Whanganui River iwi leader Gerrard Albert says the turnout of thousands of people on Saturday to the Hui-ā-Motu called by Kiingi Tuheitia came as no surprise.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 people attended the hui in Ngāruawāhia to share concerns about the new Government’s plans for Māori, including te reo, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the environment and health.

“The Kiingitanga has a history of leading for the motu but not necessarily everybody following all of the time.

“But there are calls within some contexts, such as the current context – the coalition agreements and the proposal to have a referendum on the principles of te Tiriti – that will bring people together, so I’m not surprised at all by the numbers. People answered the call.”

Albert said Whanganui iwi travelled to Tuurangawaewae just “to be there”.

“Some other iwi were bringing their motions and petitions. It’s great to see those being placed on the marae but what was most important was that people came.

“Most came and said nothing. They just let their presence be felt – and that was the real achievement of that hui.”

Joey Allen was part of a group that travelled to the hui from the tūpuna rohe Hinengākau in the river’s upper reaches.

“It was a great day at Tuurangawaewae because the big thing was coming together,” Allen said. “It was pretty much standing room only. You had to be there to feel it.

“There’s going to be more coming out of that hui. Realising the situation that we’re in with this new [government] that we’ve got and the tension that has created for iwi right throughout the motu – we are in a situation where we’re at the bottom and getting pushed around.

“Where to from here? It’s about that unity-building and I was very much impressed with that part of the wānanga,” Allen said.

Albert said the national hui was an opportunity for Māori “just to be and revisit who we are” and where we need to go.

There were no plans for Whanganui River tribes to discuss a specific response to the Government’s policies or proposals because iwi and hapū were already building on important long-term conversations with their communities, Albert said.

“It’s an ongoing discussion of advancing, protecting, including and educating. That hasn’t stopped and I think we’ve always been about that,” Albert said.

“We had the Awa Tupua [Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act 2017] because that was a way of making our river and us the constant.

“Legislation and governments will continue to change around us, and we’ll continue to be the constant.”

Albert sat at the hui as a Tumu Mauri (source of wisdom and knowledge) for two key workshops on the Treaty of Waitangi and the environment.

A concept raised during the workshops centred on continually striving to better one’s self.

Albert said he was concerned about a Government that was deliberately trying to antagonise Māori.

“I have concerns about every [Government] that’s been in place since the 1800s… because none has achieved full and absolute recognition of our place in this country and until they do, I will always be concerned.

“It’s designed to antagonise us, it’s designed to appeal voters of a certain persuasion so they get another term.

“So, yeah, we should be worried about this Government as a continuation of our worry and the way we must address every Government until that fundamental change happens.”

Māori Development Minister Tama Potaka, who attended the hui, this week told RNZ the historic hui was positive and constructive.

“We have to interrogate where we’re going as a country and the number one kaupapa in front of me is kotahitanga and unity, and that’s what I’ll continue to espouse.”

By Moana Ellis, Local Democracy Reporting

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air