Indigenous life | New Zealand

A long-awaited comeback

New Plymouth is on New Zealand's North Island, and before the British arrived, the Maori community of Te Ātiawa lived here. Now, finally, they are shaping the cityscape again

In 1972, Māori activist Hana Te Hemara brought a petition to the New Zealand Parliament to protect the Maori language. Fifty years later, artist Graham Hoete created this mural to commemorate the activist and her fellow campaigners


In February this year, I attended the opening of Ngāmotu House in New Plymouth on the North Island of New Zealand. Previously it was an office, and it was called the ‘Atkinson Building’ after a British settler and later Prime Minister of New Zealand, who became famous for fighting for the expropriation of indigenous land in the 19th century. Now it is the new headquarters of the Te Ātiawa, the Māori tribe my family belongs to. Boys as young as ten played traditional taonga pūoro flutes throughout the house to bless the rooms, while the women sang along.

“You get the feeling that the Māori are re-indigenising the city, so to speak”

Every time I return to Aotearoa, New Zealand, from Berlin, where I live, I’m struck by the ways Māori language and culture are reappearing in white New Zealand society. New Plymouth, a city of 60,000 inhabitants, is called ‘Ngāmotu’ in the Māori language, after the indigenous name of the nearby Sugar Loaf Islands. There is a sense here that the Māori people are ‘re-indigenising’ the city, raising the visibility of our stories and identity.

For thousands of years, my ancestors have inhabited the area around our great Mount Taranaki, an almost perfectly conical volcano that towers over the landscape. Even though I didn’t grow up here, visits to my family have always been an opportunity to draw strength from its presence. When we introduce ourselves in the Māori language, we first name the mountain of our ancestors, then the river or sea of our homeland, then our village, then our family and finally ourselves. So Taranaki comes to mind first when I think about our identity and its iconic shape also plays an important role in our art and design.

Not far from New Plymouth is the community of Parihaka. It dates back to a pacifist Maori resistance movement at the time of the land wars against British settlers. In the background is the Taranaki volcano, which towers over the entire region

Ten years ago, representatives of Te Ātiawa reached agreement with the New Zealand government about the land that had been stolen from our people and the consequences of the destruction of our livelihoods over generations.

“Our property company has made investments, the profits of which flow into our joint project”

The agreed contract included modest financial compensation - very little compared to the value of the stolen land, but enough to build a new economic foundation. Te Ātiawa founded a commercial entity that has become a major player in the property scene in New Plymouth. It supports tribal members in acquiring their own homes through a kind of co-operative model.

The company has also made investments and its profits are channelled into our joint project: to compensate for the disadvantages that many of our people have experienced over generations and to give them a better future, through, for example, educational scholarships.

The settlement of New Plymouth was established in the 1840s. Soon after, the British colonisers started outright wars to expel the Māori living in the region and seize their land. To this day, numerous street names, buildings and monuments commemorate the men who killed our ancestors and robbed them of their homeland - such as the aforementioned Harry Albert Atkinson.

In the 1860s, it was he who led a troop of volunteers in the fight against the Taranaki Māori and even went on to become Prime Minister of New Zealand. When the ‘Atkinson Building’, a modern office building named after him, recently came up for sale, our tribe exercised its right of first refusal. We decided to buy the building and remodel it. Of course, Taranaki’s outline now dominates the building’s facade, while the more intricate patterns acknowledge the master weavers our tribe is known for.

The renaming of the building to Ngāmotu House, and the new facade, puts our stamp back on our home base and re-establishes our tribe’s presence as the social and cultural engine of this city.

“Many New Zealanders want Māori to be taught as a core subject in primary schools alongside maths and English”

Let's learn the language together! At Billow Bakery in New Plymouth, guests can also order coffee in the Maori language

Just a few steps away, on the main street of New Plymouth, lies a narrow alleyway full of street art. After the 2011 earthquake, temporary shelters were built in Christchurch. When they were no longer needed, some containers found their way to New Plymouth, where they were used to set up small shops and cafés.

Today, the Quarter Bank neighbourhood is home to a number of galleries and a chic bakery, the Billow Bakery. By the time I arrive, the pastries are long gone, but I spy a blackboard encouraging customers to order in Māori. “Kawhe mōwai” is a flat white, and you can order it with “ōti” (oat milk) if you like. A staff member tells me her boss is currently learning the language, so this initiative helps them practise with customers.

The language my grandfather was born speaking, then banned from speaking, just a few kilometres away from here at school in the 1930s, is once again flourishing. In 2006, just under 24 percent of Māori people could hold a basic conversation in our language. The latest data, from 2022, shows a jump to 34 percent, with 3 out of 5 New Zealanders keen to see Māori taught as a core subject in primary schools, alongside mathematics and English.

These days, language courses are also on offer for adults. Maori and non-Maori alike are signing up to learn our country's first language. Due to the huge demand, there are already waiting lists and there is a debate as to whether Maori should be given priority as a kind of birthright.

The fact our language survived the assimilationist policies of the last century and is being revitalised today is a gift we can attribute to the woman depicted on a large mural on the adjacent street: Hana Te Hemara. In 2022 the artist Mr G was commissioned to paint this mural  to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a petition this Taranaki woman, along with a crew of young Māori activists, delivered to parliament, demanding that our language be taught in schools.

The former “Atkinson Building” has been given a new facade: the triangular shape above the entrance is reminiscent of the Taranaki volcano

In her hair, Hana  wears the Raukura. It’s a set of albatross feathers Taranaki women wear to identify ourselves as followers of the non-violent resistance movement started in the nearby village of Parihaka in the 1860s.

Following devastating losses in the land wars, two spiritual Maori leaders, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, founded the village of Parihaka in the 1860s as a kind of pacifist response to the ongoing murderous land grab. The land around the village had already been surveyed for the Europeans. But the two Maori encouraged their followers to cultivate the land peacefully to demonstrate their attachment to it. They planted gardens, ploughed the land and erected fences - much to the annoyance of the government.

Hundreds of Parihaka supporters were arrested, some were even detained for months without trial. At the time, the non-violent resistance prompted the New Zealand government and press to label members of the Parihaka peace movement as ‘fanatics’. These clashes between Maori and settlers are a thing of the past, but the pacifist spirit of the movement lives on today, as I learnt recently at a village meeting that has been held every month since the 1860s.

In Parihaka, I was reminded that while our people are breaking new ground to strengthen their rights and standing in our homeland, we have also always tried to connect with other indigenous ‘companions in destiny’ and people affected by injustice.

The village’s two pacifist founders, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, read international newspapers, keeping abreast of similar decolonial movements across the globe. More recently, in 2005, descendants of Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi visited Parihaka to pay homage to Parihaka’s visionaries who had influenced their own grandfathers.

Discussions at this month’s meeting turned to Palestine and a strong wish for the displacement and killing of Palestinians to end. A relative of mine sat on the floor of our ancestral meeting house listening to our elders speak, her seven-year-old daughter gently pulling the keffiyeh from around her mother’s neck and wrapping it around herself.

Once you have lived in a big international city like Berlin, coming home can feel like everything’s got smaller. Instead, here in Taranaki, I find an inspiring expansiveness, with people committed to retaining our heritage while connecting with global conversations.