When the iwi say the national park already belongs to them, history is on their side, writes Maori Affairs reporter Yvonne Tahana

The land most New Zealanders know as Te Urewera National Park was once a massive reserve for the Tuhoe people to govern themselves.

But historians say the Government took the land through a series of cuts which pushed the Tuhoe off their own tribal area.

Iwi leaders hope that if the history of their claim is better understood, Prime Minister John Key might be persuaded to change his mind and put the park - a place the iwi knows as its homeland - back on the Treaty settlement negotiation table.

Historian Bruce Stirling told the Weekend Herald that the 1896 Urewera District Native Reserve Act created a 265,000ha reserve.

The Government pledged to leave what was left of Te Urewera as an "inviolate protectorate" within Tuhoe. A council, Te Whitu Tekau, would manage Tuhoe's affairs.

This was 30 years after the Crown's scorched-earth tactics, which left one in eight Tuhoe dead and devastated crops and homes.

Premier Richard Seddon invited a Tuhoe delegation to Wellington to forge a new contract where the iwi affirmed its acknowledgment of the Crown's authority while the Government agreed to respect the tribe's mana motuhake, or independent authority.

Mr Stirling said the act was meant to work like this: Tuhoe were to determine hapu ownership of land blocks and retain collective control through elected block committees who would manage it and protect it from sale.

"The Crown soon undermined the [legislation]. It wrongly told Tuhoe they were liable for the £7000 costs of ... title determination, and proposed land sales to clear this supposed debt.

"In 1910, still unable to secure committee assent to land sales, the Crown began buying shares in ... blocks from individual owners. Some wished to sell to clear the improper £7000 debt ... while many others were desperately impoverised" by floods and frosts which had led to famine.

The Crown, as the monopoly buyer, fixed low prices. Under the legislation this was illegal but the Government passed a law in 1916 to retrospectively validate its actions.

By 1921, the Crown had acquired 53 per cent of shares in the Urewera District Native Reserve. However, its shares were scattered - it didn't have complete title to any block.

Rather than follow due process in the Native Land Court to identify and locate its shares, the Crown "imposed" the Urewera Consolidation Scheme on Tuhoe, Mr Stirling said.

This enabled the Crown to consolidate its interests in the face of Tuhoe opposition. It also charged enormous survey costs and a special £20,000 fee towards building roads through Te Urewera.

"No other New Zealanders have ever been asked to make such a contribution for rural highways," Mr Stirling said. The roads were also never built.

Finally, the national park, now 212,673ha, was created in 1954.

A simple look at the overlay of the reserve versus the national park is the "smoking gun" that a massive injustice has occurred, Tuhoe chief negotiator Tamati Kruger says.

"Te Urewera National Park land is Tuhoe stolen land in disguise. For Tuhoe, when they see the national park they see the surviving proof of injustice and prejudice and oppression by the Crown."

* Most of the tribe's best agricultural land was confiscated in the 1860s.
* The Crown used scorched-earth tactics, which devastated crops and killed one in eight people between 1867 and 1871.
* The tribe was supposed to keep what was left as a self-governing reserve created in 1896.
* However, it lost the land through a series of unjust and often illegal Government tactics over the next few decades.