“Wellington, here we come” – The Māori Land March (1975) as a claim on urban space

Ani White is a postgraduate Media Studies student.

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City. To subscribe to Fightback’s publications, click here.

Te Matakite o Aotearoa: The Māori Land March is a documentary depicting the Māori Land March of 1975, which was a key moment in the ‘Māori Renaissance’ of the 1970s. A growing, youthful urban Māori movement fused with existing rural forms of Māori organisation to organise the March, which contested urban rhythms imposed by colonisation and capitalism, asserting an indigenous rhythm through unified ways of vocalising and walking in urban space. The narrative of this documentary presents unity between rural and urban Māori, and thereby contests colonial ownership of urban spaces. My analysis draws on European theorisation of urban space, while seeking to supplement its limitations with indigenous and Kaupapa Māori theory.

The city and indigeneity

Urban indigeneity poses a contradiction in colonial mythology. Colonial projects in Aotearoa / New Zealand and in other settler nations such as Canada and Australia have depicted indigeneity as essentially rural, thereby casting urban indigeneity as “inauthentic”. However, this image erases both the reality that most indigenous people live in cities, and that cities are built on appropriated indigenous land. More fundamentally, the call for indigenous sovereignty always has implications for urban space that are often neglected:

“Most cities are located on sites traditionally used by Indigenous peoples… The creation of Indigenous “homelands” outside of cities is in itself a colonial invention. Moreover, for many indigenous peoples, ancestral homelands are not contained in the small parcels of land found in reserves, reservations, and rural Māori and rural Aboriginal Australian settlements; rather, they are the larger territories that include contemporary urban settlements” (Peters and Andersen 7-8)

Indigenous claims could thus be considered in terms of the right to the city, a slogan coined by French Marxist Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre suggested that “the city” as object is always falling away, leaving “the urban” as a surrounding space. He would later begin to more broadly theorise the role of the class struggle in “the production of space,” not simply the city. However, Marxist geographer David Harvey suggests that while Lefebvre’s intellectual legacy may be important to theorising ‘the right to the city,’ actually-existing urban social movements offer more explanatory value. Lefebvre himself similarly contends that “only social force,” in the form of “groups, social classes and class fractions,” can solve the problems of urban space.

The core of Kaupapa Māori has been defined as “the affirmation and legitimation of being Māori”. Although Kaupapa Māori theory has only recently been codified in academic work, its heritage is older, particularly drawing on oral history. I will therefore refer to both the filmed verbal accounts of participants in the march, and more recent Kaupapa Māori scholarship where relevant. Alongside centring the verbal speech acts of movement participants, I will also refer to Michel de Certeau’s discussion of walking as a kind of ‘speech act’ that defines and is defined by urban environments.

Historical context

Young urban Māori played a key role in the ‘Renaissance’ of the 1970s, undermining attempts at assimilation. Before World War II, 90% of Māori lived in rural spaces. The post-war era saw substantial Māori urbanisation, driven partly by state policy, both to meet labour needs and in an attempt at assimilation. However, despite this attempt at assimilation, the majority of urban Māori continued to identify with their tribal heritage. By the 1970s, “radical urban indigeneity” increasingly threatened the state as it mingled with other radical urban currents. Historian Aroha Harris explains the significance of younger, urban, educated Māori layers in the indigenous movement of the 1970s:

“Amongst the many critics [of ongoing land grabs] was a group of Māori university students and graduates, which evolved a few years later into Ngā Tamatoa. Members were young, educated, and urbanised; some were unionists, others experienced political activists. They were leaders and social commentators recently come-of-age, the new face of Māori activism. For Ngā Tamatoa, Māori affairs policy provided some immediate catalysts for modern Māori protest. Although many of the issues they raised were long-standing, like te reo and the Treaty of Waitangi, the reasons for protest and resistance were contemporary, like the politics of integration and marginalisation in the cities. Ngā Tamatoa also heralded a new analysis of the Māori experience of colonisation; one that understood racism and how it worked”.

