interview with Philip McKibbin
Pania Newton (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Waikato, Ngāti Mahuta) is a lawyer and activist. She is among those leading the occupation at Ihumātao, the longest continuously-occupied Māori settlement in Tāmaki-makau-rau. Ihumātao has endured a great history of injustice that continues today, with the ongoing threat of industrial encroachment. Together with her cousins, she established Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL), a campaign to protect and preserve Ihumātao from Fletcher Building Limited’s plans to establish a housing development on ancestral land. Pania, alongside her whānau and community, is devoted to protecting the whenua for future generations, valuing it for its cultural and heritage significance.
I'd love to hear about traditional mahinga kai practices here at Ihumātao.
Many years ago, Ihumātao was known as the place that fed the growing population of Auckland. Some of the beautiful stories about Ihumātao talk about the many waka that were here in our harbour from neighbouring tribes coming to collect kai from Ihumātao. There is other stories about how kai from our whenua was sent to Australia to feed the convicts there, as well as Ireland to our Irish cousins during the famine.
When our tūpuna arrived here from Hawaiki and all across the Pacific, they brought with them tropical plants, such as uwhi, aute, kūmara, hue, and tapa; because these plants were so used to the tropics, being in a newer climate, there was concerns as to whether or not they would survive here in Aotearoa. The scoria that you see on the whenua here, what they used the scoria for was to create tāpapa. Tāpapa are little micro-climates, and within these micro-climates, they would plant the tropical plants, and then they would thrive, because it provided the climate that they were so used to in the tropics. One of the properties that scoria has is maintaining heat, so they provided a home for these plants to thrive.
All across Ihumātao and Māngere, the scoria, and the free-draining, rich volcanic soil here, provided prime and fertile lands for kai to grow, and so they grew thousands and thousands of acres of kai here at Ihumātao. That is why the people of Ihumātao were – prior to the 1860s – considered one of the richest hapū across the motu, because of the kai that they grew here, and because of the wheat mills that they owned all across the Waikato rohe. And during that time, they were also feeding the growing population of Auckland, the convicts in Australia, and it was also said that our people once fed our Irish whānau in Ireland during the Potato Famine, so we were sending kai overseas.
It’s sad to look back and think about the confiscation or theft of this whenua in 1863. The proclamation issued by Governor Grey in 1863 was, in my opinion, an act against Ihumātao by the colonial establishment because they saw Ihumātao as a threat to their settlement. Growing kai is a source of power and a source of wealth, and of course the people of Ihumātao relied heavily on it for their economic base. So what they did was confiscate the whenua, ejected our whānau from their whenua, destroyed the māra that was growing here, and then they replaced it with European farming. We lost our economic base, our means of growing kai and sustaining ourselves. We then heavily relied on the moana for survival – but in the 1960s, after the maunga were quarried away in the ‘50s to build the Auckland International Airport and the roads in Auckland, they filled our moana, with 500 hectares of intercoastal foreshore, and replaced it with oxidation ponds, which were used to process Auckland’s waste. So we lost that means, and I think losing our māra and access to the moana after it became polluted – and many other losses that come with colonisation – we lost our traditional means and tikanga around mahinga kai. Because the moana was polluted and our gardens were destroyed, we were forced to turn to Western food systems that didn’t necessarily align with our traditional means of growing, preparing, and harvesting kai.
Could you tell me about the effects of that disruption?
Through the establishment of the oxidation ponds and the destruction of our māra kai, we turned to Western systems to feed ourselves. That kai doesn’t necessarily fit with our traditional means of mahinga kai, or harvesting kai, and I don’t think it really aligns with our biometrics, or the way that we are physically. Being Māori, and having for so long had traditional ways of collecting kai and eating, it impacted the way that we process kai, and it still does today, because they’re new food systems. It had other impacts around the loss of our tikanga and our kawa around how we processed food and harvested kai and ate kai, and I guess, too, the reo that was lost as a result of land confiscation and the degradation of our taiao – cos there were certain kupu or reo that was associated with different practices, and a lot of the reo is contextual, and so because those customs were lost, so too was the reo that was associated with it.
What role has kai played in the movement to protect Ihumātao?
A huge role, I would say. Knowing the history of this whenua and what once grew here and what our tūpuna were doing here has inspired us firstly to protect the whenua, and to live out our visions of reclaiming the whenua for what it was once used for, which was to feed the growing population of Auckland. It’s fertile whenua, and it makes no sense to us that you would replace such great whenua that’s fed so many people for many generations with housing or developments.
