"Drop the phrase 'treaty settlements' into a conversation, and you'll soon get a reaction."
So says Moana Maniapoto, director of 'The Negotiators', a seven-episode documentary series funded by NZ On Air, now screening on Māori Television (and on demand at māoritelevision.com), which looks at treaty negotiations through the eyes of seven lead negotiators.
"For most New Zealanders, including many Māori, the whole process of treaty settlements has been shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding," she said.
"We wanted to know about the people behind the headlines. It's about how they ended up as a negotiator and what they learned about themselves along the way."
Those who tell their stories include Dr Ella Henry (Ngātikahu ki Whangaroa), who, "as a university student with a flash computer and mother fighting to reclaim tribal land", succeeded her mother, and found herself up against not only the Crown but sometimes her own relatives.
"Over the years there have been many moments when I wanted to walk, and in fact, a couple of times when I did," the AUT lecturer in sociology, Māori studies and management studies said.
In Monday night's episode she recalls the day Sir Michael Cullen visited Taemaro to sign the agreement in principle with Ngātikahu ki Whangaroa, when he and his accompanying kuia were spat on and abused by protesters. One of those elderly women was Ella's older sister. The following day, an incensed Dr Henry stepped down from her role on the negotiating team.
"I was so disheartened by the behaviour of some of the people in my tribe, and I was already cynical about the Crown, you know. That cynicism had got me through the previous seven years, and it hasn't changed," she said, adding that she was still at university when her mother died in 2001.
"Before that she'd always said to me and my sister, you got to stay with this claim and see it through. So I got to be the 'secretary of everything,' because I had a computer, which was really flash, and really, I mean my involvement in the tribe at a political level was very much because of my mother pushing me to protect her husband's lands."
The series also features Dr Cullen talking about his experience when he "switched sides to bat for Ngāti Tūwharetoa," while Chris McKenzie (Ngāti Raukawa) shares his story as a teacher at Tokoroa High School, who agreed to fill in until his rūnanga found a "real negotiator." It took him a year to realise the iwi weren't searching, that he was it.
Mavis Mullins (Rangitāne o Wairarapa-Tāmaki Nui ā Rua) agreed with Dr Henry that the role could be stressful.
"I told my lot I just want to be Pākehā for a while," she said.
Moana Maniapoto said the past 20 years had seen settlements worth almost $2.5 billion in assets and financial redress negotiated, in recompense for the loss of land, fisheries, language and potential. But the figures and headlines told only one part of the story. The real story was about the choices and decisions made by those "gutsy characters" who took on the Crown.
"When they're up against a powerful and fully-resourced Crown, and only have so much power, what did they learn about themselves and what can they teach us? In 'The Negotiators' we look at the story of our nation through their eyes," she said.