Paul Moon: Ngapuhi their own worst enemy

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Practicality of Treaty settlement at iwi level does not sit well with divided hapu groups, writes Paul Moon.

This year marks the 170th anniversary of Hone Heke felling the flagpole at Kororareka.
This year marks the 170th anniversary of Hone Heke felling the flagpole at Kororareka.

In a year that is unusually crowded with historical commemorations, one that may escape attention is the 170th anniversary of the flagpole in Russell being felled by Hone Heke's troops in 1844 - an act which proved to be a harbinger of war between some Ngapuhi and the Crown the following year.

The divisions that opened up in Ngapuhi during the war of 1845-6 were a sign that this iwi was deeply fractured. Heke had to forge an alliance with his former Ngati Hine enemy, Kawiti, in order to have enough troops at his side to take on the British. And by the time of the final battle at Ruapekapeka there were more Maori fighting with the Crown against Heke - most led by Heke's uncle, Tamati Waka Nene - than there were on the rebels' side

And while Ngapuhi continues to boast that it is the most populous iwi in the country, the rejoinder to this is that it is also the most divided, in a way just as it always has been. When discussing this matter once with a kaumatua, he caught me off guard when he asserted that there was no such thing as Ngapuhi - "It's a Pakeha creation," he grumbled.

What he meant was that the popular notion of Ngapuhi as a single, unitary body is largely the product of 19th and 20th-century European scholarship.

"Our people spent more time fighting each other than they did fighting outsiders," he continued, "and Ngapuhi is a name used by outsiders nowadays to put us in a box."

There is some merit in this argument. To speak of Ngapuhi as an homogenous entity can be to the detriment of the many hapu which happen to fall under its name yet which strive to have their distinctive voices heard.

In the age of corporate-sale Treaty settlements, though, pan-hapu agreements have become the norm. The intricacies of inter-hapu histories are submerged by the Government's desire to negotiate and settle at an iwi level. Not only is this simpler, but it also leaves the delicate issue of juggling hapu aspirations and apprehensions to the iwi.

Of course, the issue of what constitutes an acceptable iwi mandate has dogged several major Treaty settlements, but never to the extent demonstrated now in Ngapuhi. On the one hand is the Ngapuhi Runanga, which with some empathy has tried to overcome hapu chauvinism, and ameliorate the factionalism riven by historical, whanau, geographical, and other factors. Its leaders realise that a settlement is tantalisingly close, and have claimed a reasonable mandate to proceed with negotiations.

On the other hand, though, is a loose federation of hapu - the largest of which is Ngati Hine - that has withdrawn its mandate from the Runanga, and is demanding its grievances be dealt with individually. It was the chiefs of hapu, not iwi, who signed the Treaty, and so it follows that the Government ought to be negotiating directly with hapu when it comes to reaching settlements.

At present, the positions of the two groups seem irreconcilable, but as long as the rift remains, potentially one of the most lucrative Treaty settlements in our history remains frustratingly out of reach in a region where everyone agrees it is sorely needed.

The Government, for its part, would welcome an agreement with Ngapuhi before the election - capping off what has been an extraordinary epoch of carefully-conceived settlements. And while the stand-off remains, Ngapuhi's rank-and-file members must be looking forlornly at the examples of the several other iwi that have reached settlements, and that are now enjoying steady growth in prosperity, and all the benefits that flow from that. Watching on as other iwi advance economically must be frustrating for the whole of Ngapuhi, but evidently not frustrating enough to surmount the determination of those who want their favoured model of representation to triumph over that of their opponents.

Ironically, both the advocates and antagonists of the Ngapuhi Runanga share a general agreement on the point they ultimately wish to reach, but their views are influenced at times by a more expansive historical standpoint. As the same kaumatua reminded me, "one thing we have got used to as a people is waiting".

And although with just six months to go until the election, the Government surely must be impatient for a settlement with Ngapuhi all the signs at present are that history is against them. As a Ngapuhi rangatira remarked with considerable prescience in 1953, "our grievances over land unite us, but our people are still ready to fight each other."

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University.

- NZ Herald

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