Chief negotiater Sir Tipene O'Regan after the Ngāi Tahu bill was passed in Parliament . Image: Barry Durrant/Getty Images

How Ngāi Tahu turned a landmark settlement into a billion dollar iwi empire

Ngāi Tahu spent 150 years in cultural and economic poverty, dispossessed of the vast majority of their whenua and mahinga kai. Today, 20 years on from their landmark settlement with the Crown, they’re sitting atop a billion dollar pūtea, writes Don Rowe.

At the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, almost half the landmass of New Zealand was considered the rohe of the South Island’s Ngāi Tahu. Within 20 years, most of that whenua was gone. Huge tracts on which cities like Dunedin and Christchurch now stand were snapped up by the Crown in a series of inequitable land sales, pasture for settlers sent by the ill-fated New Zealand Company.

What followed was the decimation of Ngāi Tahu; a dispossession of whenua, the destruction of the reo, the seizure of land containing urupā and other sacred sites, and one of the longest and most complex legal claims in New Zealand history.

“In a sense, the grievance of the claim became our culture,” says Ngāi Tahu manukura Tā Tipene O’Regan, chairman of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board for more than a decade.

For more than 150 years Ngāi Tahu fought for the restitution of their loss, and the damage it did to Ngāi Tahutanga. On September 28, 1998, with the passing of the Ngāi Tahu Settlement Act, the Crown acknowledged the toll that more than a century of deprivation had taken on the iwi, and entered into a landmark settlement of $170 million. Guardianship over the South Island’s pounamu was also guaranteed, as was the return of maunga Aoraki from which the iwi descend. With this settlement the rejuvenation of Ngāi Tahu began, a process that has seen the iwi begin to emerge from beneath seven generations of dispossession to reestablish their mana and rohe. But it would take the life work of several generations to bring the Crown to heel.

Starting in the 1840s, negotiations between the Crown and iwi were consistently rushed and imprecise. During discussions for what would become known as Kemp’s Deed, or the Canterbury Sale, land boundaries were set by terms as vague as ‘so far as the eye can see’. Kemp’s Deed was notably signed aboard the HM Sloop Fly in Akaroa Harbour on 12 June, 1848 – a position from which visibility inland is limited.

At more than 13.5 million acres, and a sale price of just £2000, the Kemp Deed was the largest of all Crown purchases from Ngāi Tahu, and typifies the grievances carried by the tribe for more than 150 years.

As is consistent with colonial behaviour the world over, the Crown failed to meet Ngāi Tahu’s sale stipulations almost immediately. Instead of setting aside an agreed-upon 10% of purchased land for iwi – approximately 1,355,140 acres – the Crown ceded just over 6000 acres. This deprived Ngāi Tahu of their stake in a growing land-based economy. The promised schools and hospitals never materialised. And, despite having guaranteed the preservation of traditional mahinga kai sites, the Crown ruled that only areas already under cultivation, or the places where there were fixed structures such as eel weirs, were exempt. As a result, Ngāi Tahu lost control of, and access to, the vast majority of their traditional sources of food. Anything more than a subsistence lifestyle soon became impossible.

“You had this quite extraordinary transformation which is clearly observable and the result of what the tribunal eventually found to be unconscionable fraud,” says O’Regan. “It took a terrible toll on Ngāi Tahu. Whole communities disappeared.”

In 1849, less than a decade from the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Ngāi Tahu rangatira Matiaha Tiramorehu, a refugee from Te Rauparaha’s sacking of Kaiapoi, sent a formal complaint to Lieutenant Governor Edward Eyre demanding the Crown meet their obligations, and to deal with the iwi as equals. This letter is considered by many to be the genesis of Te Kerēme – The Claim – a fundamental facet of the Ngāi Tahu identity.

“For some families it was seven generations from 1849 to the settlement,” says O’Regan. “It defied historical gravity. Having this fight for so long, the fight becomes your identity.”

Members of Ngāi Tahu perform a first-ever Waiata in the public gallery, holding a portrait of Matiaha Tiramorehu.

