Tukua mai he kapunga oneone ki ahau hei tangi māku — Send me a handful of soil so that I may weep

To be Indigenous is to share cascading crises with the earth. Swarms of plastic suffocate our beaches; our wetlands drained for dairy farming are prone to catastrophic floods; the soils we live on are poisoned by industrial toxins, causing soaring rates of asthma and cancer in our communities. It feels like Aotearoa is being inexorably driven towards ecological collapse by the insatiable expansion of late capitalism — a boomer freight train of endless growth catapulting us towards ecological collapse (Tapsell 2021:173).

The original Greek word κρίσις (krisis) signifies “discrimination” and “decision” as well as “crisis”. Crisis was first used in English in a medical context, to describe a symptomatic development that might be indicative of either recovery or death, that is, a turning point. This sense of the term might have become familiar to many of us over the last few years, but from an Indigenous standpoint Covid 19 only represented one more strand of the interwoven series of social and health-related crises. The global pandemic exacerbated the challenges faced by the majority of Indigenous peoples around the world, such as poverty, access to health, access to technological services, remote educational opportunity, food insecurity and discrimination, laying bare the inequities that structure settler colonial society.  In Te reo Māori the word for coronavirus is “matekarauna” — mate meaning death, and karauna being a transliteration of crown. Crown sickness. This sickness is emblematic of the British policies that confiscated large tracts of Māori land in the 1860s and 1870s. The legacy of this action continues to this day, with many Māori people condemned to live in poverty on their own lands, while the descendants of the settlers maintain and continue to hoard expropriated wealth (Godfery 2015).

Founded on this theft and subsequent extractive exploitation of the land, modern Aotearoa has a clean and green image identified by our agricultural system of rolling green hills made up of introduced grasslands, crops, orchards, trees, sheep and cows (Tapsell 2021:47). It’s easy to forget that it didn’t always look like this. In his essay “The Connection between White Supremacy and Colonisation”, the late Māori lawyer Moana Jackson describes a mythological process used to obscure the historical reality of colonisation:

In this country, there has been a deliberate misremembering of history that has obscured the reality of what colonisation really was, and is. It has replaced the harsh reality of its racist violence and its illegitimate usurpation of power with a feelgood rhetoric (Jackson 2019).

Crown forces destroyed the Māori economy and alienated Māori people from their spiritual, genealogical and cultural bases. Not unlike other Indigenous people, Māori live in a genealogically interconnected world of environmental accountability in which we are nourished by and care for the lands where our ancestors lived, loved, flourished, fought, thrived and died (Tapsell 2021:7). This interconnection is epitomised by the te reo Māori word for Māori people, “tangata whenua”. Tangata means “people” and whenua means both “placenta” and “soil”.

In the town of Kawerau, where I live on the whenua of my daughter and my partner, I can feel the looming neoliberal crisis on the horizon. Kawerau sits in the eastern Bay of Plenty area, which has been densely populated by a number of iwi since the great voyaging waka arrived here from across the Pacific almost a thousand years ago. Kawerau was established in the mid 1950s after the land was coercively acquired from Māori landholders to build the Tasman pulp and paper mill. The terms of the exchange provided jobs and educational opportunities for Māori people, but not everyone agreed. Those in the iwi who didn’t agree to these short-term gains had their land confiscated through a clause within the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company Enabling Act 1954, according to which even land designated as a “Māori reserve” could be classified as a “wasteland” and seized. The then government invested in the building of the paper mill and quickly passed this enabling act to make it operational. The site was chosen because geothermal activity in the area could be harnessed for steam. At one point Kawerau was the wealthiest town in the country, but now it is among the poorest, and the site of an ecological catastrophe for the mana whenua of the area, Ngāti Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau. Close to the mill was once a lake called Rotoitipaku, a place of rich biodiversity and a sacred site; the papakainga of the 16th-century warrior rangatira Tūwharetoa, from whom the iwi takes its name. The lake no longer exists; over three decades, the mill filled it with half a million cubic metres of contaminated waste.

Uncle Tasman: The Trembling Current that Scars the Earth (2007) is a video installation created by the local artist Natalie Robertson (Ngāti Porou), situating the industrial history of Kawerau in the wider geological context of the region’s volcanic maunga (mountains). The visual sequence plays simultaneously across three screens, and their many dissonances reflect the ambivalence of the artwork’s title, a microcosm of the dilemma experienced by many Māori with whakapapa (geneological ties) to the Kawerau district. The mill is fondly known as “Uncle Tasman” because it provided employment for many Māori people from all around Aotearoa. However, the violently extractive poisoning of the whenua and its surrounding waterways have indelibly scarred the land. The mill put bread and butter on the table, but it severely polluted the waterways around it; rates of cancer and asthma soared in the Kawerau region. In Uncle Tasman: The Trembling Current that Scars the Earth, we hear a tauparapara (chant) from a local kaumātua outlining the story of the pollution and disappearance of Rotoitipaku (Mills 2022:42). The film also touches on the geothermal, volcanic and seismic activity of the area, the latter of which is described through the story of Rūāumoko, the god of earthquakes, who shakes the earth when hungry or fussing. Fault lines run beneath Rotoitipaku and beneath my feet; I worry for the day that Rūāumoko shakes all the contaminated waste into the air and floods our town with its poisonous gases.

