Moriori are declared the tangata whenua of the Chatham Islands. Now, reports EUGENE BINGHAM, they are arguing about who is Moriori.

Way out east, cast adrift in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the Moriori people basked in the spotlight of the world as the new millennium dawned.

It was a time for celebration. Moriori and the other inhabitants of the Chatham Islands were benefiting from the geographical fluke of being smack up against the international dateline.

Besides the glow of their new-found fame, other internal factors were warming the Moriori people. Unseen by the cameras of news networks that day, a new sense of unity was drawing factions together after years of fierce independence.


For the past decade, Moriori have been represented by two separate bodies, despite the fact that they number only about 2000.

Slowly, at hui and informal gatherings, people began to talk to one another about moulding the two groups into one.

"It was always during cups of tea breaks that you would get outside and people would be saying, 'This is silly - it's squandering resources. We should be together'," says one Moriori leader, Barrie Eyles.

Momentum grew when elders became involved. Nine months into the new millennium, trustees representing both groups agreed to unite.

The evolution of the new body, the Hokotehi Moriori Trust, was supposed to be completed in style at an April meeting in Wellington. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a faction led by one of the tribe's most high-profile leaders, Denis Solomon, fell out with the remainder of the supposedly unified trust.

With the meeting in uproar, Mr Solomon and two supporters walked out, leading to a showdown that has stalled the Moriori dream of unity.

The parties are locked in a legal battle over the transfer of more than $1 million.

But the dispute goes beyond finances - right to the heart of what it is to be Moriori.


Documents obtained by the Herald reveal a festering debate within the organisations about hokopapa, the Moriori word for whakapapa or genealogy.

Members are arguing over the system in place to recognise someone as a true descendant of the original Chathams settlers. There are suspicions about interlopers trying to pass themselves off as Moriori.

On top of that, the papers reveal allegations about a lack of accountability and bullying within the Denis Solomon-led organisation, Moriori Tchakat Henu Association.

"I can tell you it's like World War Three in there," one insider says of the feud within Tchakat Henu.

Like most others embroiled in the dispute, the insider was unwilling to talk without a guarantee of anonymity.

Others, such as Wellington lawyer Maui Solomon, perhaps the most prominent of all Moriori, declined to be interviewed at all.

Some Moriori are fearful of the fallout they would face if they speak out. Others do not want to air their people's dirty laundry.

Then there are those who think the timing is bad.

To be frank, the timing of this story is unfortunate for Moriori.

Just a week ago, representatives stood with pride in the Beehive as the Waitangi Tribunal presented its long-awaited report on Treaty of Waitangi claims relating to Rekohu (the Chathams).

The tribunal found that the Crown should pay Moriori compensation for the slavery they suffered under Maori during the mid-1800s.

The report also officially acknowledges Moriori as the true tangata whenua of the Chathams, setting their identity as a people beyond challenge.

The finding gave a simple yet incredibly important boost to the very being of Moriori. "We exist," Maui Solomon, a cousin of Denis, said last week.

Yet not even this momentous occasion could take the sting out of the internal dispute stalling the unification of Tchakat Henu and Te Iwi Moriori, a trust formed in the early 1990s after a falling out within Tchakat.

For the past decade, both organisations have operated independently, financed separately in recent times by proceeds from fishing quota issued by the Waitangi Fisheries Commission.

The bodies were supposed to be wound up early this year and replaced by the Hokotehi trust - a decision Moriori overwhelmingly endorsed during a series of hui.

But when Denis Solomon, the chairman of Tchakat Henu and a founding trustee of Hokotehi, walked out of the Wellington meeting, the process was thrown into chaos.

Since then, Mr Solomon and his faction have failed to recognise the decisions of the Hokotehi board, including resolutions requiring the transfer of Moriori assets and liabilities.

The seven Hokotehi members who remained after Mr Solomon and his two supporters walked out believe they have acted within the new trust's deeds and have gone to the High Court to sort the matter out.

Speaking from his home in the Chathams, Denis Solomon maintains that he is still committed to unity.

