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More korero, less shouting on preserving our history

June 27, 2020

Monuments and memories of the past have been in the news in recent weeks and on almost all occasions for all the wrong reasons.

It is appropriate from time to time to examine and question how we remember our past but that needs to be done in a reasoned and intelligent manner by reasonable and intelligent people if we are going to come to a sound and acceptable decision.

Over the past few weeks however intelligence and reason have been roughly shouldered aside by ignorance of our history, ill-informed grandstanding and threats of vandalism against monuments to the colonial past in Waikato including a statue of Captain Hamilton.

The most dramatic of those threats appears to have been led by a senior activist from Huntly who has expressed strong objections to his one-sided version of history. While he is free to hold this views, and express them loudly, that freedom does not extend to vandalism or even threats of vandalism. That brought an inevitable, predictable and equally ignorant response with threats of violence and other infantile reactions from some people who levelled abuse and a veiled threat of lynching against Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate​. The abuse came as a reaction to the removal of the Hamilton statue to protect it from threatened damage and in an apparent attempt to take the heat out of the debate.

On one occasion, the mayor had to be escorted to her car following a late-night meeting after a group of angry people arrived at council offices demanding to see her. This is not the Wild West or some redneck enclave in a Louisiana back water. New Zealanders generally don’t take kindly to such threats against their elected representatives regardless of politics and both groups should know better.

The standout exception in these discussions has been a group from Ngaruawahia who want to protect historic food pits and the site of ancient garden sites from destruction by a proposed sub-division.

Ngati Tamainupo has protested against the destruction the old garden sites on private land destined for housing in Ngāruawāhia for about six weeks. A petition calling for council and government intervention to buy the land has reached over 4,000 signatures.

Research has shown the gardens were close to Pukeiahua Pa, and would have helped sustain the people of the region more than 300 years ago. To non-Maori old gardens and food storage pits may be of little consequence but it was gardens and storage pits which fed people during the lean months. They also maintained the mana of the local people by allowing them to feed the many visitors travelling up and down the Waikato and Waipa rivers when those waterways were the main highways through the region. Such was the importance of communal storage facilities that they probably had names which have now been forgotten, but they should not disappear under bulldozers and houses if we can possibly avoid it.

Ngati Tamainupo has gone about this project in exactly the right manner by engaging in reasonable discussions with the Waikato District Council, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, Waikato-Tainui and the owners of the land. They have suggested, among a number of options, the possible purchase of the property by the Waikato District Council or to set aside part of the land as a reserve. Similar requests were made in regard to the future of an ancient occupation site at Ihumatao near Mangere.

The old gardens near Ngaruawahia and the Ihumatao site, and many other such historic sites, appear to have no formal protection and there is no legal obligation to save them from destruction. However we do as a community have at least an ethical and moral obligation to protect what we can of what little is left of pre-European historic places.

Ngati Tamainupo are, in effect, asking the ratepayers of the Waikato District, to fund the purchase of private land to preserve and protect ancient Maori sites and that is not an unreasonable request. Many of these same Waikato ratepayers however have had their own memorials to the past damaged and threatened with destruction. This damage and destruction has not been the fault of Ngati Tamainupo but how many in the non-Maori community will bother to make that distinction?

Now might be a good time for Ngati Tamainupo to have a quiet discussion with their Tainui kinfolk in neighbouring Huntly about a more reasonable approach to the complex issue of commemorating our shared past. Without that reasonable and civilised discussion we all stand to lose too much of the little remains of our past.