As I wandered through the books, journals, and graphic novels at the Hayden Labriola Center there was one book that stood out to me, titled “Making Our Place: Exploring Land-use Tensions in Aotearoa New Zealand”. It sounds really exciting, right? Well, I think if you word anything in a western academic tone, everything sounds boring. But if you look at the title through an Indigenous lens it actually reads as “the fight against neo-colonialism... the Māori edition!” Or maybe that's just my perception?…Regardless of how you look at it I felt that this could be an informative read for me.
In this book, New Zealanders, both indigenous and non-indigenous, share perspectives and expertise in a series of essays to describe the changes and tensions in New Zealand that have arisen out of the continued development of natural and physical resources. The reader can gain a little insight into what each essay consists of when reading the forward. When I read the words “conclude with a sense of optimism”, I immediately flipped to page 145 to read Linda Te Aho’s essay entitled “Waikato: River to Life”.
In order to understand the issues surrounding the Waikato River, the reader must understand what Te Aho means when she says that “...we see ourselves as not only ‘of the land’ but ‘as the land’”. Te Aho, who is of Waikato-Tainui/Ngāti Kotokī-Kahukura decent and is the Associate Dean Māori for the Division of Arts, Law, Psychology and Social Sciences at Waikato University, gives some insight into the Waikato River, from both a cultural and legal standpoint. She does this by sharing where water originates according to the creation stories that are traditionally shared orally. She explains the origin of the name of her people and the river they consider to be their ancestor: Waikato. She asks the reader to recognize that while the core belief of all Māori is that they are inextricably tied to the land, she wouldn't be able cover the expanse of unique traditions that each tribe of Māori have or the lessons to be learned from these creation stories.
With the arrival of the French and British colonists, so did changes and conflicts for the Māori. Te Aho tells the story of Karāpiro, a huge rock at the mouth of a stream along the Waikato River. This area is a significant and sacred site for the Ngāti Korokī and Ngāti Hauā. I was fully invested in understanding the history of displacement and battles, trying to keep up with the unfamiliar names of groups and places, and the transfer of guardianship over the lands, my vision suddenly blurred in shock. “Massive landscape change occurred when the rock which had formed the centrepiece of this significant battle was detonated and destroyed in the 1940s in order to create the Karāpiro Hydro-Electric Dam.” The line itself reads like breaking news interrupting a tv program, a harsh reality that is difficult to wrap your head around.
I wasn’t surprised. I knew what I was getting myself into when I chose to read this book, but I dissociated out of shock. At that moment, I felt the dynamite impact the rock of Karāpiro, the same way it did Moadag Do’ag (South Mountain), one of the most sacred mountains to the Akimel O’odham that was partially detonated for the construction of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) Loop 202 Extension project in 2016. Painfully, the words cut right through me the same way the U.S./Mexico border wall now cuts through the heart of Tohono O'odham Nation. It is the most mind-numbingly ironic and disheartening position to be in as an Indigenous person: forced to watch the demolition of all that is sacred to your people for sake of “economic progress” and “national security.” After all is said and done we still have to heal ourselves, our communities, and the land.
She concludes the chapter by explaining the ways in which the Māori have won and lost, politically, in their journey of healing the damage done to the Waikato River by the British Crown. I would highly recommend reading her analyses of the settlement of the 2008 Deed of Settlement Act and the ways in which different sections of the act contradict the actualization of co-management of the Waikato River between the Māori and the Crown. The battles along the Waikato River continue. Te Aho is hopeful for her people and their lands. This was a significant step forward for the Waikato-Tainui and the restoration and protection of their ancestor, the river, for future generations to come.
As I drove home from work on the I-17, one of the digital billboards flashed the announcement from ADOT that read something along the lines of “I-10 construction coming soon.” With a deep sigh, I looked at the road ahead of me, wondering when the United States government would begin listening to the Indigenous communities and take similar steps as New Zealand toward healing the wounds caused by colonialism. While our horizons may be distorted with freeways and cityscapes here in Al’ Son, O’odham and all Indigenous people continue to fight for the protection of the land. Whenever I feel displaced on my own lands I put on the song “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)”, because just like the Talking Heads, “home is where I want to be,” and as I continue to look up ahead at Moadag, “I guess I'm already there.”