I was born the year after the “mother of all budgets”, a nickname given to the 1991 New Zealand budget designed by the finance minister, Ruth Richardson. These neoliberal economic policies follow the reform packages begun by the Labour Party under Roger Douglas under what was known as “Rogernomics”; both promoted individual liberty, sold state-owned assets and decimated funding to schools, hospitals and welfare. This market-led restructuring and deregulation was designed to control inflation and reduce fiscal deficit. In reality, it just made people poorer. My father once told me that when I was a baby and my mother was pregnant with my sister, he contemplated quitting his truck-driving job and going on the dole, because it was basically the same amount of money and the hours that he worked were long and often dangerous. The interest rates on my parents’ mortgage in Matamata rose to 18% in the Waikato region. Income inequality alongside a sharp rise in violent crime meant that my family decided to relocate to Australia in 1992 for better opportunities, even though the Hawke government was undertaking similar neoliberal reforms. My father went from exploiting the resources on his ancestral Ngāti Haua lands in the Waikato to decades of exploiting the lands of other Indigenous people’s lands in the mining industry across Australia. Our family were able to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty at the cost of exploiting and scarring the lands of other Indigenous peoples. As Vijay Prashad has observed, “Capitalism has never been able to produce decency” (Simpson 2017:67).

My whole life has been punctuated by crisis, such as the catastrophe of these neoliberal reforms, as well as the mass incarceration of Māori (particularly Māori women, who are the most incarcerated Indigenous women in the world), climate disaster, the dispossession of Indigenous land, permanent war and now the ongoing effects of a pandemic. Ecological and social crises are linked, but their effects are distributed unevenly. Ecological and social crises are linked, but their effects are distributed unevenly. As the geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes eloquently, “Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it” (Gilmore 2019). Capitalism’s cascading ecological effects also follow a racial hierarchy, and in terms of carbon emissions, those at the forefront of climate disaster have overwhelmingly caused the least harm. In their recent report “He Huringa Āhurangi, he Huringa Ao — A Changing Climate, a Changing World”, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga outlined the particular vulnerability of Māori to climate change, particularly those who live in coastal areas. Approximately 191 marae across the country are within one kilometre of the coastline (Stewart 2023). Of those, 41 are exposed to coastal flooding (Stewart 2023). The report also noted that Māori were especially vulnerable to losing traditional knowledge and cultural practices as rising sea levels, heatwaves and storms threatened sacred sites such as urupā, as well as increasing the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Earlier this year Cyclone Gabrielle tore through the east coast of the north island, killed 11 people, destroyed homes and livelihoods, impacting already vulnerable Māori communities and caused $15–20 million dollars in damage (Stewart 2023). Many survivors are still displaced. Last year, James Shaw, the Minister for Climate Change, announced $30.5 million for the development of a platform for Māori climate action. The platform stipulated that an essential part of this process would be that Māori needed to oversee decision-making. A key feature of ensuring that disasters like Rotoitipaku won’t happen again is that we need autonomy and the ability to make decisions about our whenua. In order to safeguard our communities from the ongoing effects of climate disaster, we need to be a part of decision-making processes so we can prepare for more extreme weather events like Cyclone Gabrielle.

Indigenous stories and knowledge speak to our resilience and our ability to adapt. We need to adapt to survive the coming climate catastrophes and preserve our children’s whenua. Often our stories emphasise our ancestral connection to our lands represented by the whakataukī (proverb) Tukua mai he kapunga oneone ki ahau hei tangi māku — Send me a handful of soil so that I may weep. Given that my 19-month-old daughter’s whenua has already been so desecrated, I wonder where she will weep when she needs to — but there is no time to weep now. Indigenous peoples have been among the first to feel the direct consequences of the looming climate catastrophe, and our knowledge and values will be necessary to surviving it. We need to radically shift how we think about people and land, and embrace what Annishanabe academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017:43) has called a “non-linear relationship” between living and non-living things. We must resist orienting ourselves into compartmentalised or categorised thinking to resist the linear patterning of time, life and death that colonialism prescribes. For people to be well, the land needs to be well. For people to be well, the land needs to be well. Toitū te marae a Tāne-Mahuta, Toitū te marae a Tangaroa, Toitū te tangata — if the land is well and the sea is well, the people will thrive.



Gilmore, RW 2019, Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Antipode Foundation, Kenton Card (director). https://antipodeonline.org/geographies-of-racial-capitalism/

Godfery, M 2015, “Settled Peacefully”, Overland, no. 219, Winter. https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-219/feature-morgan-godfery/

Jackson, M 2019, “The Connection between White Supremacy and Colonisation”, E-Tangata. March 24, accessed 24 April 2023. https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/the-connection-between-white-supremacy/

Mills, M 2022, “Contemporary Māori Women’s New Media Practice”, in Bridget Reweti, Melanie Oliver (eds) Māori Moving Image, , Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Simpson, LB 2017, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, University of Minnesota.

Stewart, E 2023, “‘Our Tīpuna Knew When to Move’ — The Difficult Conversations about Managed Retreat for Māori”, RNZ, 1 May, accessed 2 May 2023. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/489011/our-tipuna-knew-when-to-move-the-difficult-conversations-about-managed-retreat-for-maori

Tapsell, P 2021, Kāinga: People, Land, Belonging, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

Hana Pera Aoake

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Hinerangi, Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Mahuta, Tainui/ Waikato, Tauranga Moana) is an artist, writer and curator based in Aotearoa. They coorganise Kei te pai press with Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa). Hana has a book, A bathful of kawakawa and hot water (2020) and is the curator of the Kawerau Museum, but most importantly is Miriama Jean’s māmā.

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