Mon, Aug 12, 2019 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Maori women leading rights battle in New Zealand

RISE OF THE SUPPRESSED?A political commentator said that people who have been shut out of power are starting to assert themselves more powerfully in public

Reuters, AUCKLAND and WELLINGTON, New Zealand

Protest leader Pania Newton speaks at a rally in Ihumatao, Auckland, New Zealand, in an undated photograph released yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Five years ago, law graduate Pania Newton and her cousins got together around a kitchen table and agreed to do everything in their power to prevent a housing development on a south Auckland site considered sacred by local Maori.

Newton, now 29, is today leading thousands of protesters occupying the land at Ihumatao, one of a number of grassroots movements spearheaded by young, educated and tech-savvy Maori women.

Using social media and crowdfunding Web sites, the groups are mobilizing community support to demand land rights and other reforms for Maori in the highest-profile indigenous rights campaigns in more than a decade.

“When you look at our campaign, you’ll see the majority of us involved are women and that’s because we feel this great sense of connection to Mother Earth,” Newton told reporters. “We are the nurturers, we are the carers. We’ve had to overcome many, many challenges for thousands of years and we’re strong, we’re resilient, we’re feisty and we’re fierce.”

In another demonstration, thousands marched in the capital, Wellington, last month, protesting the removal of at-risk Maori children from their families.

The issues have become proxies for a wider discontent among young Maori about modern New Zealand and disenchantment with the New Zealand government, which some say has done little to break cycles of poverty and violence.

Maori, who account for about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population, were dispossessed of much of their land during colonization by Britain in the 19th century.

A legal settlement process drawing on the nation’s founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, has restored some rights and assets, but many Maori say those measures have not gone far enough.

Without their ancestral lands, with which people are spiritually connected to in the Maori world, and with the erosion of many cultural rights until the late 20th century, Maori families are disproportionately affected by a raft of social problems from imprisonment to homelessness.

While eating a hot lunch of bacon bone stew, Iru Iti, a Maori-language orator with ancestral ties to Ihumatao and related to Newton, waited out the pouring winter rain beneath a large tarpaulin covering a makeshift meeting ground at the protest site.

The 53-year-old said his nieces’ leadership and knowledge of how to navigate the Maori and Western worlds was revitalizing his people’s fight for social justice.

“Until very recently I never believed we could do what we did. If my father were still alive, he’d think this is amazing,” said Iti, sitting on a plastic chair between the protesters’ campsite and a line of police.

Maori have a long history of activism to fight for their rights and culture. The protests at Ihumatao echo a 1977-1978 occupation of Auckland’s Bastion Point by a local tribe, which ended after 507 days when police forcibly removed and arrested hundreds of protesters.

However, many notice a difference in the new wave of protests that has emerged, which is also challenging some traditional leaders and spokespeople.

The protesters occupying Ihumatao do so in disagreement with a tribal authority with links to the area, which has supported the housing project after gaining a number of concessions from the developer, including moving the planned housing back from the main protected heritage area.

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