Search for Wakatū descendants amid New Zealand's longest-running Māori land case

11:28 am on 4 March 2024
Whānau carry pictures of their ancestors into the High Court.

Whānau carry images of their tūpuna into the High Court during a 2023 hearing on the Nelson Tenths land case. Photo: Supplied

As Māori in Nelson await a decision in the country's longest-running property dispute, the Wakatū Incorporation is working to reconnect with thousands of descendants of the original 300 customary landowners.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the government must honour a land deal struck in the 1830s between the New Zealand Company and Māori in the Nelson region.

A 10-week hearing was held in the High Court last year to determine the extent of the breaches and the remedies, with a decision expected in the coming months.

Growing up, Jeremy Banks (Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne o Wairau) was not closely connected to his whakapapa.

Born in Blenheim, he knew he was a descendant of Rangitāne o Wairau, but little beyond that.

"I grew up in Central Otago and we knew we were Māori but we didn't necessarily know what that meant, just every now and then we would jump in a car and drive all night to get to a tangi, hang out with the cousins, kiss a thousand different aunties and then bundle in the car and go back home again."

That changed as he got older, and again when he had his own tamariki.

Jeremy Banks and his whānau outside the High Court in Wellington.

Jeremy Banks and his whānau. Photo: Supplied

"It's really been tightly entwined with our whānau journey. My wife and I decided to raise our children speaking te reo Māori and that was a fairly light decision that had some fairly heavy consequences... it has been a continuous, interesting and rewarding journey since then."

That reconnection journey saw Banks and his wife move to Nelson to raise their children.

"We live a minute's walk from my girls' marae and so they spend a lot of time there, they are very involved and very close to all of their cousins and their uncles and aunties, but even the identity bit - their understanding of who they are, is just a completely different thing to what I grew up with."

Banks is on the Wakatū board and gave evidence at last year's High Court hearing about the importance of whakapapa and what the model for receiving redress could look like.

His family, like many others, was disconnected from their whenua in the top of the South Island, after the land promised to Māori by the New Zealand Company was not reserved as intended.

"Part of the original deal was that we got to hold on to where we lived, where we sustained ourselves - what we would call an asset base in modern day terms, so with that taken away we were impoverished and we had to leave, to move to areas where we had relatives, in the North Island often, just to survive really."

Connecting with whakapapa

Taranaki woman Rangimokoi Knuckey with her sons.

Rangimokai Knuckey with her sons. Photo: Supplied/Norm Heke

It was a similar story for Taranaki woman Rangimokai Knuckey (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Koata).

"Two generations before me were disconnected from their Māoritanga, from their whakapapa and knowing anything about marae, hapū, iwi, but my mum made a decision to put me into bilingual [education] so I've been one of the first in my generation to sort of bring us back over."

A chance meeting in Taranaki with a whānau member from Nelson led to the discovery of her whakapapa in Te Tauihu (the top of the South Island).

"I was in a part of my journey where I was definitely looking for information about who I am and being a person who is at the marae all the time and our kaupapa Māori, it was important to me to find out where I came from and what has happened in my history.

"Being the first generation to reconnect has been a hard road. We've had lots of whānau who have kept their connection from generation to generation and they have actually helped me to link back in."

Whānau and members of the Wakatū Incorporation outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing in August 2023.

Whānau and members of the Wakatū Incorporation outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing in August 2023. Photo: Supplied

Last year, Knuckey came to Nelson for a wananga organised by Wakatū to learn more about her great-grandfather on her father's side.

During one presentation, the group was asked if they recognised any other names in a list of ancestors.

"I said, yes that's my tūpuna from my mum's side and I thought it's just amazing that I've come down here thinking this was my father's side and to find out my mother also had some down there. Unravelling each layer was just amazement after amazement."

The formation of the Wakatū Incorporation

When the government agreed to return the remnants of the Nelson Tenths Reserves in 1976, the customary owners were given the choice of becoming an incorporation or a trust, or to leave the administration of the land in the hands of the Crown-appointed Māori Trustee.

The majority voted in favour of establishing an incorporation and Wakatū was formed in 1977. It now has around 4000 shareholders who are descendants of four iwi: Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama, and Te Ātiawa.

It has grown its asset base from $11 million in 1977 to a current value of more than $350 million. That includes land and waterspace assets, food and beverage business Kono, and health and wellbeing products.

Since the Supreme Court ruling in 2017, a small whakapapa and research team have been dedicated to tracking down the descendants of the 300 Māori named as customary landowners in Nelson, Motueka and Golden Bay in the 1890s.

Kerensa Johnston, Wakatū CEO.

Wakatū Incorporation chief executive Kerensa Johnston. Photo: Supplied/Kate MacPherson

Wakatū Incorporation chief executive Kerensa Johnston (Ngāti Tama, Ngāruahine and Ngāti Whāwhakia) said it was hard to define the exact number, but it was likely to be in the tens of thousands.

"We've had a project underway for a number of years to essentially find the descendants of those original tūpuna and where we can, bring them back into the whānau here in Te Tauihu."

She said it was common for people to know they belonged to one particular iwi - but the nature of whakapapa meant there were connections across a number of hapū and iwi.

"From an ahi kā (long-burning fires of occupation) perspective, our whānau and hapū are still very much here, our families are here but because our history, because of what happened following colonisation, a number of our families were scattered to the four winds.

"That has been the focus of the project - those ones that for whatever reason left Te Tauihu, how can we reconnect them back?

"Sometimes we get people literally turning up on our doorstep who don't know very much at all but they might have a piece of paper or a reference, a death certificate or something that indicates that they are part of our hapū and iwi and the team is able to bring them in, sit down with them and spend a lot of time with them research and finding out who they are and how they fit in and that has been quite transformative."

Johnston herself is a descendant of an original landowner, but was raised in the North Island.

"We knew that we had whakapapa to the top of the south but I didn't really know how that worked and who the families were or how I connected.

"It was really as a result of the programmes that Wakatū invests in that I was able to reconnect with my family here and for me that has been really transformative."

That led to her family moving to Nelson 10 years ago, which enabled more whānau connections, a pattern she had seen with many others.

The incorporation is now awaiting a decision as to remedies in the Nelson Tenths case, after almost 15 years of litigation.

She hoped it would honour the original vision the ancestors had when they agreed to the settlement of Nelson: "That we would prosper and thrive together as a community and that our land, which for us is such a sacred taonga, would be protected and cared for according to our values."

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