Auckland Airport has put the brakes on its new runway, but John Landrigan finds a sensitive matter is not resolved.
Makaura Marae is located in Ihumatao, Mangere, five minutes from Auckland International Airport. It is a mana whenua marae of Tamaki Makaurau and home to the descendants of Te Wai o Hua. Not far away is Pukaki Marae. Ancestors of both wharenui migrated here in the Tainui waka.
The skeletal remains of 85 of their whakapapa, some 600 years old, were exhumed during earthworks for a new runway more than two years ago. While five koiwi (skeletal remains) were reburied immediately, 80 still lie in a storage container at the airport.
Just what exactly is holding up their burial is apparently of no concern to anybody but people from the marae and the airport.
But others say the plan for the runway to plough through ancient urupa (cemetery) needs to be revisited.
No other koiwi have been discovered. Not because there are no more to be found - some estimate there could be 1000 more - but because building the northern runway was suspended in mid-July.
Airport corporate relations manager Richard Llewellyn says the project has been halted because of extensive consultation with the airline industry.
"That review identified more effective means of managing peak-time capacity on the existing runway, meaning it can handle expected growth for longer than earlier envisaged," he says, adding that it will definitely be needed to cope with inevitable growth some time in the medium-term future.
Auckland University Maori studies lecturer, Ngaha Arapera of Ngapuhi, is not directly involved with the negotiations but says it would be "careless" and "foolish" to continue digging without further discussion.
"Ploughing on through without regard seems insensitive.
Maybe this is a time for the airport authority to think again.
"Why does it need to be built on that site?
"Protocol would see the remains reburied where they came from."
If both sides have an amicable agreement, the wait could be justified.
"I would have hoped this would have been resolved sooner. Two years seems a long time. Any instance where any graves are disturbed needs to be resolved."
Since The Aucklander raised concerns about storage of the remains in October 2009, Makaurau Marae committee chairperson Janice Roberts says discussions "progress and we are close to a suitable resolution".
Pukaki Marae chairwoman Karen Wilson says: "It's a complex issue with a lot of considerations."
Neither party would speak on the future of the runway or preservation of their ancestors, still undisturbed, until the situation around the burial of those already exhumed is sorted.
The Aucklander, however, believes other people who can trace their whakapapa to those ancestral graves, and many other New Zealanders, would be shocked to learn of the time-lag - especially those who greet and farewell relatives at the airport, unaware of the remains of 80 people stored for so long in a packing case nearby.
The saga continues despite pleas 10 months ago from Maurice Wilson, a kaumatua from Makaurau Marae, saying the storage is "disrespectful" and "the remains need to be in a urupa soon"; and Mr Llewellyn saying the matter needs to be resolved "as quickly as possible".
Mr Llewellyn would not comment on what's held things up but insists resolution is near.
"We have been involved in ongoing consultation and discussions with local iwi to find an appropriate place to re-inter the koiwi."