In 1998, on the eve of Ngāi Tahu reaching settlement with the Crown, former foundryman Mark Solomon stepped into the role of kaiwhakahaere (Chair) of the iwi’s governing council, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Taking the place of Sir Tipene O'Regan, he had taken up a high-profile position as one of the most visible Māori leaders in the country. His memoir Mana Whakatipu (co-authored with Mark Revington), details his years at the helm of the tribe.
I’d gone out to Tuahiwi bitterly cold, and got there before the home people arrived for a mihi whakatau. It’s freezing, so when I responded I just stood up and gave the response. Came to the hongi and the haruru and I get to one of the elders, Jono Cross. And he goes “Are you in a hurry, boy?” My response was “No, why?” to which he replied, “You’ve got your coat on.”
I said, “Yeah, ‘cause its freezing, man.” All he said was, “No. It looks like you’re ready to run.”
That November we had a hui down at Ōraka Aparima, at Colac Bay. Anyway it was freezing. My turn to speak on the paepae so I stood up and I took my coat off. I could hear a young girl behind us say to her grandmother, “What’s he taking his coat off for? It’s freezing.” She said, “He’s showing respect to the people.”
So Jono’s little question – “You in a hurry boy?” – was a lesson that when you stand up in front of people, you take your coat off. It’s a traditional thing, a bit like Asians when they handle business cards. It’s always with two hands with the name facing you and they present it. And if they ever present it from a single hand it’s always from the right. There’s a simple rationale: all traditional Asian swordspeople were right-handed, To hand something with your left leaves your right hand – your weapon hand – free, so it’s taken as an insult. You stand up in a paepae, you take your coat off ‘cause you say “I’m here to talk, I’m not here for war.”
When you actually took on the role of kaiwhakahaere were you ready for it?
I’ve always described my journey with Ngāi Tahu as a whole series of accidents. When I attended my first tribal hui in 1998 I was blown away with what I heard. My brother and I started lobbying up home because we’ve got a settlement process. The day that I got elected, I hadn’t actually been nominated. I’d gone home to vote for an elder cousin, and I was nominated on the day and I won it by 47% majority. In a perverse way what I was really proud of is that I didn’t get supported by my own family, not that they were opposed to me, but all but four voted for my elder cousin who was one of the nominees.
I got the vote of all the other families of Kaikoura. I’ve always been quite proud of that and when I thanked them I said, “I don’t understand why you’ve voted for me? I whakapapa right to your Mangamaunu marae, but I’ve actually never been to a meeting there. I’m from Takahanga [marae].”
They said, “Mark, we accept that your family is the rangatira family but you are the only one, if you think something’s wrong, that will stand up and challenge it. We believe that you’ll look after our interests.” So, it’s those Mangamaunu families that have kept me in the role for 18 years.
When they put you in that role it wasn’t a gentle easing-in of a few meetings. It sounded a bit like a baptism by fire.
The role as the representative was pretty good as that had a three-year lead in. But when I became the chairman, I describe that as another accident. I’d simply gone to a meeting down at Puketeraki marae at Karitane and was nominated on the day, and took out the chairmanship.
So that was a massive shock. I’m elected as the kaiwhakahaere on Saturday the 26th of September. On the following Monday I sat in the lawyers’ office with Tipene O’Reagan in Wellington signing some of the settlement papers. Monday afternoon, we stood outside Pipitea marae, because Ngāi Tahu was staying on the marae for that night. I’m out on the street the deputy kaiwhakahaere comes up to me and says, “Mark, Tipene wants you.” I went up to be told, “Get in the front. You’re doing the Whaikorero.” I said, “I can’t speak Maori man.” His comment? “You’ve got two minutes 45 seconds to learn.”
So I bumbled my way through a whaikorero. He came up to me afterwards, and said, “Well that’s it for you. Tomorrow we get on the bus, we go up to parliament into the gallery, watch the passing of the bill, then we come back here for a hakari.” I hop on the bus in the morning at Pipitia. It pulls up outside of parliament. I go to hop off the bus and Tipene is standing at the steps. He says, “See that building over there? On the third floor there’s the grand hall there’s four tv, channels roughly 200 people waiting to do do a powhiri.”
And to be honest we had a bit of a dispute. I said, “I think you’re being a bit of a dickhead. This is Ngāi Tahu’s big day in front of the nation and you’re putting a total non-speaker up.”
He said, “You wanted the job, so again I bumbled my way through the whaikorero, and forgot to acknowledge the rangatira from other tribes who had come to support Ngāi Tahu with the passing of our settlement.
And after the powhiri I went up to them, one of them being Api Mahuika of Ngati Porou and I apologised for not acknowledging them. Api in a typical Maori fashion looked at me and said, “Ah boy we could see the tūtae running down the back of your legs. There is no issue.” That sort of kōrero brings you straight back to earth.
But two things that happened in that powhiri which I’ll never forget. When we were doing the hongi and haruru and I got to Jim Bolger, in his hand he had his business card with his private number. He gave it to me saying, “Any time you need any help just ring me.” And then Doug Graham did the same thing, I had met Jim Bolger once before and I’d met Doug Graham once before.
So that was a terrifying, but an amazing. experience.
When you go into public life there are some implications for your whanau life as well. What did [your wife] Maria think she was were getting herself in for?
After being elected on Saturday, I’d come home on the Sunday and had been there about half an hour when my phone went. It was Lady Sandra O’Regan saying I was to bring my wife round to her house immediately. I said, “Girl, I think we’re going out,” so we went round to their house and knocked on the door. Sandra opened it and said, “Go and sit on the seat with Tipene and keep quiet. Come in please Maria. I’ve asked him to bring you round because you need to know what he’s got you into.”
“He probably thinks he’s got a role where he’s going to be chairing a meeting once a month, but I am telling you this job totally consumes. He’s going to miss every one of your children’s annual birthdays, he’s going to miss your anniversaries. When you go out as a couple you will always have someone who will come sit at the table to talk, so you need to know that you are now a solo mother.”
And it would be fair to say that in the 18 years as kaiwhakahaere, I have worked 80 hours a week and 42 weekends a year. The working in the weekends is quite simple. When your people are working class people you go to them as their free time is in the weekends.
About the speaker
Tā (Sir) Mark Wiremu Solomon KNZM (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kurī) served as kaiwhakahaere of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the tribal council of Ngāi Tahu, from 1998 until 2016. Founder of the Iwi Chairs Forum, he stepped down as deputy chair of the Canterbury District Health Board in late 2020.
This session was recorded in partnership with WORD Christchurch