In 1857, Matiaha Tiramorehu wrote another letter, this time to the Queen. In it, he reminded the sovereign of her orders to the Governors of New Zealand: that the law be applied equally to settlers and Māori, that the nation was considered as a whole rather than two peoples, and that ‘the white skin be made just as equal with the brown skin’.

The late 1800s saw political churn smother more than one inquiry into the Crown’s treatment of Ngāi Tahu, though a Royal Commission in 1886 acknowledged the tribe’s poverty, if not the colonial cause of it. By the early 1900s, fewer than 2,000 Ngāi Tahu were living in their traditional rohe. O’Regan says there was a sentiment that Ngāi Tahu were somehow “less than Māori”, due to their cultural impoverishment.

National MP Chris Finlayson, who signed 59 deeds of settlement during his time as Minister for Treaty Negotiations in the Key government, served as a litigator for Ngāi Tahu during negotiations with the Crown. He says the details of the Ngāi Tahu claims make for “grim reading”, a litany of broken promises and cynical political gamesmanship.

“There are various levels of mendacity: there’s out-and-out raupatu, and there are shonky deals. Well, almost the whole of the South Island was the subject of shonky deals.”

In an impressive effort of forensic cataloging, Ngāi Tahu’s archives contain almost 150 years of legal filings relating to Te Kerēme. They tell a story of generational struggle, and a sort of righteous fury. For many, a settlement promised not just restitution but salvation.

“There was always going to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” says ‘Aunty’ Jane Davis, a Te Kerēme stalwart. “I think all our old people thought like that.”

Following WWII, in an effort to recognise Māori service, the Crown authorised the Ngāitahu Claim Settlement Act, which guaranteed the iwi an income of £10,000 a year for 30 years. The amount was far less than the value of the land ceded by Ngāi Tahu, but, impoverished and destitute, the iwi took what they could get.

The administration of the money necessitated the recreation of the Ngāi Tahu Trust Board, initially mooted in 1928 in preparation for any future claims against the Crown. The board would become the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board in the mid-1950s, a driving force in the settlement of Te Kerēme and the revitalisation of Ngāi Tahu.

The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 but it would be another decade before it had jurisdiction to hear historical claims. During this legal purgatory, the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board undertook an effort to create a governance structure with legal personhood which was accountable to Ngāi Tahu rather than the Crown. These discussions would eventuate in the creation of the tribal council Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu in 1996. Their motto: ‘Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri ā muri ake nei’ – for us and our children after us.

Negotiations with the Crown commenced in 1991, following the release of the Waitangi Tribunal’s Ngāi Tahu Land Report. Representatives from Ngāi Tahu’s three negotiation teams met monthly with the Crown for three years, outlining grievances around what they call the Nine Tall Trees: the eight land sales and rights to mahinga kai. In 1994 talks broke down, but the iwi were not to be swayed, employing tactics Chris Finlayson calls a ‘masterful’ display of aggressive litigation.

“One of the faults of the Treaty process that I’ve been aware of in my nine years as a minister is that the government can say ‘we’ll put you to the bottom of the pile’, or ‘we will delay negotiating with you’,” says Finlayson. “But actually, once the tribunal has issued a report, the government is almost in the position of being a defendant, and it should get on with the process of settling the claim, not treating iwi who want to settle as recalcitrant schoolboys to be taught a lesson.”

“The negotiation was always backed up if need be with litigation, so if we needed to go off to the court to seek interim orders or to challenge decisions of the Waitangi Tribunal, Ngāi Tahu certainly were prepared to go down that path. There are some people who may not want to, but they were. They understood.”

Though the strategy was not endorsed by the entirety of the iwi, two years into a stalemate they reached a breakthrough. Tā Tipene O’Regan, chair of the A Team responsible for negotiating with government, leaned heavily on a personal relationship with then-prime minister Jim Bolger after his relationship with Treaty Negotiations Minister Doug Graham broke down.

In 1997, not long after Waikato-Tainui became the first iwi to settle a Tribunal dispute, Ngāi Tahu entered into a Deed of Settlement with the Crown.

Aoraki, the sacred maunga of Ngāi Tahu. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The Crown had “acted unconscionably and in repeated breach of the Treaty of Waitangi”, the Tribunal found.”As a consequence, Ngāi Tahu has suffered grave injustices over more than 140 years. The tribe is clearly entitled to very substantial redress from the Crown.”