The production of Te Matakite o Aotearoa: The Māori Land March was enabled in part by these new urban groups; Ngā Tamatoa, the Polynesian Panther Party and New Perspectives on Race (a group involving both Māori and Pākehā) are credited as key coordinators of the film, among others. The Māori Land March of 1975 was also a high point for unity between these younger urban formations and “older rural traditionalists”. New urban groups such as Ngā Tamatoa combined forces with older Māori collectives including the Māori Council, uniting to frame the Treaty of Waitangi as a tool for historical redress.

Cultural critic Brendan Hokowhitu contends that, although won through unified struggle, the ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi Act (1975) and the Waitangi Tribunal came to reproduce exclusion of urban Māori as “inauthentic” Arguably this is a case of the limited “decolonisation” seen in many settler-colonial polities over the 20th century, which saw a transition from classically assimilationist colonisation to a more sophisticated “incorporation by recognition,” leaving underlying power relations largely intact. The decades-long tension between sections of the Māori sovereignty movement, produced partly through negotiation and compromise with the Crown, was prefigured in the aftermath of the 1975 Māori Land March. Differences between young militants Ngā Tamatoa and respected elder Dame Whina Cooper emerged immediately after the march, with Ngā Tamatoa staying at parliament after Cooper had advised them to disperse. Despite this thorny aftermath, the march itself presented a unified front, and Harris concludes that “its dignity has made a permanent impression on New Zealand’s history”.Contention between sections of the movement is not presented in the documentary Te Matakite o Aotearoa: The Māori Land March, which concludes with the march arriving at parliament and presenting its demands.

Talking out and talking in

The documentary Te Matakite o Aotearoa: The Māori Land March “talks out” to Pākehā audiences as part of a strategy for historical redress. Barry Barclay, a Ngāti Apa filmmaker and Kaupapa Māori theorist, considers filmmaking in terms of hui, or conversation based on principles of mutual respect. Barclay suggests a distinction between “talking out” to Pākehā audiences and “talking in” among Māori. This perhaps chimes with Australian Aboriginal (Yiman) sociologist and film critic Marcia Langton’s suggestion that ‘Aboriginality’ in film can be defined by three overlapping fields of interaction – colonial stereotypes of Aboriginality, dialogue between Aboriginal cultures, and dialogue between Aborigines and non-Aborigines. I suggest that while the Māori Land March was enabled by “talking in” among Māori – between different iwi, between young and old, between urban and rural Māori – the documentary and march are also acts of “talking out” to Pākehā. As a Pākehā viewer, I seek to engage in the dialogical space created by the film.

On an institutional level, the documentary was produced for TV2, with a majority-Pākehā audience. Within the film, use of Te Reo Māori is usually repeated in English (especially in interviews and narration). This implies an audience that speaks English and not Te Reo Māori – not necessarily a Pākehā audience, but certainly including Pākehā. At the beginning of the film, prominent activist Eva Rickards explains the significance of whenua to Māori people, again implying an audience that may not be versed in Te Ao Māori, yet grounding the story in that world. In an interview after the outset of the march, leading Ngā Tamatoa member Tama Poata explains that he considers Pākehā awareness to be one of the movement’s key goals:

“Something extraordinary has to be done about [land theft], to make the bulk of New Zealanders aware of the situation because there’s not enough of them aware in my opinion what the real facts are related to Māori land.”

The film presents a united front to audiences; between rural and urban Māori, younger and older, men and women, between iwi, and with the minority of Pākehā who participated. In interviews, movement leaders emphasise the unity of the march, particularly across generational lines. Tama Poata underlines that “old and young” have come together for the march, describing the sense of unity as “extraordinary.” Esteemed kuia and movement leader Whina Cooper later echoes this sentiment, explaining in an interview before the final stretch of the hikoi:

“Our young people are changing. They’re finding out now that to go alone without the support of the old people, they won’t reach the goal that they want to reach. So now they’re following the old people around to get all the knowledge of the past, so as to stand as a kind of an instrument for the future.”

