Ngai Tahu's reach shapes a new city

Landmarks with Maori names, a possible Maori precinct, Maori included as of right in future governance models - cultural change is coming to Christchurch. JOHN McCRONE reports.

What is the soul of Christchurch? What do you picture as its fond essence?

For some, it could be punters on the River Avon, natty in their boaters and braces, poling in and out of the dappled light of the willow trees.

Eruera Tarena, an amiable young Ngai Tahu tertiary education strategy manager, laughs at the notion.

"Those guys with the funny hats?" Tarena queries. "My dad's English, so it's not that I don't like them. But we're at the bottom of the Pacific. If you look at the marketing for Christchurch - the punting, the Wizard - our community soul is seen as English.

"But you've got to believe it comes at a social cost for Maori youth to be growing up in an environment where your culture's alien, where it's invisible - not just marginalised, not even there."

We are chatting in a room reserved for kaumatua, tribal elders, at Ngai Tahu's Hui-a-Iwi, the annual report back on tribal affairs which last year became a larger three-day celebratory festival at the Lincoln events centre.

And Ngai Tahu has much to celebrate. Many are saying the same thing.

No-one would wish the earthquakes on Christchurch, but there is no denying that the forced rebirth of the city is a huge opportunity to build back better. And one of the biggest changes is going to be the gains that the local iwi will make politically and culturally through the recovery process.

Ngai Tahu's kaiwhakahaere (tribe chairman), the recently knighted Sir Mark Solomon, agrees history will show the quakes struck at a time when Ngai Tahu was stable and well prepared, when it had built up a network of political relationships and a cadre of youthful leaders ready to speak up for tribal interests.

So despite Christchurch being about the whitest of New Zealand cities, long a transplanted corner of empire, institutionally it is about to leap into the future, discover whatever it is that a properly bicultural identity for a 21st century New Zealand might actually look like.

A lot has been happening under the radar already. Politically there have been some major gains.

Solomon says a first key event was that when 10 regional zone committees were set up as part of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy negotiations, Ngai Tahu was granted the right to appoint representatives to each one.

The Resource Management Act was always supposed to encourage a Maori co-management of the environment, but this was a trail- blazing move supported by Environment Canterbury's (ECan) Government-appointed commissioners.

Then even more significantly, when the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (CER) act was passed after the February 2011 quake, there was another first in an iwi being given statutory recognition along with the local authorities as a partner in the process.

It did not have to happen. Even Solomon admits the Government's decision came as somewhat of a surprise. "To be blunt, I was quite shocked." But being inside the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority's (Cera) tight camp has since had big consequences.

"We have been at the table, privy to all the information flows," says Solomon.

With the Blueprint for instance, the 100-day drafting of the central city rebuild plan, a team of young designers and cultural consultants from Ngai Tahu's Toitu Te Whenua unit were able to directly help shape the outcome.

Blueprint co-leader Don Miskell, of planning consultancy Boffa Miskell, says Ngai Tahu's contribution was crucial for imagining a post-colonial identity for Christchurch.

"These young fellows, these young warriors, that we talked to had obviously been schooled up by the elders. And because of their attitude, they were really influential."

One of the wins for Ngai Tahu was recognition of Victoria Square as a new cultural precinct.

Miskell says the area on the banks of the Avon used to be a Maori meeting and trading place. "A place of kai, a market square." But Miskell says what caught him out was that Ngai Tahu was just as adamant about the importance of the park's colonial settler connection.

"They said here are the things we care about. Yes, water quality. But also Queen Victoria - because she signed the Treaty."

Miskell says he was struck that the intent was not to over-write Pakeha history, but instead bring out the shared history of the location - make visible the full story of Otautahi as a place of settlement reaching back to the 1500s, with successive waves of Maori and then the arrival of Europeans in the 1850s.

So in the Blueprint, the plan is to create a new cultural hub, Te Puna Ahurea. It would be a park of flax and native planting surrounding a public building with a Maori theme in the style of the much-admired Waitomo Caves Visitor Centre.