However, he says he realised at the April meeting that the processes put in place to validate people's Moriori heritage were unfair and he wanted to postpone the process.

For Moriori to progress, sound foundations must be laid, and he believes the processes are flawed.

"There is a lot of little bits and pieces but the main issue for me and some of my trustees is the decision-making - who determines whether you are of Moriori decent or not," says Mr Solomon.

"We had agreed on a process ... but when it came to seeing those processes in action I realised that it was unfair."

Mr Solomon says the Hokotehi members could not validate the ancestry of several people, including one fellow trustee.

He challenges their expertise in making such decisions.

Complicating the situation is that the membership of hundreds of people hinges on the decisions about these two or three people. If they are excluded, then their families will be, too.

Denis Solomon estimates that could affect 200 to 300 members.

"I really believe these people are Moriori," he says.

"Staring me right in the face was the fact that some [of the trustees] were validated and some weren't by people who do not have the knowledge."

But Mr Eyles, Hokotehi's deputy chairman, says the procedures are rigorous and robust.

He acknowledges the trust cannot afford to be lax on the issue of hokopapa.

"We are pretty staunch on this because it's pretty important that we only have Moriori members, obviously. It's important because it's our heritage."

Mr Eyles says Hokotehi set up a working party to act as a mechanism for authenticating members' ancestry. He sees the working party's role as one of assisting people.

"It's not about excluding people - the system was designed to help people trace their family links."

Others are more blunt and believe the issue has come to a head because people close to Denis Solomon were challenged to prove their links.

Some members of Tchakat have refused to put their hokopapa in writing, saying that it is tapu or sacred.

"We have to be careful that we are not stepping on their mana but we are going into a new era and so we have to make sure that people are who they say they are," says one person involved in the dispute.

"People talk about tikanga (custom) but it's Maori tikanga. Moriori tikanga was lost in the annihilation."

Bubbling beneath the surface, of course, is the history between Moriori and Maori.

Moriori, who scientific evidence has shown come from the same stock as Maori, lived in isolation on the Chathams for centuries until the arrival of Pakeha in the late 1700s.

Disease epidemics took a heavy toll but the population still numbered about 1600 when two Maori tribes with their roots in Taranaki arrived in 1835.

With a history of peace enshrined in a rule called "Nunuku's law" forbidding warfare, Moriori offered no resistance when the Maori turned on them. Moriori were killed or enslaved until the mid 1860s, when the Crown finally intervened successfully.

But Nunuku's law has not prevented the fierce internal arguments this millennium.

Tchakat Henu papers reveal accusations going back several years about bad management, inappropriate spending of trust money and tactics of exclusion.

Some beneficiaries also complain that too much has been spent on legal fees, airfares, tangi, food and alcohol.

They also allege that information about Tchakat Henu accounts has been withheld.

Formal complaints about the association's accountant have been lodged with the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

One person closely involved with the issues says he would like to see more openness from Tchakat Henu and a change in leadership style by Mr Solomon.

"There must be accountability and transparency to members not only for their sake but also for the public's sake."

Mr Solomon rejects the notion that he has anything to hide. He says the trust has spent its money on researching the Waitangi Tribunal claim, education grants and running expenses.

He admits a lot has been spent on airfares, but says that is one of the pitfalls of living about 700km from the mainland.

"People will always say we could have spent less money on this and that.

"I will be straight up and say we could have spent less money. But there has been no misappropriation of funds - we as trustees have got it wrong sometimes but at least it's there for all to see.

"One of the big problems is that personally some of them don't like me and there has been a vendetta to get me out as chairman. I'm not going anywhere.

"If people want to prove that what I've done is something that is unlawful, then they know where to find me. I've got nothing to hide."

Despite everything, Mr Solomon believes the issues can be resolved and Moriori can move forward together.

All parties agree that unity cannot be stopped.

"We are acting with the moral force of the mandate from the beneficiaries and the people," says a senior Moriori figure.

"People are just sick to the back teeth of this talk of unity because they want it to actually happen."