In a more incidental way, footage of meetings shows the cooperation between various actors necessary to organise this month-long hikoi. Practical affairs – allocation of vehicles, medical care for people with blisters or injuries – are delegated in a deliberative way acknowledging varying knowledges, skills and needs. Tama Poata also mentions in an interview that men are doing the dishes, acknowledging the division of unpaid labour necessary for a unified collective feat on this scale. The community forged by the hikoi could be considered a form of kaupapa whānau, a family forged out of common aims and outlook, not necessarily or solely out of kinship ties.

Walking as speech

The combination of verbal accounts and walking as a unified ‘speech act’ contests colonial arrangements of urban space and time. De Certeau suggests that walking “follows” place names, both mobilised by the names and investing them with new meaning. Early in the documentary, after marchers set out from Northernmost marae Te Hāpua, a kuia declares “Wellington, here we come.” In a sense Wellington, as a centre of colonial power, both hails and is hailed by the marchers, a form of karanga. Their hikoi follows and reshapes the possibilities of Wellington, as an urban and civic centre.

Lefebvre argues that urban rhythms can only be understood with reference to historical and natural rhythms. This is intended as a “poetic” approach as well as a “scientific” method. Rhythm-analysis of Te Matakite o Aotearoa: The Māori Land March reveals an interplay of natural, social, economic and urban rhythms, with the march setting a unified social rhythm that ultimately intervenes in urban spatial and temporal practices. Early in the film, a poem by Hone Tuwhare narrates the internal world of a marcher. Although this marcher is presumably Hone Tuwhare himself, with the poem containing biographical details relevant to his life, the particular embodies more general shared concerns. A number of significant, mostly slower rhythms run through the visual and aural elements; the rhythm of Tuwhare’s poetry, rhythms of the seasons and weather, the pace of aging, and crucially the rhythm of walking, a simultaneous rhythm that expresses social unity. Natural and social rhythms are interlinked, both at a measured pace. These rhythms exceed the urban, even the human individual – as the opening narration notes, “Whatungarongaro he tangata, toi tu te whenua; man comes and goes, the land is permanent.”
Despite this sense of slower interlinked natural and historic rhythms, there is also a more immediate urban economic insecurity to the poem, mentioning fears that Tuwhare may lose his flat in Dunedin. This worry of the everyday, the particular, the personal, manifests more general concerns. As de Certeau mentions, “to walk is to lack a place”, and in this case the commitment to participate in a month-long (economically ‘unproductive’) walk requires taking a risk in terms of economic security. Partly this is an urban concern, one of the necessary social “waste products” (poverty, insecurity) of the profit system, yet this insecurity also results from a more generalised alienation of land from the people. In other words this alienation is not solely urban or rural. Tuwhare refers to “all the different people worrying differently”, and underlines the togetherness of shared concerns. Marchers who stay the distance also have the comfort of shared homes, stopping off at marae each night, a prominent example of the “circular migration” that can allow urban indigenous people to retain connections with rural indigenous communities.

land march auckland

Source: National Library.