A space for powhiri, civic welcomes and Maori performing arts right in the heart of the city. Enough to put Queen Victoria in her proper context.

Ngai Tahu may also move into the eight-storey Christchurch Court House on the Durham St edge of the square as its new tribe headquarters. It already owns the building, bought from the Crown, and it is one of the few office blocks to have survived the earthquakes.

But Ngai Tahu's cultural influence will be seen far more broadly, reaching into all aspects of the rebuild.

Cera is requiring Blueprint submitters to express a "Ngai Tahu design aesthetic" when putting in plans for the other anchor projects like the conference centre and Avon River precinct.

Over the past year, Ngai Tahu has been sponsoring cultural huis like October's Otautahi Revealed symposium to discuss the practicalities of recasting the city's identity in this fashion.

All the new city landmarks will have te reo second names. The likelihood is that street signage will also be dual language.

And the new urban design panel that will sign off all inner city consents has Ngai Tahu experts sitting alongside those from Cera and Christchurch City Council.

When Westpac Bank and the Goodman Property Trust recently unveiled their proposals for an upmarket Cashel St shopping and office precinct, the Aussie duo were careful to point out its culturally-appropriate details such as the telegraph pole-like street sculptures meant to represent cabbage trees.

So change is being embedded in the local institutional fabric. This will become apparent as the architecture of the new Christchurch emerges. And is likely to become even more obvious when eventually there is also a redrawing of Canterbury's political map.

The earthquakes have seen local democracy rather suspended with the sweeping statutory powers assumed by Cera and the decision to retain ECan's commissioners until 2016.

However the Government has signalled an eventual shake-up of local government that may see Christchurch become a unitary authority like Auckland, along with other big regional changes.

Whatever the outcome, it is now clear Ngai Tahu is set to take a more prominent role. Again there is the chance for biculturalism and co-management to become wired into whatever governance arrangements eventually result.

So the next question seems to be how is all this going to go down with established Pakeha Christchurch and its conception of how the city should be? Will there be a backlash once the scope of the changes becomes plain? Or are people already over such attitudes?

Are they in fact tired of just being displaced Europeans and, following the earthquakes especially, looking to make a deeper connection to the true soul of the place, to a landscape and its history? Cultural differences can make anyone nervous. Amiria Reriti, active in Ngai Tahu's Treaty claim during the 1980s and 1990s, remembers moving to Auckland in 1996.

"Once we'd signed the Deed of Settlement, I was over it." The negotiations had been exhausting and Reriti just wanted to get away. "But I bought a home in Papatoetoe and I was intimidated I can tell you. Oh my God, it was too black!"

Reriti says Pakeha Christchurch was what she knew. "Being a Christchurch girl, born and bred, I was used to the environment and what it looked like. Mostly white and an older age group. I was comfortable with that because that was my home."

So even for Maori, she says, the correct pronunciation of te reo or the right way to behave on formal occasions can be a mental hurdle - something that is a little scary when it is unfamiliar.

No-one wants to be made a fool of by getting things wrong. "I understand because it's been unsettling to us for years as well."

Add in the fact that Ngai Tahu people have plenty of British in their bloodlines - looking around the crowd at the Hui-a-Iwi, the fair skin and light eyes are in evidence - and Maori-ness is not something the tribe wants to thrust on an unwilling public, Reriti says. Instead, it seems more like a gift to be shared.

The tribe's Treaty claim felt like a battle, Reriti agrees. It became something like the disentangling of property in a divorce settlement.

Ngai Tahu rights and ownership had become subsumed by Pakeha New Zealand and there had to be a painful process of going through old documents and oral histories to make it clear who had claim to what.

"There was a lot of tension, a lot of resistance because people were frightened of where it might go with the Waitangi Tribunal."

