Last year, academics Liana MacDonald and Keziah Wallis travelled down the Great South Road, from Auckland to Te Awamutu, visiting sites associated with the Waikato invasion. The field trip was part of their work as research fellows on the Marsden-funded project: He Taonga te Wareware? Remembering and Forgetting Difficult Histories of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
At the heart of their project were three central questions, as they write here.
How do New Zealanders remember and forget difficult events in the colonial past? Why are some conflicts publicly remembered while others are forgotten or overlooked? And who decides?
The invasion of the Waikato, 1863–1864, was the Great War for New Zealand because it allowed the colonial government to assert real control over the country. The fact that, despite its importance, so few in our country know the history of this war suggests they are conflicts our nation chooses to overlook.
We wanted to find out what the sites themselves would reveal about our competing memories of past events. It was also important for us to record our personal responses to these sites. How would they make us feel and what did we think about being there?
The following field notes come from the first two stops on our journey: Ihumātao in Māngere and the Nixon Monument in Ōtāhuhu.
We cannot drive any further. The end of the road is marked by flags and signs, orange cones and big placards. The rain is belting down on the white marquee, so hard that it feels like the pup tents and tarpaulin and pallets shelters will cave in at any moment.
Moments before, we’d driven past a makeshift roadblock. We hadn’t expected any barriers at the site, given that the media was reporting that some sort of consensus had been reached about the “occupation” at Ihumātao. King Tūheitia had stepped in to resolve the standoff, reports said, and was facilitating talks between mana whenua, Fletcher Building, the government, and SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape), although we weren’t really sure of the outcome.
Yet, here we are, and the place feels very much like the simmering activism we’d seen on the TV news. Cool, spray-painted murals with familiar symbols and statements brighten the fence to our left: Protect Ihumātao, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, and Honour The Treaty stamped across a Union Jack.
A busted-up car drives by. Next to the stone wall is a sign that says: SOUL — Stop Orchestrated Underhanded Land Grab. We feel amped up to see all this activism in action. It makes us feel part of something important and real, not like the seat-warming stuff we usually do behind a computer screen back at the office at the university.
We tentatively approach an entranceway, next to it a bright orange sign: Ahi Kaa Zone — Campers Only Please. Recently planted stands of harakeke are just beyond. Another sign of regeneration — a young wāhine in her 20s — beckons us into one of the larger tents.
Inside, we meet a group of “Whenua Warriors” — rangatahi who’ve come from all over the motu to heed the call by SOUL to prevent the housing development that was planned for this whenua.
Māori occupied Ihumātao 700–800 years before the Europeans began arriving. Te Waiōhua hapū and Te Taoū have a rich history of interacting with the landscape, through gardening and burial practices. Much later, the site saw early interactions between mana whenua, colonial soldiers and British settlers. Interestingly, the people of Ihumātao helped to build a house on the site for Lieutenant Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, who later became a leader in the invasion of Waikato.
In 1863, with a firm eye on war in Waikato, Governor George Grey gave mana whenua a choice. They could either leave the land they’d cultivated for hundreds of years, or swear allegiance to the Queen. Some left, believing that their days on the land were numbered, while others were driven out. The fertile plains of Ihumātao then went to work supporting Grey’s soldiers as they laid claim to Waikato.
The Whenua Warriors share an understanding of this history but are more vocal about their relationship to this place and what being on wāhi tapu means to them. They talk about the importance of “reconnecting with the whenua and helping the whenua to remember who it is”. It’s our job to look after the whenua, they tell us.
The birds and the fish and the land are our tuākana. And so, like every tuakana, if you’re in a fight, your older sister or your older brother is going to take the hiding for you because that’s their job.
Well, we’re what the whenua is looking after and look at what’s happening now — our whenua is being stolen, it’s been polluted, it’s not been looked after. There’s shit literally from a hundred years ago still over there, that you can smell sometimes when it’s hot. How much more of a beating can our tuākana take?
We have the power, you know. We have just as much power to look after the whenua as the whenua has to look after us.
The wisdom spills so casually and with such acceptance that our toes wriggle uncomfortably in our black cotton socks. We exit the marquee just as another of the Whenua Warriors comes out of a tiny shelter. His hair is messy and he rubs his eyes. Wooden pallets and planks of wood keep his feet dry. Next to his feet is an array of stainless saucepans, doing their job in this weather. Plant cuttings and flowers in pots are peppered around the tents. This might be temporary, but it sure feels like home.
We scout around outside with a couple of rangatahi, who continue to share stories about their time here. “It’s been really cool to whakawhanaungatanga with all these people, because we didn’t know each other until we came here,” they explain. The relationships they forge with the older generation are particularly valued:
Here, you can just go up and say: ‘Hey Aunty, what are you doing today?’ It starts off with a cup of tea and then, you know, you leave a different person. It’s just mōhiotanga spilling from everyone.
I feel like we [rangatahi] are pretty good at reflecting on what we’ve been through. But these aunties and uncles are so much older than us, they’ve experienced so much more than us, they’ve reflected on way more than us.
