Determining tribal authority no easy task

It is fair to say that Ngai Tahu have been watching the tense standoff that is emerging between Ngati Toa and Te Ati Awa in the greater Wellington city area with some interest.

It seems there are opportunities being made available to Ngati Toa in areas that have already been agreed are traditional Te Ati Awa estates. This could be misunderstandings or it could be political expediency.

It could also be a product of Ngati Toa's aggressive mobility during the two decades building up to the European occupation of Wellington.

Much of what the Waitangi Tribunal and the Office of Treaty Settlements needs to determine before the Crown can consider settling with an iwi is who had authority over which pieces of land.

The New Zealand Company or the Crown had to determine the same thing during the first major land sales period but, to a certain extent, it was easier in those early times.

The principle of ringa kaha, or strength of hand, was still the dominant factor in determining ownership. If there was someone living on the land and they looked like a chief, walked like a chief and their peers treated them like a chief then they probably were a chief with sovereign-type authority over their limited territory.

In most instances there was more than one chief and the land negotiators needed to sort out who all the bigwigs were as well as getting a grasp of how the hierarchy worked.

Once they were comfortable they could identify who it was that they needed to discuss the transaction with a sale could occur. Despite cynicism about the process nowadays there was an element of fairness and logic about it compared with the other options available to them.

The greatest complication was that the ultimate driver for land sales was not about fairness and logic; it was simply about acquiring the land for a settler population.

In absolute context of the previous millennium of global imperialism there was no process that could have been considered fair or balanced in the favour of Maori unless the settlers simply turned away and went home - but even Maori didn't want that.

Determining who actually had ownership or authority to negotiate was always complex but, in retrospect, it was practically impossible to get right in certain areas - particularly those areas that had been subject to new Maori settlement influences in the previous 20 years.

The greater Wellington city would be one of the most complex areas in the country simply because at the time the New Zealand Company and the Crown were attempting to determine the owners, the current regime had been there only a few short years.

Te Rauparaha and his people were originally from Kawhia and moved south in the 1820s, battling their way south often with the advantage of muskets in hand against their enemies holding stone and wooden weapons.

They forged allegiances with several other iwi including the Taranaki-based Te Ati Awa fighting southwards and eastward for many years but mainly migrating towards the southern parts of the North Island.

Kapiti Coast is now considered to be a stronghold of Ngati Toa and their allies and was a strategic location, particularly in terms of trade, as many of the early European vessels moored in behind Kapiti Island and were keen to barter with Maori for flax, timber and supplies.

They also invaded places further south, ultimately reaching Kaiapoi pa in the late 1820s but never settling with any presence south of the Cook Strait.

But, just like the allied forces during World War II, the alliance was tenuous and ultimately most of the iwi retreated to their own sense of identity, land occupation and personal authority.

By 1840 Ngati Toa were associated with Porirua and the Kapiti district, Te Ati Awa with the Wellington Harbour and a number of iwi had spread across the top of the South Island.

But Ngati Toa has always continued to claim a right in all of these areas because of their militaristic mobility across the entire district during the crucial land sale period when legal ownership was being passed to the settler government.

They, perhaps more than any other iwi, assert the idea of shared territories that can't necessarily be backed up by more traditional ideas such as long-term occupation.

Ngai Tahu themselves often get challenged about their occupation rights because their presence in the south was only five generations old at the time of European settlement while Ngati Toa's settlement legacy at the same time was 20 years at most.

I know one of the disputed territories is the small island that gives Island Bay its name. Taputeranga was at one time occupied by the Ngai Tahu ancestor Te Wera.

If it is up for grabs again maybe we should stake a claim.

The Press