- Browse Cases
- Search Cases
- Browse Methods
Indigenous Maoris in New Zealand occupy Pakaitore to claim their sovereignty, 1995
Along the Whanganui River, which flows through the North Island of New Zealand, lies a contested piece of land that indigenous Māori call Pakaitore. The government calls this same land Moutoa Gardens, a public park they created in memorial to those who died in the Battle of Moutoa Island in 1864.
The background to the dispute began in 1839, when English Colonel William Wakefield arrived on the island to build a town at Pakaitore, then a sacred gathering place for the Māori people. Wakefield got three chiefs to sign papers and agree to what he thought was a fair purchase. It is unlikely the Māori chiefs saw it the same way as their people continued to use the sacred land as a marketplace, a gathering place, and a sanctuary.
In 1840, hundreds of Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Monarchy signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which established a British Governor of New Zealand, required the Crown to protect Māori property rights, and gave Māori rights as British subjects. According to the treaty, Māoris were able to file claims with the Waitangi Tribunal to public land they believed was theirs. For years, Māoris had been negotiating historic land claims with the Crown through this process.
In late 1994, the New Zealand Office of Treaty Settlements issued the "Crown Proposals for the Settlement of Treaty of Waitangi Claims" to end this long process of negotiation described above. The proposals, also known as the "fiscal envelope", outlined the full and final settlement of all outstanding Māori claims with a monetary limit of $1 billion. The government, wanting to avoid ongoing negotiation, hoped to take these proposals to the Māori meetings for quick approval. The government had quickly drafted these proposals without consulting Māori people.
A respected elder, Sir Hepe Te Heu Heu, called a major meeting of Māoris which immediately rejected the proposals. Following this, many Māoris throughout the country began occupying land and protesting to assert their tino rangatiratanga, or absolute sovereignty, over the disputed land.
In 1995 the Māori along the Whanganui River near Pakaitore, who had long been fighting to protect the rights of the river, decided to focus their struggle on land in response to the fiscal envelope to protect Pakaitore. Māoris claimed that Pakaitore was the site of a pā, a traditional Māori village, that was left to Māori in the 1839 purchase of Whanganui described earlier.
The city’s District Council denied this claim.
On 28 February 1995 about 150 to 200 Whanganui Māori occupied Pakaitore to demand the return of their land. The demonstrators put up tents, brought in food and cooking facilities, and built a wooden fence.
On 17 March 1995 the council presented a five point plan to the Māoris calling for an immediate response from the protesters. This plan proposed the establishment of a trust to manage the Gardens, research the historical evidence of their ownership, identify other contentious land in Whanganui, re-site monuments offensive to Māori, and oversee the sharing of the Gardens by Māori and Pakeha (people of European descent).
The occupiers did not respond, so the council ordered an eviction notice that allowed the protesters seven days to vacate the gardens. When the deadline passed on 30 March without police action, the occupiers sang in celebration.
On 24 March 1995 the occupiers issued a statement in The Dominion newspaper asserting their sovereignty over the land. It expressed the deep connection that the Māori people have with their land and rejected the idea of land as a commercial commodity to be traded. Referring to Whanganuitanga, their sovereignty as the indigenous people of Whanganui, the occupiers denied Crown sovereignty and reasserted iwi traditional rights and obligations to care for the land and the river.
By the end of March, there was increasing support from other Māori. Supporters of the occupation walked down the main street of Whanganui and up to 1,500 joined the occupants in Pakaitore. Throughout the occupation, the organizers remained nonviolent; they only let those enter who had permission and banned use of recording equipment, drugs and alcohol in the occupied land.
On 10 May about seventy police officers in riot gear raided the land occupation during the night, claiming that the occupation was full of criminals and drug users. Police arrested ten people on minor charges of “breach of the peace” and “assault.”
The protest leaders denounced this raid as preparation for their forced eviction, claiming that the police were trying to intimidate and instigate the occupants. Occupation leader Niko Tangaroa said that the police abused a young man, putting a gun to his head while yelling “Don't move nigger, or I'll blow you away”.
Throughout the occupation, the police regularly harassed and abused occupants. A Whanganui church minister witnessed police circling their cars outside the gardens and abusing occupants with racist insults like "niggers" and "black bastards." The police and District Council also portrayed the occupants as criminals and drug users in the media.
City mayor Chas Poynter initially wanted to resolve the dispute with iwi/council dialogue. The council did not budge, expecting Māori to comply with the eviction notice. Finally the mayor said that the iwi must negotiate with the Crown because they are partners under the Treaty of Waitangi. The mayor called for leadership from central government and National Prime Minister Jim Bolger. The government maintained that it would not get involved with what they saw as a local issue: “We [the Government] just simply are not involved. It is not our land, it is not our park.”
The District Council took the claim to High Court. Māori leaders who were named defendants declined representation at the hearing because they believed it to be a political issue, not a legal one.
On 16 May Justice Heron ruled that the land belonged to the District Council and should be vacated by the protesters who did not own a title to the land. As the Judge ruled it to be privately owned by the district, Māori would not be able to take their claim to the Waitingi Tribunal, which does not accept claims to privately owned land.
On 17 May the Māori decided to end the occupation. Ken Meir, protest leader, said “We were forced to leave, and it shouldn't be lost on anybody that we upheld our dignity”. The leaders stated that they did not want to be thrown into jail. Police were reported to have up to one thousand reinforcements ready to evict the land occupants. The next morning, occupants began to dismantle their tents and fences in preparation for leaving.
On 18 May, at 4:50 a.m. (the same time that they had begun to occupy the land 79 days earlier), the protesters began their march over the town bridge to a meeting place several miles away. Niko Tangaroa said that “Pakaitore is our land. It will remain our land, and we will continue to assert that right irrespective of the courts."
Ken Meir declared, “As long as the Crown buries its head in the sand and pretends that issues of sovereignty and our land grievances are going to go away- we are going to stand up and fight for what is rightfully ours."
This occupation inspired Māori in other parts of New Zealand to organize their own protests and occupations.
Māori commemorated the occupation once each year. In June 1999, when local Māori advised District Council they would stay overnight in Pakaitore to honor the 1995 occupation, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced the government would help resolve the issue.
Within ten months, a tripartite agreement was made between the Crown, the council and the local Māori. They all agreed to cancel the vesting of the Gardens in the Council and give the title back to the Crown. They then jointly managed the Gardens, which returned to its historic reserve status.
This agreement allowed Māori to bring their claims to the Tribunal and enter negotiations. As disputes continued in February 2005, 300 people camped out in the gardens to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the site’s occupation.