Ngapuhi, Te Rarawa, Waikato, Ngati Mahuta
Writing a letter to herself when she was 9, Pania Newton declared she would become a lawyer. Not that anyone in her immediate or extended whānau directly influenced the decision. It was one she made for herself.
As a student her steely resolve combined with a “studious, serious and opinionated” approach to her studies - all the right credentials for a career in law.
There were, however, other more important reasons for wanting to join a profession that initially seemed well out of reach.
“Not many in my family had finished high school, let alone gone to University. I wanted to break that cycle and to change my family’s circumstances. Education was the only way I thought I could achieve this.”
Gaining a Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship in her final year of high school and enrolling in a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Health Sciences conjoint, Pania says her time at University came with both its challenges and opportunities.
“Coming from a small kura (school) initially I found University quite isolating. But I soon developed a good group of supportive friends and began to get involved in various sporting groups and clubs as well as student politics. Those political groups changed my view of the world and opened my mind to many of the injustices faced in Aotearoa which greatly influenced my future pathway.”
Graduating in 2015 and working towards completing a Bachelor’s degree in Tikanga Māori and Social Sciences for Public Health, Pania gained additional qualifications from Te Awanuiārangi and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Māori Food Sovereignty Practices and Performing Arts.
But it was the discovery of survey pegs on ancestral land at Ihumātao - a rare cultural, historical, and ancestral landscape on the shores of the Manukau Harbour where she had grown up - that would see her plans to join a law practice put on hold indefinitely.
Establishing the Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) campaign, alongside her cousins, for the preservation of Ihumātao, including being thrust into the national spotlight as its spokesperson, Pania would go on to lead a four year battle. The battle included three attempts to take the cause to the United Nations that would culminate in thousands of protectors occupying the land leading to a final showdown with the Government to acquire the land from developers Fletcher Building.
Pania says her actions have been consistent with her belief about the importance of being a “good kaitiaki” (guardian).
“Heritage for me is anything that is valued by communities that speaks to the past and informs our future. Given the cultural significance of this land and its unique history I saw it as my responsibility to fight for its preservation.”
Another cause Pania has spearheaded has been Matike Mai Aotearoa Rangatahi, the youth arm working towards Constitutional Transformation. She is also a board member and trustee of several groups seeking to empower communities to lead healthy lifestyles and enable their well-being including Toi Tangata, Kī o Rahi Tāmaki Makaurau, Ngā Kaitiaki o Ihumātao, and Puketapapa Ascendants.
Despite being challenged many times, Pania remains committed to her advocacy and her role as kaitaiki for the adversities faced and the sacrifices made to pursue justice for the land, the environment and future generations who will ultimately contribute to a better Aotearoa.