Approximately 180 years ago the South Island was invaded by tribes from further north. Although many important leaders of the time were involved they were essentially under the command of Te Rauparaha, who was originally from the Kawhia area and had been systematically moving south due to tensions in his own homeland area.
As he marched south he was remarkably effective at both winning his battles but also at recruiting allies so by the time he arrived in the southern North Island his party represented a powerful alliance of several iwi.
He managed to expel the then residents from the Kapiti and Wellington area and the alliance has remained there ever since.
Over time Te Rauparaha also set his sights on Te Wai Pounamu and he launched a series of raids with varying degrees of success. The top of the island was comprehensively occupied by the alliance, although existing iwi remained despite being conquered. Some have argued the subjugation created a secondary right but such assertions have not been upheld by Waitangi Tribunal findings.
Eventually Te Rauparaha sailed further south with an initial attack on the Kaikoura coast that saw a reasonably comprehensive and devastating victory. That, in effect, left that stretch of coast desolate as all survivors either fled or were relocated to Kapiti Island as prisoners.
The next sojourn south saw the invaders camped outside of Kaiapoi pa but the outcome was not what Te Rauparaha expected.
It has been said that he had a premonition that all was not propitious for the northern travellers but his uncles did not listen and they subsequently entered the pa without caution. An exchange between the parties turned violent and the gates were closed and some of Ngati Toa's most senior chiefs were despatched leading to a vengeful fire burning in Te Rauparaha's belly.
The rest, as they say, is history. Retribution was planned meticulously and a clandestine raid entered the Akaroa harbour and a seige of Kaiapoi pa was executed leading to its incineration and the death of hundreds.
Over time the Canterbury survivors and their southern relations retaliated, attempting to expel the northerners from the South Island culminating in a well documented battle at Cloudy Bay.
The shore-based whaling stations up the eastern seaboard were regularly disrupted as war parties rampaged north to protect the boundary and, although the battles were inconclusive, the iwi to the north eventually stuck to their territory and Ngai Tahu stayed within theirs.
The only exception would be the expedition led by the Ngati Tama chief Te Puoho who boldly travelled the length of the West Coast through Tiori Patea, or the Haast Pass, and down the Mataura River valley to Tuturau. Here, around the summer of 1836, he met his demise with the remainder of his humble war party captured and relocated to Otakou and Ruapuke Island.
These tension-filled exchanges were ultimately relieved by the orchestrated efforts of the iwi leadership of the time. They employed age- old tactics including strategic marriage, exchange of taonga and face-to-face engagement to restore balance. This was supported enormously by the recent adoption of Christianity by some iwi members who were taken by the doctrine of forgiveness as opposed to the eternal harbouring of revenge Maori society had been used to.
Over the years Ngai Tahu has sought to protect its interests in the northern South Island using more diplomatic methods such as engagement with the Crown and courts. This has most definitely led to new generations of tension between iwi, as has the entire Waitangi Tribunal process created friction amongst all the South Island iwi. But the tide has certainly started to turn.
Last week, the eight northern South Island iwi had the second reading of their settlement bill heard in Parliament, which is the end of one chapter but, more importantly, the beginning of another. Over the past two decades a number of iwi in the south have been working hard to reconstruct an alliance on much more positive foundations.
Just as nations around the planet have done for millennia, iwi have also recognised the opportunity for greater political and economic strength through unity.
Recently a South Island iwi forum has been more formally adopted and there is regular engagement on the larger, shared challenges. This has included discussions on fisheries, fresh water and whanau ora - primary resources, natural environment and people - our most precious assets.
There remain those niggling recollections about historical atrocities and family insults but these have been parked to one side in the interests of collective benefits and progress.
It would be fair to say that Ngai Tahu has played a leading role in this unification up until now as they have been much better resourced to do so, but that is all about to change and the beneficiaries of a strong southern iwi alliance will be all South Islanders.
- The Press