Dame Nganeko Minhinnick, who led a landmark Waitangi Tribunal claim to clean up the Manukau Harbour, has died aged 77.

The Ngati Te Ata and Waiohua elder from Tahuna Marae at Waiuku went to the tribunal in 1982 over pollution of the Manukau Harbour by the Mangere sewage treatment plant, the NZ Steel mill at Glenbrook and other developments.

The tribunal's report in 1985 said it was the most wide-ranging claim that it had considered up to that time, and its findings set out a new basis for the Maori role as kaitiaki, or guardians, of their ancestral lands and waterways throughout the country.

"There is a myth that Maori values will unnecessarily impede progress," the tribunal said in its report.

Advertisement

"Maori values are no more inimical to progress than Western values. The Maori are not seeking to entrench the past but to build on it. Their society is not static. They are developers too.

"Their plea is not to stop progress but to make better progress and to progress together.

"It is not that they would opt out of development in New Zealand. It is rather they need to know they have a proper place in it."

The report, and Dame Nganeko's subsequent submissions to the Government, laid the groundwork for what became the 1991 Resource Management Act.

She took her case to the world stage, inviting a United Nations rapporteur to Tahuna Marae and attending many UN forums on indigenous issues.

She also sat on the Auckland Regional Council.

She was made a Dame in the 2013 Queen's Birthday honours list.

Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell said last night that Dame Nganeko was "a magnanimous leader who spent a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of justice on whenua and environmental issues".

"I was privileged along with many others to have shared a very special relationship with her - as a mentor and whanaunga, and tonight I am at a loss to describe the depth of sadness I feel knowing another of our great leaders has passed over," he said.