From ritual to 'something else altogether'

23:14, Nov 22 2012

There have often been reasons for the people of Ngai Tahu to gather. In pre-European times the iwi, or parts of the iwi, would meet predominantly for ritualistic purposes.

At the time of the final wave of migration from the North Island to the South Island a formal feast was held.

The reason the migration occurred was inter-hapu warfare that culminated in a battle not far from present-day Petone.

There were losses on both sides but it was no longer tolerable for the parties to be living in the same area together, so Ngai Tahu's ancestors crossed over to the South Island.

Before they did a kai-hau-kai was organised.

Kai-hau-kai are feast rituals where choice foods are gathered, prepared and shared to commemorate an important event. On this occasion it was a cementing of peace and the feast, which was formally named, is now remembered, as is the reason for the ritual.


Another gathering tradition was known as an ohu. This is when one hapu invites or requests another hapu to assist with a project that requires manpower.

This could be preparing a garden, building a house or removing logs from the forest. Often these requests were to groups that were not necessarily on good terms with each other and, in some cases, there may even have been recent hostilities.

This collective working ethos is quite universal, of course, as is the requirement for unfriendly parties to rely on each other at times like harvest or house building.

When important people passed away, different hapu and iwi might come from very far away to pay their respects and the grieving rituals might last several weeks so all who wanted to could attend.

The body would be treated with oils and ochre and placed high on a special platform that allowed it to remain above ground while the preservation process began.

Gatherings of several iwi members might also occur before a battle like a council of war or perhaps for a marriage or birth.

These are all common reasons for people to gather and they continue to influence human society even today. In post- European times some of these gatherings continued but in recent times it is really only the tangihanga that has persisted within Ngai Tahu.

But after 1850 a modern reason emerged for Ngai Tahu to gather and this reason has persisted for more than 160 years.

Once the major land transactions between Ngai Tahu and the Crown began so, too, did the tension and the leadership of the time saw it as important to address their concerns collectively.

There are extensive records of major hui being held at Kaiapoi, Arowhenua, Otakou and Murihiku to discuss breaches of agreement and methods of seeking redress.

They can be compared to the modern equivalent of a council of war but they are actually political deliberation and decision- making meetings and they led to the Ngai Tahu Claim developing the powerful identity it did within the tribe.

The meeting houses that were built became known as whare runanga, which literally means a house to make political decisions. Some Ngai Tahu houses were named after the pursuit of justice, in recognition of the breaches or in commemoration of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The desire to continue to pursue political resolutions to Ngai Tahu's concerns became hardwired into the leadership's DNA.

By the 20th century this agitation and lobbying led to the establishment of the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board and a settlement of sorts. As the political environment evolved so, too, did the opportunities for Ngai Tahu and a more formalised approach to tribal gatherings emerged.

Ngai Tahu's first Hui-a-tau, or annual hui, was held at Otakou Marae in 1981. During the early years these hui were dedicated to discussing Ngai Tahu Claim issues.

When the legislation allowed, they were about preparing for the Waitangi Tribunal and then they became about negotiations, setting up Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and then settlement.

The last few years these hui have been all about what on earth Te Runanga and the Ngai Tahu Holdings Corporation are up to but this year our annual hui is something else altogether.

We have held cultural, food gathering and arts hui but this weekend we are going to run our first full-blown, iwi-everything hui. It is being held at Lincoln University and hosted by the Taumutu Runanga.

There will be kapa haka performances, artists' workshops, over 70 stalls selling food and pounamu and weaving, activities promoting healthy living and health checks and profiles of the programmes and activities Ngai Tahu is funding and promoting.

There is still going to be a place for politics and debate but the scale has diminished and it now shares the space with a dedicated celebration of Ngai Tahu. And everyone is welcome.

The Press