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Waitaha, the first people of Te Waipounamu, journeyed on the Uruao waka and settled in Kā Pākihi Whakatekateka o Waitaha – the Canterbury Plains. Ngāti Māmoe and then Ngāi Tahu followed. Through warfare, intermarriage and political alliances a common allegiance to Ngāi Tahu was forged. Ngāi Tahu means the ‘people of Tahu’, linking us to our eponymous ancestor Tahu Pōtiki. Within the iwi there are five primary hapū being Kāti Kurī, Ngāti Irakehu, Kāti Huirapa, Ngāi Tūāhuriri and Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki.
The traditions of Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu are embedded in our landscape. We know Te Waipounamu as the waka that carried four sons of Raki (sky father) to meet his second wife Papatūānuku (earth mother). The sons journeyed from the heavens and when they sought to return, the karakia (incantation) failed, over- turning their waka which became the South Island.
The brothers climbed on top and turned to stone and became the mountains that comprise the Southern Alps. We understand the captain of the Uruao waka Rakaihautū, named many sites from Kaikōura to Foveaux Strait and carved out lakes across the South Island forming food baskets to sustain his descendants. In the deep south the Takitimu waka forms a mountain range and the food baskets that capsized from another waka, Ārai Te Uru, created the Moeraki boulders. These stories, our place names and traditions are interwoven throughout the landscape.
Ngāi Tahu formed permanent and semi-permanent hapū settlements in coastal and inland regions supported by an intricate network of mahinga kai (customary food gathering sites). Whānau travelled seasonally between mahinga kai sites enjoying the bounty of seafood, eels, birds and plants, leaving traditions, knowledge and rock art to guide future generations.
Hapū traded pounamu and other resources regionally and nationally. The iwi would come together to defend the tribal takiwā (territory) against aggressors from the north.
Ngāi Tahu learnt to adapt quickly living in this formidable southern environment. Possessing an entrepreneurial character, we seized upon the economies of whaling, sealing and the export of flax and provisions such as potatoes and grains. By the 1830’s, Ngāi Tahu had built a thriving industry supplying whaling vessels and had become the backbone of the South Island economy. We also looked after whalers and settlers in need, shared our food and knowledge, and began to integrate with the new arrivals.
Not long after our ancestors signed the Treaty of Waitangi, Ngāi Tahu entered into contracts with the Crown to sell some of our land, with the promise of the creation of reserves sufficient for our people to thrive; as well as the provision of key social infrastructure including schools and hospitals. As history shows, the Crown did not honour its side of the bargain. Ngāi Tahu were forced into being a people almost devoid of land, depleted by disease and became divorced from the growing economy. Hence Te Kerēme – the Ngāi Tahu Claim was born.
Over seven generations, Ngāi Tahu carried its quest for justice, led and inspired by the tribal philosophy of Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri, ā muri ake nei – for us and our children after us. We overcame legal and practical barriers to continue our mahinga kai practices. We conducted the world’s first indigenous census so that our descendants would always be able to trace their whakapapa. We wrote petitions to the Queen, supported our tribal leadership to become Members of Parliament and lobbied for Commissions of Inquiry so that we would one day reclaim the land and resources we needed to ensure our people would once again flourish. The quest for justice culminated in the Ngāi Tahu Settlement of 1998 and through the transfer of a range of resources and tools, forged the next stage of our tribal journey to preserve our tribal identity and begin to create a prosperous future for our people.
In the 21st century, Ngāi Tahu identity continues to evolve and adapt as it has always done. The responsibility of current generations is to honour the deeds and values of our tīpuna and to create an inheritance for future generations. Ngāi Tahu has a responsibility to be steward; to grow and use the resources we have fought to reclaim in order to achieve the culturally rich, boundless future our tīpuna dreamed we could achieve.