Making Histories: iwi, hapū and whānau Covid-19 Checkpoints – research, reflections, and what next?

Making Histories: iwi, hapū and whānau Covid-19 Checkpoints – research, reflections, and what next?

It has been over two years since Aotearoa New Zealand went into lockdown in the hopes of limiting the spread of Covid-19. While not yet behind us, we are now in a position to be able to reflect on those early stages of the pandemic. Throughout this time a myriad of responses were put into place with the community at the very centre. Master of Museum and Practice Student Kate Hudspith-Gooch spent a one-month internship at Te Papa, and was tasked with conducting a small-scale research project into one of the lesser-acknowledged responses to the pandemic – iwi-led Covid-19 Checkpoints – as a part of the ongoing Making Histories: Communities and Covid-19 Project. Kate talks about her research here.

I set out by first acknowledging my limitations. I am a Pākehā researcher who has no Whakapapa Māori but I have been conducting this project with the assistance and support of my supervisor Mātauranga Māori Curator Isaac Te Awa. I have taken this research opportunity as a way to educate myself and I hope this research may do the same for others. I would like to take this opportunity to share some of the valuable insights I have gained through conducting this mahi.

Initial Research

As a starting point, I was given a book by Isaac, and spent three days reading Luke Fitzmaurice and Maria Bargh’s book Stepping Up: Covid-19 Checkpoints and Rangatiratanga. A fantastic way to begin – I was able to get a basic understanding of what the checkpoints were and what they could mean for the future.

From there, I combed through a plethora of scholarly articles, digital media stories, opinion pieces and videos in search of different perspectives, stories and reactions to the checkpoints. The paragraph below reflects some ideas I took away from this initial stage of my research:

Little attention has been given to the proactive and innovative Māori responses to the Covid-19 Pandemic. [1] Working independently to the New Zealand Government, iwi, hapū and whānau operated Covid-19 Checkpoints.

A range of misinformation about the nature of these checkpoints has resulted in incorrect headlines and ignorant actions – actions that did not take into account how vital these checkpoints were to protecting Māori. Covid Checkpoints, implanted in areas with significant Māori populations, were not intrusive roadblocks, they were a quick reminder of our responsibilities to protect each other.

Although blatantly ignored by some, they also had a rather sound Te Tiriti o Waitangi legal foundation. At its very core, this community response was what many Māori have expressed as ‘doing things our own way’, ‘a collective obligation’ and ‘just getting on with it’. [2]

A handpainted sign on the side of the road with the words 'Te Urewera Closed to hunting and fishing. Locals and essential workers only'
Te Urewera checkpoint. Photo courtesy of Kate Hudspith-Gooch

Kōrero with Te Atahou Matamua

Making Histories is a community-oriented project. With this in mind, I thought it was of the utmost importance to kōrero with those involved in the Covid-19 Checkpoints to place community voice and direct experience at the centre of this research. I crafted a set of interview questions that took into account the research I had done, and what I did not yet understand, and prioritised personal experiences and perspectives.

I spoke to public servant, iwi advisor, and historian Te Atahou Mataamua (Ngāi Tūhoe), from the beautiful Waikaremoana, about her involvement in the Te Urewera checkpoint. Below, I reflect on two compelling aspects of this conversation.

Mana motuhake and duty

“I think the people who had a problem with it were looking at it from a Pakeha perspective, as a hapū member it was my mana motuhake to do as I see fit – so we had all those different layers of opposing supporting views around the Covid-19 checkpoint. It was important for us in the messaging and being as clear as possible on what we we’re about.” – Te Atahou Matamua

There was a profound sense of just needing to act fast. Te Atahou and various others have directly mentioned the devastating impact of the 1918 Influenza. In Waikaremoana it nearly wiped out the entire Māori population.

With this history and whānau in mind, Te Atahou returned home. The closest town to Waikaremoana, she explains, is at least an hour away and it’s widely known that Wairoa has poor healthcare services. It is thus unsurprising that a great amount of fear arose; “we were scared about our future”.

Mana motuhake relates to self-determination, with the principle being autonomy and control. [3] This is not something widely understood by Pākehā and unfortunately, some choose to remain ignorant.

Māori saw it as their duty to protect each other from the unknown, to keep this ‘mysterious disease’ out of their communities. As a next step, I would kōrero with other iwi and hapū to get a sense of their understanding of mana motuhake. It would also be beneficial to collect some of the pamphlets that were handed out at the various checkpoints to see what educational materials were being provided.

Community: Aroha and togetherness

“Helping us come back into aroha…that sense of community togetherness. We had gone through some hard times prior to lockdown, losing people and we feel everything as a collective, we do everything as a collective. If you want to be an individual then you move away” – Te Atahou Matamua

Those who took part in the checkpoints often explained their motivations as being driven by a desire to keep their people safe. Te Atahou comes from a community of 250 to 300, they are all whānau. To want to protect your family is something instinctual that we all understand. It was a real labour of love and unity. There is something to be said about communities coming together with iwi and authorities.

Fitzmaurice and Bargh suggest that the government has something to learn from this unity – to be good Te Tiriti partners. As a next step, I would be interested in talking to a wide range of whānau, hapū and iwi – of different sizes, to get an idea of what this togetherness and unity look like in different forms.

Concluding remark

Documenting history in the present is a tall order but an essential practice. Making Histories places an emphasis on Te Papa being a platform to support visitors and communities around New Zealand to reflect on and share their experiences of the pandemic. Past this, the project is interested in having long-term conversations that directly address what I think of as our nation’s ‘wider crisis’ – these crises are linked to deeply institutionalized issues such as health and wellbeing, racism and inequality.

These iwi, hapū and whānau-led checkpoints have shown the strength of Māori and Indigenous leadership. They are indicative of collective unity and the potential for a Te Tiriti-based collective future for Aotearoa New Zealand. I feel privileged to have worked on this mahi and it is my hope that this research is continued.


[1]  Tino Rangatiratanga and Well-being: Māori Self Determination in the Face of Covid-19, Annie Te One and Carrie Clifford, Frontiers in Sociology, 03 February 2021

[2] Rangatiratanga isn’t scary, Luke Fitzmaurice & Maria Bargh, e-tangata, May 29, 2022

[3] Mana motuhake, Te Aka, Māori dictionary

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