Being involved in our kaupapa and knowing the history, I was inspired to go and study Kai Oranga, which is a Māori food sovereignty course based on hua parakore that is offered through Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi. This course enabled me to bring the mātauranga learnt back to our whenua to help re-establish some of the māra that once thrived here; and encouraged me to change some of my food habits, support the revitalisation of our traditional practices, and of course protect our whenua.
I was also motivated to organise activations around gardening and planting to demonstrate our deliberate political act of resistance against Fletcher’s plans to build housing, and the continued disregard Auckland Council and the Government have towards Ihumātao. Using mahinga kai as part of our kaupapa was also about exercising our tino rangatiratanga and our mana motuhake. Throughout the movement, we have used mahinga kai as a deliberate act of resistance not only to the corporatisation of food, but to reclaim the whenua for what it was once used for, and to positively blockade Fletcher employees and police from accessing the whenua. Why? Because growing kai is positive; it is associated with the atua Rongo-mā-Tāne who is the atua of peace. The planting of kai helped us to keep calm in tense situations that arose on the frontlines often.
One of the other reasons why we decided to grow kai here was because we know how important it is for our kaitiaki to be healthy. Having healthy kai ensures that you have a healthy mind and a healthy wairua, so that was another reason why we promoted vegetarianism over the years that we’ve been in this kaupapa.
In addition, kai koha has played a huge role in our kaupapa, as well. Not only did it help to sustain us, but it gave our manuwhiri and whānau purpose – they felt like they could contribute to the kaupapa by sharing kai koha with us over the years we have occupied our whenua.
You and I met last year, while we were studying te reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. We actually met in the wharekai, and we got talking over vegan food. What initially appealed to you about plant-based kai?
Well, knowing that our tūpuna, their kai base was heavily plant-based – and at the time, that was something I was striving to do, was to change my diet and to reclaim those traditional ways of mahinga kai. And knowing that it comes with so many health benefits, and at the time, too, I was looking at ways to reduce my carbon footprint, so those were ways that I thought I could. Knowing that you were vegan, I guess, sparked the conversation, and helped me to get a better understanding of why other vegans and vegetarians choose to live that way.
Please tell me more about your experiences with plant-based kai.
I was on the waka for a little while, but unfortunately I had to jump off, and that was mostly due to the fact that I was living in a community or hapū setting. It was often difficult to stick to the kaupapa, because you’re living with others who might not share the same kai philosophies as you. It was also hard because the kai koha that was coming through the whenua during the occupation wasn’t always plant-based. Kai is also a sign of manaakitanga, so I often wouldn’t refuse to eat kai koha, as a sign of respect to those offering. Having to go to a lot of hui, too, was a struggle, because I didn’t want to say ‘no’ to the kai that was being offered.
I do intend on getting back on the waka. At this time, it’s very difficult, seeing as we’re still here at the occupation, and again not many people share the same whakaaro, even though that’s something that I’m constantly harping on about. My journey must have lasted with plant-based kai for maybe eight months. It was really tough at the beginning, but over time it got easier, and I just felt much more healthier, and I had a clearer mind. Prior to becoming vegetarian, I experienced a lot of migraines, as well, a lot of headaches, and so going plant-based helped a lot, significantly, to reduce those headaches.
It taught me resilience, probably mostly to overcome other people’s perceptions of vegetarians. One experience, I went over to a whānau gathering, and they were having boil up, and I said that I was vegetarian so I couldn’t have any meat, and they gave me a lot of slack and criticised me for not being Māori, because ‘Māoris eat meat and they love their boil up,’ and, you know, having to overcome that, and being told constantly at different Māori hui that it’s not really Māori to not eat meat and things like that. Yeah, it helped to build resilience. Sometimes it’s difficult to find nice and healthy and clean plant-based kai, or to harvest good veggies, and so I built resilience through that, and patience, waiting for certain veggies to grow in my māra. And having a better appreciation for what was growing and being harvested from our māra was something that I learnt through this journey, as well.
The colonisation of Aotearoa has ongoing implications for Māori kai sovereignty. What can we do here and now to resist alienation and to affirm our rangatiratanga in relation to kai?
I guess it’s about getting educated around what are our traditional ways of mahinga kai; and another way is just to grow your own kai. It’s so easy, and it’s so much fun, and there are so many health benefits that come with growing your own kai. We always encourage people to start off really small, cos you don’t want to go out there and start growing kūmara, which is one of the hardest things to go out and start on and is a big project, and then feel like you’ve failed when you don’t harvest what you’d expect. So I’d say start small by starting with things like silverbeet, which are very weather-resilient, so are easy to grow. It’s just so rewarding when you see it grow, and then that will inspire you to go out and grow other, more challenging kai, and more kai. So, starting with a planter box or a mint pot inside your kitchen, or outside your front door, and learning ways of cooking the kai, as well. I feel like there’s this great disconnection that we have between ourselves and the way that kai is grown and harvested, cos we’ve been so used to going out and buying food in packets or already prepared, and so we lose that appreciation for kai. There are so many things that I think you could do, but the first is just get educated about what some of those things are.
