Life story

Life Story: Joe Hawke, the Activist and Politician Who Kept Saying “Back to Earth”

“Give us back our lands,” he told Robert Muldoon.

“Give our land back,” he said during the historic 1975 land marches.

“Give it back,” he told his colleagues in parliament in 2002.

It was a message that Joe Hawke kept repeating.

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He said this when he followed Dame Whina Cooper to Wellington on the Land March in 1975, and again a few years later, before the military moved in to eliminate hundreds of Takaparawhau supporters, Bastion Pt.

Hawke died on Sunday, May 22, at the age of 82. In his later years, frailty had transformed a man best known for standing up to politicians, the police and the military, but the respect he had earned through years of activism and service did not was not lost.

Joe Hawke, photographed in 1978 outside Auckland High Court.

Personal photographer

Joe Hawke, photographed in 1978 outside Auckland High Court.

As a highly respected kaumātua of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, he lived on his tūrangawaewae. It was land that the Auckland council actively degraded when Hawke grew up there, in the 1940s and 1950s.

Hawke’s parents and grandparents witnessed outright abuse of Ōrākei in the early 20th century, when the council dumped Auckland’s sewage onto the foreshore and polluted the sea, which had been a vital fishery for the hapū. When Hawke was 11, the state burned down their marae and attempted to evict his hapū from their homes – where they had lived for over a century. Although such grotesque colonization stories may seem old, it was in 1951.

And 27 years later, the Crown will send its army to try to expel Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei from his lands again. Now in his late thirties, Hawke was determined to resist the state’s attack on his hapū and his land. He was arrested for his efforts.

Once a radical spokesperson for Maori rights, he was also a businessman and politician.

Dame Whina Cooper and Joe Hawke walk side by side in the 1975 Land Walk.

Personal photographer

Dame Whina Cooper and Joe Hawke walk side by side in the 1975 Land Walk.

No matter what role he was playing, Hawke kept saying “give us back our lands”. Sometimes, like during his farewell speech in Parliament, he said it twice.

“This Parliament needs to realize now that whatever Maori land you have taken out of legal legislation, give it back. Give it back,” he told lawmakers, before stepping down in 2002.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said Hawke was “always about the kaupapa.” They first met when Robertson was assistant to then Environment Secretary Marian Hobbs and Hawke was a backbench MP in Helen Clark’s Labor government. The assistant and backbench scheduled a fortnightly catch-up, under the guise of an environmental meeting, which Robertson said was an excuse to be able to hear Hawke’s stories.

“I listened to Joe, and his fortnightly kōrero struck me as deeply imbued with the values ​​of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei but also Aotearoa New Zealand. Humble, proud, driven and loyal,” he said.

Joe Hawke led a 506-day occupation of Bastion Pt.

Harold Patton

Joe Hawke led a 506-day occupation of Bastion Pt.

Hawke was a seasoned activist, one of the leaders of a generation at the forefront of the Maori rights movement in the last quarter of the 20th century.

It was a time of monumental cultural change, known as the Maori Renaissance. During these years, Aotearoa saw political and social changes such as the creation of the Waitangi court and the growth of te reo Māori, as discussions of settlement and Te Tiriti o Waitangi became more common.

These discussions did not happen because of inertia or trust in the status quo. Understanding of the loss of land and treaty rights was shocked into the collective consciousness of the nation thanks to often controversial figures such as Hawke.

Hawke was aware of these injustices because he had experienced them as a child. He learned his hapū, living on his tūrangawaewae with his kuia. These first-hand experiences of brutal colonization stayed with him, inspiring his later positions for Maori rights.

Hawke’s son, Taiaha, said his father raised them at the forefront of the Indigenous rights movement – just as he was raised.

As a child, Joe Hawke took his children “camping” and “walking”.

Their camping trips were at Bastion Pt, and their walks were huge hīkoi from Northland to Wellington.

In 1975, Taiaha remembers being told “maranga mai, maranga mai” and getting ready for a walk.

”It has become one of the greatest getaways of our lives. Participating in the Maori Land Walk – aside from the truckers trying to run over us – it was the greatest adventure we’ve ever had.

Two years later, Taiaha was told they were going camping. “Another adventure for us children,” he said, but he asked his father why they were sleeping in tents given that they had relatives nearby who would have offered their couches.

“Dad put us in danger and if he hadn’t put us in danger, we…wouldn’t have learned anything,” Taiaha said.

“We learned whawhai mō te pono, whawhai mō te tika. Never take no for an answer. Never be told you can’t do something.

Their camping trip to Bastion Pt lasted 506 days and ended with the arrest of 222 people, including Joe Hawke.

On May 25, 1978, the army arrived at Bastion Pt. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon sent 800 police and army officers to destroy the settlement. They toppled marae, houses and māra kai (vegetable gardens) and arrested anyone who stood in their way.

Former MP Hone Harawira at Joe Hawke's tangi.


Former MP Hone Harawira at Joe Hawke’s tangi.

Former MP Hone Harawira stood by Hawke that day. He said that if the protest had not resisted, the government would not have moved. It was one of the events that changed the course of race relations in Aotearoa, he said, leading to the treaty claims process – which greatly benefited the people of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei.

“By Joe taking a stand and putting Ngāti Whātua in a position where they could force their way and force the Crown to recognize their rights, so much more has come of it. Joe is the person who made this possible. It’s that simple.”

Since then, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei has transformed into an economic and cultural powerhouse of Auckland – worth over a billion dollars. It provides social services and invests in education and housing for its inhabitants.

Joe’s fight was not without significant cost. Taiaha Hawke spoke about the regular abuse her whānau and father faced. He remembers arguing with his father, pushing against his directive to be “rangimārie” or peaceful after a few gang members told them they were “a disgrace”.

They got in trouble with the gangs and the police. While Joe Hawke insisted that pacifism was the best way to achieve justice, he was not interested in making life easy for government. Taiaha remembers a 45-minute argument between his father and the police, who had come looking for him. He spent those 45 minutes insisting that he was in fact not the infamous Joe Hawke.

And nine months after the so-called occupation of Bastion Pt began, personal tragedy befell the Hawkes. A makeshift wharf burned down, claiming the life of young Joanne Hawke, Joe’s niece and brother’s daughter, Alec Hawke.

She is still remembered today, with a memorial at Takaparawhau. The earth is now wāhi tapu.

The heartbreak didn’t end their struggle, it only encouraged more fans to join the Hawkes and Ngāti Whātua.

Alec remembers Joe’s leadership at that time. “He had a simple message: give us back our land.”

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