A fictional portrayal of 80 year old Whina Cooper's historic 1975 land march.
|This was written for "Project Write World" using a picture prompt of a protestor. It is 1,373 words. Some factual information on the protest can be found at the end.
“Kare tenei hikoi oku, he hikoi noa – aha ranei – ki te miri-miri i nga paoro o Te Roringi.”
I didn’t understand her words but the power in her voice reached deep inside me and a shiver slid up my spine. I gazed in wonder at the wizened woman leading the crowd out of the tiny town of Te Hapua. I heard they had chosen Whina Cooper to lead the march, the hikoi, because she possessed mana, the respect of the people. They believed this tiny woman would reach out and grasp the awareness of the ignorant and demand they pay attention. They were right. It was as if the tui had ceased their warbling, the fantails had paused to pay their respects and even the wind had hushed to listen. As Whina spoke to us, I even tuned out the ever-present rumble of distant waves. I had to remind myself to breathe.
The cool September breeze ruffled wisps of grey hair escaping from under the shawl draped over her head and those behind her tugged their jackets closer. Not one foot faltered. Nothing as inconsequential as the weather would stop them. Farmers and activists, housewives and politicians – they were united and determined.
The feather cloak engulfed Whina, a visible symbol of her status as a leader, an elder, but even with the bulk of the cloak and the warm woollen cardigan she wore underneath, she still seemed frail and tiny. I looked at the gnarled fingers clasping the wooden handle of her walking stick and wondered how this seemingly ancient woman could possibly walk the 600 miles that measured the length of the North Island. Te Ika A Maui – the fish of Maui, that was the North Island. Whina and her fellow protesters would carve a trail from the top of the fish’s tail to its head. It was a long walk for a woman who would celebrate her 80th birthday in a few months. It was a long walk for anyone.
“Not one more acre!” As if to remind me that the government buildings in Wellington weren’t the goal, just a means to an end, Whina’s raspy voice rose again above the murmur of footsteps, the beat of fifty people marching in unison.
The voices of the fifty rose to join her. “Not one more acre of Maori land! Not one more acre!”
I watched in awe as chins lifted and eyes sparked with determination. With each cry they stood straighter, shoulders back, imbued with purpose and drive. I knew in that moment that I was watching history being made. I glanced to the side and saw the reporter from Channel One with his bulky video camera – he knew it too. This was the story of the decade for him.
A small child ran forward and grasped Whina’s wrinkled hand, dark eyes glancing up at her, then turning forward. Forward to the future. I heard the reporter mention that the child was Whina’s mokopuna, her grandchild. I am sure he was delighted – the children and the elderly leading the way on this historic march for human rights. For Maori rights. The viewers of the evening news would be captivated. I was.
I knew why they were marching, of course. They claimed the government had stolen Maori land, and they wanted it back. The details confused me – it seemed historical and yet some mentioned more recent ‘thefts’ of land. I admitted my ignorance, but it didn’t stop me from admiring this tiny woman who was determined to right the wrongs for her people and shame the government into doing what was right. She was a tiny David up against an almighty Goliath but as I watch those boots tread a path along the dusty road, headed for a very distant Wellington, I believed she would prevail. And as those fifty pairs of feet marched along the gravel road behind her, I knew that those fifty feet were just the beginning....and I fell in behind them and added my own voice to the cries.
“Not one more acre!”
I had learned a little as we marched, but I had trouble filtering the facts out from the angry monologues of different protestors. It was a passive protest, this long march along State Highway One, but beneath the weathered brown skin of these people smouldered a fierce resentment of the Pakeha. Thieves, they called them. Liars. I bit my lip and kept my silence. Who was I to argue?
As I placed one foot after another, stones skittering from beneath my shoes and a slow ache building in my legs, I listened but dared not set a spark to that resentment by questioning the facts. I hoped that I would yet find the answers.
As we neared the first marae, I pinned all my hopes on finding the answers in that Maori meeting house. I wanted this to mean something. I wanted that awe-inspiring sight of Whina marching the unpaved roads of Northland to have real significance. I wanted to be a part of something great.
As we gathered in front of the marae, a call went out from one of the local women. I had been warned earlier not to talk or fidget as the women engaged in the karanga. While the call from the local woman sounded strong and powerful, it was Whina’s reply that made me close my eyes and absorb the beauty of the exchange.
After the women had finished, a bare-chested warrior stomped out in front of our group, spear in hand. I didn’t understand the challenge but I felt as if I could have been standing in this spot a hundred years ago and I might have witnessed this very same ritual of greetings. When the warrior placed an object on the ground, one of our party stepped forward and picked it up, seeming to bring an end to that step in the proceedings. I waited patiently, not daring to move but following all the protocol with great interest. It was my first formal welcome on to a marae.
Finally, each member of our party was greeted with a hongi by our hosts and as I touched my nose to each of theirs in turn, I felt accepted. I was a part of this group. I only lacked a true understanding of the history that had brought us to this place.
After enjoying a meal of kumara, pumpkin, potato and pork that had been steamed in a hangi, Whina took up the task of educating those who had heard of the hikoi and come to learn about the grievances being taken to Parliament. She was a powerful and passionate speaker and as I looked around the large meeting room, I saw many heads nodding in agreement. To my relief, she addressed the crowd in both English and Maori.
I was shocked to learn that there was a law that allowed the government to take control of any Maori land deemed to be uneconomic. The patronisation evident in such a law made me squirm where I sat on the wooden floor. Whina spoke of the land that had been requested for use by the military during World War II and which the Maori had agreed to lend to the government, only for the government to turn it into a golf course when it was no longer required for the war efforts. Anger and a need to set things right built inside me as I listened to the examples, and I finally came to understand the resentment that these protestors held for those who had misused their power.
As I listened to Whina and the other kuia who spoke that night, as I scrawled my name on the petition our group carried, I truly became a part of this movement. My feet had marched alongside theirs. My name was there, in black and white, alongside those who had worked so hard to see this day arrive. “Not one more acre” was no longer a catchcry, a slogan... Not one more acre became a vow I made silently to these people as I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with them on that hard wooden floor. Not one more acre of Maori land. Not one more acre.
About the 1975 land march
'After six months of planning, 50 marchers left Te Hāpua in the far north of New Zealand on 14 September 1975 for the 1000-km walk to Wellington. They were led by Whina Cooper, who was nearly 80 years old. Rallying behind the catch-cry of ‘Not one more acre of Maori land’, the hīkoi quickly grew in strength. As it approached towns and cities, local people joined in to offer moral support. The marchers stopped overnight at 25 different marae, on which Cooper led discussions about the purpose of the march. By helping to politicise large numbers of Māori, the hīkoi had an impact far beyond its original intention. It represented a reassertion of Māori identity.
On 23 September thousands of marchers approached Auckland. By now media interest had grown. Ngāti Whātua leader Joe Hawke led the hīkoi over the Harbour Bridge in the full glare of the national media. This was to be repeated as thousands marched along the motorway into Wellington on 13 October.
About 5000 marchers arrived at Parliament and presented a petition signed by 60,000 people to Prime Minister Bill Rowling. The primary aim of the hīkoi (march) was to call for an end to the alienation (sale) of Māori land’. - www.nzhistory.net.nz