But Reriti says Ngai Tahu is now firmly established and financially secure. "In 2015, we may top $1 billion - I've waited all my life to hear that."

And the elders have deliberately stepped back to allow the younger generation to drive the next wave of change - one that can be forward looking, informed by the past yet not obsessed by it.

"Because of the earthquakes, there is this fantastic opportunity to wipe the slate clean and say let's build, let's really Maori-up the partnerships. What can be achieved by two people living together?

"It's like we are a syndicate where we have both won Lotto and need to agree how it should be spent in the interests of both."

Now, of course, Reriti sees Christchurch after coming from the other direction.

"And, oof, it is a little white down here."

In Auckland, she has grown use to its strong multiculturalism.

"It's all blends, with Pacifika and Fijian Indians inter-marrying with Maori. At Christmas, my little nephews and nieces will be speaking in Maori, as well as Indian, as well as English. Back and forward with no-one caring a scrap about it."

So how should biculturalism look in Christchurch? And shouldn't it indeed be just this more general multiculturalism?

Tarena, one of that next generation of Ngai Tahu leaders who, as well as working with the tribe's Te Tapuae o Rehua higher education agency, is completing a management PhD on indigenous politics and culture and about to embark on a Fulbright scholarship, answers no.

Tarena says a common misunderstanding is that Maoridom is something generic to be painted over a town like a decorative style. But the Treaty was signed between Crown and tribes. So it is about the specificity of a tribal history and a landscape. It is Ngai Tahu that Ngai Tahu people want to see clearly reflected in the new Christchurch.

Tarena says there is a big difference between the token and the authentic. It is not as if Ngai Tahu wants to turn Christchurch into a Maori village.

"That is cliched. The marae, the red houses, the quaint village. Sure the traditional can be an influence. But that's assuming Maori to be a dead culture - that that is all there is and Maori was at its zenith before Pakeha came.

"But you look at our carvers and artists and they're innovative. They don't just replicate the old forms."

Instead, what matters to Ngai Tahu is revealing the actual hidden history of the city. To bring out that proper sense of place.

Which is why, for example, Victoria Square is significant to Ngai Tahu, says Tarena, and yet Cathedral Square isn't.

"What you don't want to do is decorate Cathedral Square which in terms of cultural significance doesn't have any. In Ngai Tahu times it would've been part of a swamp."

But Tarena says on the other hand, all around the city there are sites that could now be reconnected to their past. For instance Shag Rock, or Rapanui, off Sumner beach - the distinctive outcrop marking the entrance to the estuary which has been left a pile of rubble by the earthquakes.

"Tradition goes that when the Takitimu waka [one of the seven first canoes] arrived, the pillar of stone looked like the stern post of the canoe, so it was given the name of Rapanui.

"With that first human arrival in the region, you can see Rapanui is a really significant site. It talks about the mystery of where we came from. But no-one really knows that.

"That tradition has become invisible so it is not passed down. But I talk to my Pakeha mates about these heroes who came across the Pacific and they go wow, that's a great story."

With Rapanui smashed, there is the opportunity to rebuild it in a way to bring out that neglected history says Tarena.

"Yeah, I'd love to have something like a giant metal sternpost type sculpture put there. We could make that story alive again in our community."

So it is not about a blanket Maorification to cover over Pakeha Christchurch. "Maori know what being colonised is like, what having their culture marginalised is like, so I don't think anyone's talking about that."

Tarena say it is instead about using the opportunities to make genuinely meaningful changes.

"The stories, the connections, they're all there, just not visible because they're not part of the built environment. It has all been built over. Everyone needs X-ray goggles to see Ngai Tahu culture because for the last 200 years we haven't been able to see it.

"It's been out of mind and so out of the soul of the community," he says.

Some of this is going to be controversial admits Tarena, like any attempt to cut down willows and poplars along the Avon, dig up the clipped grass river banks and replace them with a bushy native habitat.

But on the other hand, there may be less resistance than expected, especially from younger Pakeha.