The Whenua Warriors talk about being “hungry” for knowledge. The relationships they develop with others helps to ground their relationship with the place they stand; while knowledge of past events, tūpuna, and peoples’ prior relationships with the whenua, similarly serve as a way for rangatahi to find their place in the world.
Like, where am I standing? What happened here? Because if I don’t know this thing about this person, then how many people have been on this land that I don’t even know what happened, if that makes sense?
I know that there’s a mall here, but what was there before that? I know that’s a road here, but where did this road go to before there was concrete? Who made these roads?
Even the Great South Road, finding out that all our tūpuna made it. We don’t get told those kinds of things. I’ve learned that just from being around people here. We’ll be driving and someone will say: ‘Did you know that this road was made . . .’ And we’ll be like ‘Oh . . . hard!’
Ihumātao is really thriving.
We say a warm farewell to the Whenua Warriors. They say they learn from their elders, but they’ve given us a gift. Talking with these rangatahi has moved us beyond a story of “occupation” to one of connection. They’ve shown us how meaningful connections require building or re-establishing relationships with the whenua and each other to understand ourselves.
History is not in the past. It walks with us now.
The Nixon Monument
The Nixon memorial is much harder to find. We check the street signs and our location several times before we’re happy that it is indeed the monument we were searching for. Next to the busy Auckland road is a triangular strip of grass with a statue of a man on a horse. Metres away stands a tall, narrow obelisk.
The road is congested and cars are moving fast down the Great South Road, so we cut inwards down Piki Thomson Way to find a relatively safe spot to park. We jump out of the car when we spot a break in the rain, and approach the monument from different ends.
We find out that the man on a horse is to commemorate the men who had died in service during World War One. Both of us reflect that the WWI acknowledgement feels familiar because the events, places and people from that war are freely memorialised, taught in schools, and publicly acknowledged.
The obelisk is the Nixon memorial. It feels out of place somehow and the words on the plaque seem homeless — perhaps because we know how meaningless the memorial will appear to people who have little or no understanding of the Waikato atrocities.
Some of the inscription reads: This monument is erected by public subscription to the memory of Marmaduke George Nixon, M.H.R. Colonel commanding the Colonial Defence Force and Royal Cavalry Volunteers, who fell mortally wounded in action at Rangiaowhia 21 February 1864.
And: In memory of the brave men who served their Queen and Country in the Maori War. Waikato Campaign 1864.
Rangiaowhia used to be a thriving Ngāti Apakura community, until it suffered one of the most horrific acts of violence in the Waikato Wars. Early in 1864, colonial forces, led by General Cameron and Colonel Nixon, invaded the settlement. Official reports state that approximately 12 Ngāti Apakura were killed and a similar number wounded. But the descendants of Rangiaowhia say that between 100–200 Māori were killed.
What is particularly terrible about Rangiaowhia is that it was a place of refuge for women, children, and the elderly. It was an open village with no fortifications or defences of its own, because the men were stationed nearby at Paterangi pā.
We come to these sites with some insight about what occurred during the Waikato Wars: the invasion, the deception, and the terror. The rangatahi at Ihumātao know this too, and when they stand on the whenua they feel it in their bones.
Here was a starkly different way of thinking about and remembering the violence that occurred in the Waikato.
The memorial is covered with sooty stains. It’s stuck in the middle of a busy road where no one would really feel compelled to stop and look because they’re going about their business.
We stand among the pretty poppies and pansies at the base of the tall monument, and think about our connection to this place, as wāhine Māori. We think about how the silencing of violent colonial histories are sanctioned in our schools, in the media, in government institutions, in urban spaces, and through memorials such as these.
Monuments should evoke a sense of peace and quiet reflection. We feel angry. Here was a gift for a man who did a “grand deed” — but there’s nothing to commemorate the Māori lives who were lost. It isn’t a monument for Māori, but, in its lonely state, it doesn’t seem to be for anyone else either.
Why do we have these memorials if they’re not here to help us remember the past and provide some sort of beacon for the future? Ihumātao was vibrant and alive with rangatahi wanting to connect with the land and tell stories.
The Nixon memorial feels like a dead place.
The rain was starting to get heavier. We take a quick scout around the shops in the area. One retail worker seems to be on a break, so we ask him whether he knows about the monuments across the road. He looks up and squints in that direction, then points out the plaque at the base of each statue. When we persist with our line of questioning, he responds with: “Some say he wasn’t very nice to the Māori,” but admits he doesn’t know much about that. He tells us he’s seen people go over there on Anzac Day.
. . .
For some groups of people, history is something that sits firmly in the past. They view history as being of little consequence as we step forward into an unknown future.
Others recognise that we can’t understand our national, collective or individual identities without being honest about our relationships to the whenua, its histories, and vice versa. To do so, means to think about how the past informs our present, and how every action we perform now is the future promised to our mokopuna.
In 2022, we’ll all have to reckon with New Zealand’s history and our colonial past. How we choose to live with these histories is just as important as what is taught. In this respect, we can all learn a lot from the Whenua Warriors of Ihumātao.
This last thought lingers as we drive away from the Nixon memorial, down the Great South Road, where his troops once marched into the Waikato to Rangiaowhia and Ōrākau.
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.