In 1835, and again in 1840, my ancestor Hōne Heke signed agreements produced by representatives of the British Crown. Both agreements, the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, promised much but failed to deliver.

After nearly two centuries of struggle, we are meant to be reaching a turning point in our relationship with the Crown. Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little has promised to advance the negotiations that will determine a mandate for who represents our iwi, and how a settlement will be achieved.

The problem is that over the past two decades, we have had so many turning points that we seem to have ended up where we started.


Ngāpuhi's problem is simple: Two main factions have emerged claiming to represent the iwi, with each one accusing the other of not possessing a legitimate mandate.

Successive ministers, negotiators and other "experts" have tried to untie this knot, but the tangle remains. Meanwhile, among our youth in particular, disillusionment has set in, not just with the mandate issue but with the iwi as a whole. And who can blame them?

They look to their relations in the south and see iwi that have settled and now offer employment, training and other opportunities. What does Ngāpuhi offer? In a word, nothing.

So how is it that the county's biggest iwi is still in a stalemate years after it should have settled its Treaty claim with the Crown? The process is culturally unsound.

When Heke signed the Treaty in 1840 he never consulted his people and never sought a mandate. That was not the Māori way. Instead, his mana, which came from his whakapapa and was proven by his leadership, was all that was needed. It was the same for all decisions. That was how our culture operated.

Now it's a different story. Our very structure as an iwi has been colonised, and any Tom, Dick or Hōne can take charge and attempt to govern us. The results confirm that this model is a failure. Instead of traditional leadership, where decisions were made (rightly or wrongly) we get committees, indecision, confusion, infighting and stalemate.

And instead of our hapū working together for a common cause, the structures that now try to govern us have led to factionalism and failure.

If Minister Little is serious about Ngāpuhi having a mandate, and I mean really serious, then what is wrong with the two Māori we have all elected to represent us: Kelvin Davis and Peene Henare? If the mandate has proved elusive elsewhere, either or both of these men are more representative of a unified Ngāpuhi than any committee, rūnanga or other body that is preoccupied with fighting against other factions in the iwi.


But the minister will not do the obvious. Instead, he keeps trying to please all factions and ends up disappointing everyone. Increasingly, people in Ngāpuhi are not wondering when there will be a settlement, but if there will be one. Once such disillusionment sets in, it will be hard to overcome.

So what is the solution? Surprisingly, it could be as simple as looking at the most obvious place: Our past. How did the hapū of Ngāpuhi maintain their borders, keep out enemies and maintain their economies for centuries?

They relied on the traditional hereditary model of leadership. Was it perfect? Far from it. Did it fail the people? Frequently. But it also led to the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi being signed, and ensured centuries of stability and strong leadership for our people.

Can anyone really say that the current system is better? The answer lies in what we have got to show for it, which is next to nothing.

Some will say modern forms of tribal political organisation have worked for other iwi. I say good for them. Ngāpuhi is not just another "Māori tribe". We are our own nation. We are different from other iwi and always have been.

Unless the Crown realises this and allows our old systems to re-emerge from more than a century of colonisation, then there is unfortunately every chance that in another decade, we will be in exactly the same place we are now, except that our people will begin to abandon the iwi, and who will blame them?

• David Rankin is a Ngāpuhi kaumātua and iwi historian.