"There'll be those comments in the paper, the letters saying we're going to turn it all into a little village. But you've got to have imagination because it's not been done before. What does a contemporary expression of Maori design and architecture really look like?" says Tarena.

Reriti says again she understands that Pakeha fear a stiff "stand on ceremony" kind of browning of the city - one that is in people's faces, making them uncomfortable in their own home. But Maori are Kiwis also, she protests. They value a "sweet as" cruisy approach to life as much as anyone else.

And it is simply this same level of comfort in their own home that Ngai Tahu people seek, she says. Reriti now wants to be able to return to Christchurch and find Ngai Tahu reflected in the city and landscape as just an accepted aspect of its larger identity.

"I want to be in a place where I can see me, hear me, eat me and be me, without having that relegated to being a performance or the cultural part of some agenda." So Ngai Tahu has a definite ambition for the recovery. It is a chance to forge a real partnership in the spirit of the Treaty. One that is contemporary, appropriate for the times. And it seems the authorities are listening.

"One key thing is the decision- makers are on board," says Tarena. "That's something to celebrate. So yeah, you'll always have your redneck, kneejerk, reaction. But probably for the first time in perhaps 200 years they've not been the ones in power."

Ngai Tahu's Mark Solomon says he has seen a general political shift, a readiness to make biculturalism central to national strategy.

In the past, the relationship has been rocky. Both Labour and National have let Maoridom down - Labour over the foreshore and seabed, National over Don Brash's Orewa speech. But Solomon says the mood has become more constructive.

To others it might seem a surprise that a National government especially would go so far in Canterbury over the zone committees and CER act. But Solomon says National in fact has been the more progressive because, as a party, it understands the issue of property rights.

"Our claim was never against the New Zealand people but against the New Zealand Government for breach of contract. In simple terms, the Government came on to our car lot, put a deposit down on the car and drove it off, never paying us another cent."

The New Zealand public are gradually accepting this too, he believes. "What I've found out is most New Zealanders are very fair- minded people. When they've got the full facts on the table, attitudes change." It's all about an evolving relationship. Solomon jokes about the standard icebreaker he used when addressing predominantly white and elderly audiences in the early 2000s following the settlement.

"I'd say, before I start talking about Ngai Tahu's dreams and aspirations, how many people in this room are on heart medication? Maybe just get your pills ready because this is going to be really scary.

"Well, what we would like is to see our children well educated, in their own homes, in their own businesses, comfortable in both worlds, but proactive members of their community. And yes, isn't that scary?"

So Solomon says rationality is prevailing. And the quakes will accelerate that change. But even here, Ngai Tahu is not intending to push with unnecessary haste.

The Te Puna Ahurea cultural centre has obvious potential for controversy he agrees. Is that the real reason why Cera thinks the Town Hall ought to go - to make way for whatever Ngai Tahu plans?

Solomon replies the Victoria Square precinct is still just a general suggestion. There is no concrete scheme as yet. The fate of the Town Hall has to be decided first.

Also, the precinct is intended to represent not just Maori but the variety of cultures in Christchurch. There would still be the lantern festivals and other ethnic celebrations.

Nor has there been a decision on whether the Court House will become Ngai Tahu headquarters. Solomon says it is an option but the tribe will remain out at its temporary base on the old Wigram airfield for at least the next three years.

"The issue is still to be discussed. To be honest, what's the rush?"

Likewise the question of political representation when the local government map of Canterbury is redrawn. "That conversation was only just getting started prior to the September earthquake and it's completely gone out the door at the moment," Solomon says.

Solomon can perhaps afford to be this relaxed as the tide of opinion is moving the tribe's way, certainly within the corridors of power where it counts. Changes no longer need to be forced because they have developed their own momentum.

But it also allows time for the conversations. There is the chance to ask those questions about the true soul of Otautahi, make those connections back to a larger past because hopefully that is also the way to create a larger future for a recovering city.

The Press