BY MALCOLM McALLISTER
WANGANUI, New Zealand - A year ago, Maoris here occupied the local park Moutoa Gardens for 79 days. On February 24, local tribes began a six-day gathering at the gardens to celebrate the anniversary of the occupation.
At the end of 1994 the conservative National Party government introduced a scheme to buy off all Maori land grievances for NZ$1 billion [U.S.$670 million] hoping to take the heat out of the myriad Maori claims and make sales of government land and assets more attractive to capitalist investors. The scheme met widespread opposition, including several land occupations. For several months the occupation in Wanganui was at the center of national politics.
The area where the park is situated had been a market place called Pakaitore in the last century, where the local tribes traded with the few British settlers. In a deal that rankles with Maoris to this day, the settler government purchased the block of land where the city now stands using trickery and divisions among the tribes. Pakaitore, in Maori eyes, was excluded from the purchase.
During the occupation tents and buildings were erected and the park was fenced off in the manner of a traditional village. The local City Council attempted eviction, but on at least one occasion was prevented by supporters from around the country gathering at the site. As police assembled for another eviction last May the occupiers decided to leave the park with their heads held high rather than face bludgeoning and arrest.
The strength of the occupation was indicated by the decision of the City Council to allow the anniversary celebrations to take place at Pakaitore, although it issued a ban on guests staying overnight. A stream of visitors took part in the festivities.
In an interview, Maori leader Ken Mair talked about the importance of the occupation. "Without your land you can't assert your tinorangitiratanga [sovereignty]," he said. "There has been much intense discussion from the time we came on here a year ago right to now. I think history will judge that this is the beginning of a renaissance in regard to the issues of tinorangitiratanga - our young ones have become more aware of the issues as well as the pakeha [white] community and the community as a whole throughout the country."
After the celebration had ended, seven people were arrested at a nearby park when Maoris set up a tent as a protest against whites being allowed to stay overnight in that park while Maoris were banned from staying overnight in Moutoa Gardens.
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