There’s all these kōrero around Māori being meat-heavy and things like that, but when you look into our traditional stories, well, actually, no, Māori were mostly plant-based. So yeah, it’s just about getting educated and then getting out there, getting amongst it. Grow some kai! I’d just say go out there and learn about those traditional ways of growing kai, and especially our own hapū ways of growing kai, because different hapū were well-known for growing or harvesting certain kai. Here at Ihumātao, we grew a lot of kūmara and wheat; we would have traded with other hapū for other kai, and things like manu and things like that which weren’t necessarily prevalent in Ihumātao at that time.
We can also think more consciously about where we are purchasing your kai from and whether or not the food products and producers have collected and processed their kai morally and ethically. I struggle with kai that is grown in farms and things like that, and I’m still getting my head around hydroponics and things like that. If you are gonna be eating eggs and things like that, then go for organic, free-range eggs rather than caged eggs. It’s just being educated about where our kai is coming from. Learning the whakapapa of the kai we consume gives us a greater understanding and appreciation of where it came from; it helps us reduce our waste, as well.
We walk backwards into the future. Ka mua, ka muri. How might the practices of tomorrow develop those of yesterday?
Well, thinking within the context of health, if we start learning about healthier ways of eating and processing our foods, then we could solve many of the health issues that we suffer now or have suffered in the past. Doing these deliberate acts of resistance by growing kai and learning about food activism can help us resist ongoing colonisation here in Aotearoa.
We need to be more innovative in the way that we solve some of the issues that we face today. I think we need to be taking more urgent action, more radical action. I guess for me it’s just about getting out there and doing it and seeing how they impact the issues that we face now, or in the past. Connecting with whenua has so many health benefits – mentally, physically, spiritually – just by having a connection to the whenua, and then you see that connection grow when you connect with the kai that you’re producing. Then you take it up a notch when you start sharing that kai, and the social networks and the social benefits that come through sharing your own kai that you’ve harvested and grown, and when that’s reciprocated. I think that helps with a lot of social issues that we face today.
What are your aspirations around kai for the people of Ihumātao, going forward?
My vision for this whenua, from the beginning – before we started this movement, or this campaign – was to reclaim this whenua for what it was once used for. My vision is to re-establish the māra that were growing here, the native forests that were growing here, such as pūriri and kauri, so that we can see a lot of our native birds come back, we can start seeing people connect back with the whenua, connect back with our traditional ways of mahinga kai, so we can connect back with one another – because we know when you work together in the garden, you connect as people. And my hope is that we can ditch some of those unhealthy, Western ways of having kai, or eating kai, so that we may become more healthier, cos we know that the way that we’re made up as Māori, physically and biologically, isn’t suited to a Western diet. I think reclaiming those practices that were once here at Ihumātao will help us reclaim our mana, and will help us reclaim our sovereignty and our tino rangatiratanga, and help us to reaffirm our mana motuhake. You know, it’s crazy to hear about all the stories of when our whānau used to trade kai and could grow kai on their own properties and then share it out in the papa kāinga, but you don’t see that anymore, because we’ve become isolated, or we lost connection with the kai, and so my hope is that one day we can re-establish those fruit trees, and whānau are exchanging with one another over kai. I look forward to seeing everyone more healthier, and seeing their well-beings enhanced, because we’ll be eating kai that we’ve grown, and kai that we know is healthy, and kai that comes from our own whenua.
My thinking is that if we re-establish those gardens, we can also bring back the mauri of our puna and of our awa, of our moana, and of our whenua, which have been degraded over the years through urbanisation, and I think we could do that simply by growing our own kai and learning about our traditional ways of mahinga kai, which would positively impact on our taiao. Because we know certain kai brings back the mauri, or can help restore some of our puna that are almost lost or have been polluted. For example, the purple taro, which is really good fern, would help to restore our puna and maintain its health.
In addition, I look forward to seeing our native eel return, which has been lost over the years because of the stormwater waste that is being discharged into our awa from the encroaching factories around Ihumātao, which is polluting it, and eroding the banks of our papa kāinga. So if we can deal with all of that stuff, one day I imagine standing proudly and saying, ‘We are the oldest continuously-occupied Māori village here in Tāmaki-makau-rau, and we’re a proud people with healthy water, healthy whenua, and healthy people.’ Yeah!
Interviewed: October, 2019
Published: December, 2019
Published: December, 2019