On Waitangi Day, remembering a fight for justice that took generations

Women deliver a waiata in Parliament to mark the third reading of the Ngai Tahu Bill in 1998.
Dave Hansford

Women deliver a waiata in Parliament to mark the third reading of the Ngai Tahu Bill in 1998.

OPINION: Next year will mark twenty years since a major milestone in the history of the people of the South Island.

In 1998 hundreds of Mainlanders converged on Parliament to witness the New Zealand Government formally apologise to them and their families. From pensioners right through to infants, the people were there representing generations of their family who had been systematically oppressed by consecutive governments for 160 years.

The milestone I'm talking about of course, is the settlement of the Ngai Tahu Treaty of Waitangi claim.

Former Runanga o Ngai Tahu chairman Charlie Crofts is moved by a waiata delivered by his people on the third reading of ...
Dave Hansford

Former Runanga o Ngai Tahu chairman Charlie Crofts is moved by a waiata delivered by his people on the third reading of the Ngai Tahu Bill in Parliament in 1998.

As a Human Rights Commissioner I can tell you it is not easy to take your own Government to court. But Ngai Tahu did. 

For years different generations of this iwi refused to be silent. Nine years after the Treaty was signed Ngai Tahu chiefs petitioned the young Government: contracts had not been honoured, land was being taken illegally and thriving tribal businesses were being actively blocked by the Crown. Before long Ngai Tahu, whose members had managed a thriving land and sea based economy, had become impoverished and virtually landless. Even so the tribe's claim of 3.4 million acres of lost land is only one tenth of the original total estate.

What would have been the easy thing to do would have been to forget all about it. To give in and let bygones be bygones. To forget about the past and to just focus on the future.  Many New Zealanders to this day tell us that we don't need to know about the things that went on in our nation's history because they don't matter in 2017.

But the families of Ngai Tahu stood their ground. And they persevered. And they challenged Government after Government because they knew that an injustice had taken place and was still taking place. They suspected, correctly, that if they did not challenge the Government, the injustice would continue.

Ngai Tahu were trailblazers back in 1998 because back then the settlement of Treaty claims were new. They were highly controversial. Critics argued that Maori couldn't be trusted with the compensation money and would just fritter it away. How wrong they were.

In two decades Ngai Tahu has successfully grown its financial asset of $177 million to more than $1 billion to become one of the South Island's biggest businesses. Unlike other multi-million-dollar companies, Ngai Tahu are here to stay, forever. They won't be shifting headquarters offshore or sending their profits somewhere else. The iwi has invested in its families financially, academically and culturally.

When the devastating earthquakes hit the Canterbury region, Ngai Tahu were there. Marae were opened to anyone who needed shelter. Few know that while the bodies of the dead lay in a temporary morgue just outside Christchurch, Ngai Tahu people sat with them at all times. Honouring the deceased and honouring their own tikanga or traditions of valuing human life. Even recently when the Kaikoura quake hit Ngai Tahu and local marae were there providing food and shelter to anyone who needed it.

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As well as understanding the mammoth journey the people of Ngai Tahu have been on over the last 20 years, South Islanders should also understand the journey it took for them to get here since 1840. It is a journey of injustice, sacrifice and resolution. Most of all it is a story about incredible determination and mana.

Know your history - Kimihia ō kōrero tuku iho – is the Human Rights Commission's theme for this year's Waitangi Day and it's an important one.

We are encouraging New Zealanders to find out about the place they live in and in particular to encourage their children to grow up knowing about the place they call home. 

The story of Ngai Tahu is one we can all be very proud of and I encourage all Mainlanders to learn more about it.

Richard Tankersley is a Human Rights Commissioner based in Christchurch. Richard's iwi affiliations are Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe and Waitaha.

 - Stuff


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