Ngāpuhi stand-off: Little changes could yield big results

7:27 pm on 18 November 2017

Analysis - Very early on in our colonial history is the story of the British settlers and Māori in the North. It is a relationship that historian Dame Claudia Orange describes as a "warm", one where both parties saw "mutual benefits".

However, Dame Claudia goes on to say that had the Treaty of Waitangi been honoured, our history might have taken a different course. We wouldn't necessarily have had the land wars of the 1860s or the hurt and angst Māori felt as a consequence.

Maori re-enact the Battle of Ruapekapeka

Māori re-enact the Battle of Ruapekapeka, one of the key battles in the New Zealand Wars. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

Since 1992, the government has been working towards settling historical grievances. Leading those claims for the Crown we've seen a string of lawyers and academics - Sir Doug Graham, Margaret Wilson, Sir Michael Cullen - but more recently Chris Finlayson and now Andrew Little.

Former Treaty Negotiations minister Chris Finlayson, left and his Labour replacement Andrew Little have taken starkly different approaches.

Former Treaty Negotiations minister Chris Finlayson, left and his Labour replacement Andrew Little have taken starkly different approaches. Photo: RNZ

Some say Mr Little has big boots to fill. Mr Finlayson has successfully settled an unprecedented number of Waitangi Treaty settlements, but while he's well regarded for his work there were a handful of claims he couldn't crack.

The largest iwi, Ngāpuhi, is one of them. After eight years of trying and despite his motivation to close the deal, in the end Mr Finlayson walked away.

Already Mr Little, a former lawyer for trade unions, is promising a different style.

He's talking differently for one, using phrases like hapū rangatiratanga or sovereignty of smaller tribes. That hints towards him being open to a multiple settlement, something previous governments have refused to do.

Back in 1996, Labour MP Dame Tariana Turia was pushing for hapū-by-hapū settlements, but in a bitter parliamentary exchange then-Treaty Minister Sir Doug Graham responded in no uncertain terms that to do so would take "a thousand years" to complete.

Dame Tariana Turia

Dame Tariana Turia Photo: RNZ

Yet here we are - not 1000 years on, but 20 - and the conversation has changed immensely.

Dame Tariana can take comfort in the fact Mr Little has taken stock of Ngāpuhi's Waitangi Tribunal report, which found the iwi which did not cede sovereignty is in fact made up of more than 100 hapū.

Mr Little has called a meeting at Waitangi where he's called on rangatira, key advisors and hapū to attend.

This is a stark contrast to his predecessor Mr Finlayson, who opted to do business with a select few.

The meeting is set to begin at 9am tomorrow. The test will be whether Mr Little has the patience for a Māori-style hui which could roll on late into the night.

Nearly two centuries on, the broken promises and the actions of the first British settlers have not been addressed.

Māori have long memories. No doubt at the meeting will be descendants of Ngāti Manu's chief Pomare II who famously spoke to Treaty co-author William Hobson in the early 1800s of their close friendship.

An engraving Pomare II by  R. Hicks.

An engraving of Pomare II by R. Hicks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

"It's easy for you to say that I'm your friend because Pomare is wealthy at the moment," he said.

"In days to come, should I become poor, will you maintain that I am your friend? Should I turn up naked at your doorstep will you give me food if I'm hungry or a blanket if I'm cold?"

Ngāpuhi is the largest and poorest iwi. Much as Pomare II said, it is hungry and in need of blankets.

The challenge for Mr Little is how to distribute what is owed.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs