The Anglican Church of Aotearoa is formally apologising to Tauranga Moana iwi today for land lost in 1867. This is the story behind that apology, and the enduring fight to have the grievance recognised.

Peri Kohu was one of five men barricaded inside the library when the dogs were sent in.

Police wearing helmets and carrying long batons had moved to the side of the building and had stopped at a small window.

The Ngāi Tamarāwaho kaumātua clearly remembers the events of that day in 1988.

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"Police smashed the window and put the dogs through," Kohu told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend this week.

"The guys that were in there knew exactly what was going to happen."

What followed was a violent altercation involving paint and petrol and fire. A pile of books, two dogs and one protester were burnt.

The five men who were later handcuffed and dragged out had entered the library section of Tauranga's new civic centre early that October morning.

They had blockaded themselves inside in response to the Hamilton High Court refusing to issue a restraining order to prevent development of the site.

The partly-constructed, multi-million-dollar civic centre complex was replacing the former Town Hall, where another occupation had taken place the year before – that one peaceful, involving more people and lasting two-and-a-half days.

These two dramatic and movement-awakening confrontations brought a grievance, more than a century old, to the downtown streets of Tauranga.

Streets built on land that once belonged to the tangata whenua who now refused to leave.

The occupation of the former Town Hall in 1987. Photo / Tauranga City Libraries, Image 05-223
The occupation of the former Town Hall in 1987. Photo / Tauranga City Libraries, Image 05-223

Kohu was there for both demonstrations.

He says they were an opportunity to bring the fight to the surface – into the face of those who wouldn't listen.

"We tried to have dialogue, but the laws that be wouldn't allow that dialogue, the council never had an ear for that dialogue."

The argument at the time, Kohu says, was: If the council was going to demolish the Town Hall (which it later did), give back the site it was built on.

At the very centre of that protest was – and still is – a 526ha piece of land known as the Te Papa Block.

Today, the Anglican Church of Aotearoa will formally apologise to the iwi of Tauranga Moana for its role in that land being lost, and in particular to the hapū of Ngāi Tamarāwaho and Ngāti Tapu.

The apology is a momentous milestone in what has been a long, painful process to have the grievance recognised and acknowledged.

The apology is also, however, the beginning of a new chapter for iwi and the church.

It's one of reconciliation and, eventually, both parties hope, one of restorative justice.

The block of land in question stretches from The Strand to the suburb of Gate Pā.

It encompasses Tauranga's central business district – a modern place of work, hospitality and city governance.

The Te Papa peninsula, however, was once one of the most densely populated Māori settlements in the region.

That changed after a deadly raid by another iwi in 1828 and the subsequent destruction of the Otamataha Pā, which overlooked the Tauranga Harbour entrance and Mauao.

The pā and much of the peninsula were abandoned as a result, which is said to have possibly paved the way for the purchase and occupation of the land, a decade later, by the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS).

The sales were negotiated by Archdeacon Alfred Brown, who later faced many contests and disputes over rights to the land and what had been agreed to.

Ngāti Tapu and Ngāi Tamarāwaho are now acknowledged as being the tangata whenua of Te Papa.

The block of land sold to the church was to be used by the mission station and held in trust solely for the benefit and advancement of the hapū. And for many years, it was.

But in 1867, after the battles of Gate Pā and Te Ranga and the Bush campaign, the Crown put consistent and increasing pressure on Archdeacon Brown and the CMS to forfeit the land for European settlement.

Believing the land might well be requisitioned, they eventually caved after lengthy protest and reluctance.

Archdeacon Alfred Nesbit Brown. Photo / National Library of New Zealand Collection
Archdeacon Alfred Nesbit Brown. Photo / National Library of New Zealand Collection

There was tension between local Māori, the Crown and the colonial military at that time as the tangata whenua had put their land under the protection of the Māori King movement, Kīngitanga.

That led to most of the block being yielded to the colonial government without hapū consultation.

Fast-forward 151 years to today and the Anglican Church of Aotearoa is finally apologising for that.

"We had no idea of the detailed course of events," Sir David Moxon, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus, told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend this week.

An in-depth piece of research presented to the church three years ago changed that, he says.

"And that told the whole story for the first time in detail to the Anglicans of today.

"When we saw it all, we realised … the Otamataha Trust – Ngāti Tapu and Ngāi Tamarāwaho – were right and furthermore that the land had been lost inappropriately, which we did not know.

"So, we read it carefully, had it checked and we agreed with them."

Moxon says it is clear now that the hapū would have never agreed to the loss of land held in trust.

That realisation led to a formal apology being drawn up, which was then passed at the church's national General Synod in New Plymouth in May.

About 100 members of the Synod rose to their feet and stood in heavy silence as Archbishop Philip Richardson, one of the highest ranking Anglican Church officials in New Zealand, apologised to members of the iwi and hapū in attendance.

Today another official service will be held on the historical site of the Otamataha Pā on Cliff Rd in Tauranga and the apology will be read aloud again, in both English and Māori.

Archbishop Moxon says the long-awaited acknowledgement is "of huge significance" but "is just the beginning".

Puhirake Ihaka feels the same way.

The Ngāti Tapu kaumātua is the chair of the Otamataha Trust, which represents the mutual interests of both hapū.

Ihaka says the church surrendering most of the Te Papa Block to the Crown in 1867 meant his people became disconnected with their ancestral land, which was not the idea of the initial transfer to the church.

"We have always felt aggrieved at that."

Puhirake Ihaka, Ngāti Tapu kaumātua and the chair of the Otamataha Trust. Photo / George Novak
Puhirake Ihaka, Ngāti Tapu kaumātua and the chair of the Otamataha Trust. Photo / George Novak

He says while losing the land to the colonial government has always been considered "a wrong that was done", it was the occupations of the former Town Hall and library building in the late 1980s which sparked a focused fight for its return.

"It was the catalyst to start it off. In the ensuing 31 years all our claims have been heard."

That has included unsuccessful Waitangi Tribunal claims and some negotiations with, and acknowledgements by, the Crown.

A settlement has never been reached, however, and the Otamataha Trust, which formed in the 1990s, has picked up the struggle of its forebears.

"We realise that we're never going to get back the full value of what we lost but we want some recognition and acknowledgement," Ihaka says.

"We have always felt that it was unfinished business."

He says the aim of most claims is "land taken, land back".

"Now obviously that could never happen. So we're saying land taken, some land back."

Today's apology is a significant step in that, Ihaka says, and with it, he feels some sense of relief, resolution and reconciliation after all these years.

"It is something we are doing on behalf of our ancestors; we are finally bringing to fruition something – whatever that something may be – and that's where the new beginning starts."

Peri Kohu, the Ngāi Tamarāwaho kaumātua, is a little more subdued in his reading of the apology.

"We won't be jumping up and down a whole lot, still some way to go in that," he says.

"It's a step in the right direction.

"I'm not too sure about the significance, so much, because for me, the proof is in the pudding."

Continuing that metaphor, Kohu then adds: "And so this is probably the first stage of putting that recipe together."

The church's apology allows the cooking to start, in other words.

It gives impetus to the whole issue, Kohu says, and "brings it back in your face again".

He says his hapū is still fighting "exactly the same thing, exactly the same mentality" as it was on the steps of the former Town Hall and library building in the 1980s.

And before that, at least every 10 years from 1867, "there was someone knocking on the Government's door, saying this is our land".

"We've been disappointed so many times," Kohu says, hence his reluctance to celebrate.

He sums up the land grievance like this:

"We gave it to the church for a specific purpose. And while the church did fulfil that agreement to a certain extent, where they did educate our people and they did provide some schooling, when they capitulated to the Government's demands to give them the land, out the door went our agreement."

Kohu is the fourth generation of his whānau to attempt to right that wrong.

He hopes there will be a quiet humility at the service today, which his ancestors will be a part of.

"They will be standing there, there's no doubt about that."

The 144-page Te Papa Block research report which swung the opinion of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa three years ago was written by historian Dr Alistair Reese.

Reese's interest in the land grievance began 15 years ago, when he was at university.

He says he later connected with a group of like-minded people who also felt "that this was something that needed addressing".

That was Te Kohinga, an informal network of Māori and Pākehā who have been pursuing reconciliation in Tauranga for more than 20 years.

The group met with Ngāi Tamarāwaho and Ngāti Tapu and spent time hearing their stories. They ultimately made a commitment to work together.

Next stop was the hierarchy of the Anglican Church, a relationship which was also developed over several years.

Reese says the longstanding and prevailing narrative had always been that this was something that was not the church's responsibility or fault.

"History is an interpretive exercise," he says.

