Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ngāi Tahu on the Waitaki River

Waitaki River hydro-electric powerplant, 1922.

This morning Dr. Garth Cant, Professor of Geography at Univ. of Canterbury, invited me to an environmental assessment hearing. The walk had been cool in the morning air. Held in the Boatman's restaurant at Christchurch Town Hall, the room's warmth surprised me. Packed with submitters, applicants, the assessment panel as well as a large public audience, it was clear this was a controversial project. The proposal under review was for a large-scale change to regional farming practices. It proposed the transformation of a number of large farms on the upper watershed of the Waitaki River from pasture to a dairy operation with irrigated fields and heavy effluent flows. I attended the initial two hours of two days of presentations from the
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu (Maori Iwi covering the bottom two-thirds of the South Island of New Zealand) of the area.

The first to speak was David Higgins. He spoke steadily and with colourful detail throughout for over an hour, providing an introduction to the rūnanga (the governing council of a Māori iwi) authority, interests and values in the area. He also emphasized how the different iwi making up Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu worked together, but also how they were not only a part of, but also active partners in, contemporary New Zealand society. His presentation intertwined these themes to set the stage for the following speakers of the Ngāi Tahu, Elders with their traditional knowledge and experience and and then researchers and land managers with their detailed reports on the values to be guarded, who would follow in the coming days.

David opened his talk establishing his personal authority, detailing why what he was about to say mattered and was true. He listed his lineage, carefully proceeding back in time from one generation to the next, describing who these ancestors were, what they had accomplished and affirming his intention, and responsibility, to honour their lives through his. He then recalled his own experiences within the traditional territory, his introduction to catching eels, picking rosehips as a child for cash at the store, and his stays at the old camps. We listened as he mapped his life path, the growing responsibilities he inherited from his Elders, that he accepted from his community, and his achievements, not as personal triumphs, but as proof of his understanding of what was important to his community. And then he proceeded to do the same for each of the iwi members who would be presenting over the next couple of days. Their ancestors, abilities, and powers were all described in only slightly less detail than his own.

Waitaki River dam, 1922.

Having introduced the submission team members, David outlined the Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu interests and cultural values associated with the upper Waitaki River valley. He described the importance of the natural river flows, the recovery and maintenance of the traditional Maori cultural landscape and eco-system, the remediation of the different deltas, rich sources of traditional foods, and the interests of the iwi in being able to continue the use of these areas for their life ways. This broad sweep was refined as he described some two and a half centuries of a reflexive and consistent Maori land and resource management practise. He started with traditional stories speaking to the use of the land for subsistence, the seasonally adapted annual round, the harvesting of eels and other animals at the peak of their fat cycle to make them easier to preserve, the knowledge and skills to construct reed rafts as part of these harvesting activities and finished by telling how, in partnership with non-Maori partners, these different activities were being passed on to the youth today. Having thus cemented the significance and power of the information to follow in the audience's mind, he moved on to tell us who the people of the Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu were.

He began to unfold a history that began about 1100 years ago with the first arrival of the Ngāi Tahu in New Zealand. He reminded the listeners of each of the major wars and diplomatic events as the Ngāi Tahu gained territory on the South Island through conquest and peace through marriage. By the late 17th century the Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua, Te Rūnanga o Waihao and the Te Rūnanga o Moeraki (the three iwi directly affected by the proposal) had settled along the Waitaki River and retained their connection to it today. David highlighted the continuity of people and their interests over the past 300 years, both through oral tradition and by reference to the treaty lists and census taken since the mid-19th century. While the sale of their territory to the Crown in the 1840s was recognized, David stressed the continuing disagreement over what the boundaries of the sale had included - a fact recognized by the New Zealand government through an apology and compensation to the Ngāi Tahu in 1991. (More on this available at The boundaries of community were clearly and consistently defined, they were a real people. The governments they created and the officials designated by them were based on history, on tradition and in law. What they will say at this meeting carries the weight of the present population, and of their ancestors, who know and value this place. It is significant and carries power.

Waitaki River remnant, 2010.

David concluded his introduction with a detailed account of the traditional annual subsistence round, and its contemporary equivalent, especially noting how efforts were being made to engage youth - the Ngāi Tahu future - in their homeland and their heritage. He continued by reviewing the signs upon the land that spoke to the presence and practices of the Ngāi Tahu - the settlements and camps, many now submerged by hydro-electric developments in the 1970s and 80s, the resource harvesting sites, both ancient and contemporary, and the trails connecting all of these together. Each trail was followed in story and purpose, outlining how the people worked together and shared a good life in the region, a way of life they intended to continue into the future.

Having spoken for over ninety minutes, David introduced Elder Paul Horgan who would, after a coffee break, begin to tell the review panel about the Ngāi Tahu and their presence on the upper Waitaki River.

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