On the 29 September, 1998, O’Regan and a group of Ngāi Tahu resplendent in kahu huruhuru and other precious taonga made their way to parliament for the third reading and passage of Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Bill. This, the end result of 150 years of trauma and struggle, guaranteed Ngāi Tahu compensation of $170 million, as well as the vesting of all pounamu in their rohe, the return of the sacred maunga Aoraki, and mechanisms by which the iwi could guarantee their economic future, including the right of first refusal on numerous Crown properties and utilities.

As waiata echoed down from the public gallery in parliament, O’Regan says it was the culmination of his life’s work.

“I felt a measure of satisfaction – but also real anxiety to tie up the loose ends before I go.”

Ngāi Tahu estimate the economic losses to the iwi from the Crown’s land purchases as more than $20 billion, and thus the offer was, in Chris Finlayson’s words, “not derisory – but certainly nothing like damages.”

“The old rule of restitutio in integrum, i.e. putting people back in the position they would be in had the wrong not occurred – it’s nothing like that at all. But it was designed to provide people with a good economic base.”

In the 20 years since settling with the Crown, Ngāi Tahu have increased their wealth tenfold, moving into almost every area of economic significance in Te Waipounamu. In the 2017 financial year alone, the networth of Te Rūnanga Group increased by $89m to $1.36b, with a net profit of $126.78m. Almost $50 million was distributed to tribal initiatives and educational and wellbeing grants. Whai Rawa, a savings fund set up by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu in 2006, grew to $63.75m in the same time, an increase of more than $11m on the previous year.

Ngāi Tahu Capital, the iwi’s investment branch, has developed a substantial portfolio which includes investment in companies such as Ryman Healthcare and Go Bus, while Ngāi Tahu Farming manages three high country stations near Lake Whakatipu, as well as large scale farms on the Canterbury Plains and forests on the West Coast. Ngāi Tahu is also the biggest tourism operator in the South Island, and control huge swathes of fisheries and the Bluff oyster trade. O’Regan estimates the total value of the iwi at more than $1.8 billion.

“In that context the settlement seems alright. But it should have been better. I don’t deny the advance but there’s still a huge amount to do with those gains. And I’m not so interested in the cash value of the thing, I’m more interested in what we’re doing with it. What’s happening with the redistribution? What we’re doing to rebuild our territorial footprint?”

This economic base has allowed Ngāi Tahu to more readily put cultural values like manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga into practice. Following the Christchurch earthquakes, Ngāi Tahu partnered with CERA and began leading the Iwi Māori Recovery Programme in Christchurch.

“It’s been a wonderful evolution from what were very, very difficult times,” Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said on the announcement. “Very unjust crimes were perpetrated on Ngāi Tahu that have gradually been corrected.”

And after the Kaikoura earthquakes, Takahanga marae served more than 10,000 meals while Ngāi Tahu Tourism helicopters provided a vital lifeline to stranded locals.

Savvy and aggressive reinvestment has also funded the revival of Ngāi Tahutanga – a reversal on the cultural impoverishment of the 19th and 20th centuries. Annually, $1 million is made available to whānau to facilitate involvement in cultural activities and language revitalisation. Another $1 million is funnelled into various marae. The iwi has their own radio station, and an Aoraki Bound programme modelled on Outward Bound.

“The great challenge as we move forward from settlement is to redevelop a different sense of purpose – what are you once you’ve taken the grievance away?” says Sir O’Regan. “What is your life? How do you want to be? That’s the reason for this enormous surge through the archives, the reconstruction of new musical composition, why we’re bringing out the old waiata and hunting through manuscripts and place names and the histories of them.

“Renaissance is not too strong of a word. It’s remarkable and quite dramatic. Even to see where te reo is today would have been unimaginable even just six years ago. I am constantly seeing remarkable examples of that renaissance. It’s extraordinarily vigorous and strong. There is more cultural competence among our young than I’ve seen in my lifetime.

“But, as the late great John Rangihau used to say: more and more young people speaking more and more Māori is wonderful, so long as they’ve got something Māori to talk about.”


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