Unity and urban space

This conscious togetherness allows the marchers to contest urban spatio-temporality effectively; through Auckland to Wellington. In what has become a definitive image of the Māori Land March, thousands of marchers cross the Auckland Harbour Bridge. This image is arguably so definitive because it contests urban space, placing a claim on a notable urban landmark. In the documentary, the camera follows cars first, clear embodiments of urban rhythm, until the march passes through the background. Cars continue to dominate the foreground for a few shots (although waiata become more audible than cars), before the film moves in closer to the march, and finally cuts to a more widely photographed and circulated genre of angles on this historic moment; long shots facing back toward the marchers as they stream off the bridge in the foregound. Although the marchers are not blocking traffic, instead using the footpath, they eclipse the stream of cars, even dwarfing the bridge from certain angles. Urban codes of space and time are transformed, inverted, if only temporarily; Māori primacy is clear. Ngāti Whātua leader Joe Hawke, who led the march across the harbour bridge, explains in a filmed interview that the bridge was built on Ngāti Whātua land, and the iwi never received compensation. Soon after explaining the significance of this action for his iwi, Hawke explains the significance of the march more broadly, commenting that “this is the first time I have ever seen our Māori people in some way become a unified voice.”
The significance of the march is both in its display of indigenous unity and its claim on urban space. When the hikoi reaches Wellington, they march on the motorway, their unified social rhythm slowing the flow of traffic, urban rhythms interrupted through collective intervention. The motorway sequence begins with fixed aerial shots, narrated first by a Radio New Zealand commentator and then by Tama Poata, before moving in closer for a handheld interview. This movement in position is comparable to de Certeau’s ironic fears about the methodological “fall” from an elevated position of knowledge to the apparently unknowing space amongst the crowd, the move from “voyeurs” to “walkers”. However, the film clearly locates cosmopolitan knowledge among the crowd. Tama Poata discusses international indigenous struggles in Australia, the ‘Third World’ and the USA, finally asserting unity in diversity and dispossession:

“We vary in some things but basically the struggle is the same, those that have and those that have not.”

As the march enters the city, the camera joins, walking with the hikoi up Lambton Quay. Finally, the marchers enter parliament hailed by a karanga, vocalisation and walking again setting an indigenous rhythm in urban space. Without necessarily dichotomising urban rhythms against indigenous rhythms, this action interrupts colonial capitalist configuration of urban space and time. The film concludes with iwi leader Joe Cooper reading the “Memorial of Right,” signed by tribal elders, to parliament. Although these concluding formal demands do not advance an explicit programme for urban transformation, the march re-occupies urban space, a tactic that poses the question of ownership in the production of space. The formal demands are also more expansive and inclusive than what was ultimately implemented, including a “national referendum” of Māori for any changes to land rights.

Conclusion

The 1975 Māori Land March was a historic moment of Māori unity; between iwi, youth and elders, urban and rural Māori. As a speech act, a form of “talking out” to Pākehā, the Land March interrupted rhythms imposed by colonisation and capitalism, asserting a unified indigenous rhythm through collective ways of vocalising and walking in urban space. The narrative thrust of the march (and the documentary film) presents unity between rural and urban Māori, contesting colonial ownership of urban spaces.

Further reading

Barclay, Barry. Our Own Image, Longman Paul Limited, 1990.

Harris, Aroha. Hikoi: Forty Years of Māori Protest. Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2004

Harvey, David. “Introduction.” Rebel Cities: From the Right to The City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso, 2012.

Hokowhitu, Brendan. “Producing Indigeneity.” Peters, Evelyn, and Andersen, Chris, eds. Indigenous in the City: Contemporary Identities and Cultural Innovation. Vancouver, BC, CAN: UBC Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. Accessed 23 April 2015.

Langton, Marcia. “Well, I Heard It on the Radio and I Saw It on the Television”: An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and About Aboriginal People and Things. North Sydney, NSW: Australian Film Commission, 1993.

Lefebvre, H. and Regulier, C. “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities.” Rhythmanalysis. Continuum: London, New York, 2004.

Lefebvre, Henri. “The Right to The City.” Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Lefebvre, Henri. “Plan of the Present Work.” The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Peters, Evelyn, and Andersen, Chris. “Introduction.” Peters, Evelyn, and Andersen, Chris, eds. Indigenous in the City: Contemporary Identities and Cultural Innovation. Vancouver, BC, CAN: UBC Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. Accessed 23 April 2015.

Steven, Geoff. Dir. Te Matakite o Aotearoa: The Māori Land March. Produced with the assistance of Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism (by agreement with Ngā Tamatoa and Polynesian Panther Party), coordinated by New Perspectives on Race, produced by SeeHear Ltd and TV2, 1975. https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/te-matakite-o-aotearoa-1975.

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