Pākaitore also known as Moutoa Gardens is an area of land adjacent to the Whanganui River and within walking distance of the Gallery. Originally the area extended from Bates Street down towards the town bridge and today the area resembles many other public spaces that can be found in cities and towns around the country, the site is also home to the Whanganui Courthouse. Peppered with monuments and impressive trees and recent native plantings, the site seems like a quiet sanctuary. However, twenty years ago in 1995 Whanganui iwi with the support of many other local people such as the Quakers, peace groups and the Sisters of St Joseph occupied Pākaitore from March to May.
Prior to European settlement Pākaitore served as a village for Whanganui hapū and allied iwi to be based in during the fishing season. The area was considered a safe zone and when settlers arrived in the town, it was a place where they could trade with Māori. These trades were mostly for food and expertise in the form of building skills to establish homes. In 1840 Pākaitore was the site of the sale of land to the New Zealand Company followed weeks later by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
In the years that followed the signing of the Treaty Whanganui Māori began a long standing legal process that queried the sale of over 86,000 acres of land in the area. Iwi claimed then, as they do now that Pākaitore was not included in the purchase of land which was completed in 1848 by the government. The return of Whanganui iwi to Pākaitore in 1995 highlighted their continuing connection to the land and the outstanding Treaty of Waitangi Claim for the Whanganui River. This had, until settlement in 2014, been this country’s longest running litigation. Whanganui iwi came into conflict with the Wanganui District Council and the community about their right to occupy the land. For iwi however, it was a chance to establish tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) and celebrate their Whanganuitanga (everything that makes you Whanganui). It was also an opportunity for local pākehā to come to an understanding of the complexity of local history and a new awareness of their own Whanganui identity.
On the 18th May 1995, the occupation ended as it had begun with a karakia and iwi walked off the site. As a result of the event a new era of partnership, communication and negotiation between the Crown, Iwi and the Wanganui District Council was formed and continues to this day. The occupation received considerable national media attention and polarised the community. The concerns of Whanganui Māori were about contemporary issues that had their roots deeply imbedded in the settlement of New Zealand. These concerns were Whanganui specific but had much wider implications both nationally and internationally for considering similar claims.
So what do the effects of the occupation sound like today? How does it register in local memory, twenty years on? This exhibition brings together a small selection of works from the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua’s collection that depict Pākaitore, before, during and after the occupation alongside contemporary works by local artists that have been commissioned for the show. The brief to these artists was to make a personal response, not only to the occupation but also to Pākaitore as a site, a place of recreation, contemplation and beauty. Each of the artists are or have been based in Whanganui for significant periods of time and each have their own unique stance on what this important occasion and site means to them.
Pākaitore is a Whanganui story but it also reminds us that the sound of history is universal, land ownership, rights, a sense of place and belonging are key to us all.