandmothers did. To put that view to the other side, the other Treaty partner.
I know you’re not where you ultimately want to be, but the progress that Ngāti Whātua Orakei has achieved in the last 50 or 60 years, a generation, is amazing.
If I take a second to think about it like that, yeah, I guess it is.
We were on the brink of complete calamity. As Sir Hugh said, there was a cultural genocide here in Auckland. We were ethnically cleansed from Auckland. All of our relations on our borders were pushed out to the Mangatāwhiri, the northern tribes were demonised, and we ourselves were put under curfew. And just two generations later, we had a quarter of an acre left. We were pushed to the brink of our very existence.
So, granted, we can be pretty happy now. But only for a very brief time, because there’s so much more to do.
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