Reese uncovered new documents and information involving key personnel from the church and presented his research to the clergy, which then did its own tests on what he had found.

"It was the reframing of the historical analysis to show that, yes, indeed, the church, via its mission arm – Church Missionary Society – certainly had a role to play in terms of what we are now calling a betrayal of trust."

Reese says today's apology is the "doorway into a renewed relationship".

It is also an opportunity for the Tauranga community to build a "healthy heart" for its growing city, he says.

"I think any civil society needs to be built on more than bricks and mortar and the underlying narrative is the thing that actually helps to construct a soul."

But Te Kohinga's work is not done yet. There is an understanding that the church is now committed to support the two hapū as they begin to look at restitution.

A drawing of the first mission dwelling at Te Papa. Image / A Centennial History of Tauranga by W.H. Gifford and H.B. Williams
A drawing of the first mission dwelling at Te Papa. Image / A Centennial History of Tauranga by W.H. Gifford and H.B. Williams

That could involve the Crown and the Tauranga City Council.

Reese says meetings have already been held with Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless and some city councillors, as well as with the previous Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson.

He says all parties now need to be brought together in a more structural and meaningful way and that those discussions, and what they might lead to, are "a work in progress".

Ngāi Tamarāwaho and Ngāti Tapu have both indicated that a presence in central Tauranga is on the agenda.

"That would be a good place to start," Kohu says.

"My people were removed from the town, we lived in town."

He says what the finished product of such an agreement might look like, however, is still up for debate.

The Tauranga CBD is changing and the hapū will adapt with it, Kohu says.

Ihaka also speaks of a desire to return to ancestral land on the Te Papa peninsula.

Archbishop Moxon says: "If the Otamataha Trust did pursue that dream, we would support it."

However, he says it is not up to the Anglican Church to say what the hapū need or want.

"It's up to us to listen carefully to them and be co-operative partners in questing for their dream. So if they decided on a presence in downtown Tauranga, we would support that 120 per cent with everything we've got."

The original Anglican Church Missionary Society Te Papa Chapel. Photo / Supplied
The original Anglican Church Missionary Society Te Papa Chapel. Photo / Supplied

The church has also agreed to stand alongside the hapū in their claim for redress before the Waitangi Tribunal.

"Watch this space," is Moxon's message.

He says a redemptive outcome could benefit the whole city in a positive way and "float all the boats in the harbour".

"I think really we're looking for a positive outcome which not only deals to the past, but which gives us all a better future."

Tauranga's deputy mayor Kelvin Clout told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend yesterday that any practical involvement from the council flowing from today's apology "is unknown as yet".

"We value our relationship with tangata whenua and we look forward to ongoing discussions as part of our usual engagement processes."

Kohu is not the only person in this story who was present at the earlier, peaceful occupation of the former Town Hall in 1987.

Moxon was there too, and he remembers it vividly.

"It was very intense. We said prayers and sang a hymn inside. It was crowded, mostly Ngāi Tamarāwaho and Ngāti Tapu people, and the clergy. And it was very peaceful; it was very strong, very clear that the prayers were meaningful."

Twenty-two Māori activists involved in that two-and-a-half-day demonstration were later found guilty of trespass, but their convictions were quashed on appeal to the High Court.

Kohu and the four other men who occupied the Tauranga library a year later weren't so lucky. They were all sent to jail.

Kohu served 22 months of his two-and-a-half-year sentence.

"I came out better actually," the kaumātua says now.

"I have some regrets about that [incident], but I didn't spend the time lying around. I became an expert in the argument. Plenty of reading, plenty of learning, plenty of research."

He is torn, however, when asked – in hindsight – if it was worth it.

"My family had to suffer the impact of my not being around. That's really devastating. But they're quite resilient to that. I'm still rebuilding that relationship with the family, because of what I did in the 1980s."

Kohu says he has since learnt better weapons of persuasion and his relationship with Tauranga's leaders has improved over time. He can now pick up the phone and be heard by the council immediately.

He says sitting around the table and having a discussion is more useful than the methods used in the late 1980s.

But those tools were not available to him then, Kohu says, and he has no doubt the two occupations helped the overall cause. In that way, it was worth it.

He says time has healed some of the pain and anger, but there is still plenty of passion.

Today is a major breakthrough in a battle Kohu and his whānau have been fighting for more than a century. But he is quick to point out that this apology is only the first step.

"It's really important to look past that and to the real work that will be done."