Iwi Chairs Forum

Mar 25, 2018

He Whakaaro
Nā Ward Kamo

Another Waitangi Day has passed. It is now 178 years since Ngāi Tahu signed the Treaty at Akaroa, Ruapuke, and lastly Ōtākou – and what a journey it’s been. From being the literal kings of the castle in 1840 to virtually impoverished not 30 years later is a stunning reversal of fortune. But what’s more stunning is the recent rise of the Ngāi Tahu phoenix from the ashes of that time – well, at least economically.

In the 1840s Murihiku leader Tūhawaiki was already lamenting our state of affairs: “We are but a poor remnant now, and the Pākehā will soon see us all die out, but even in my time, we Ngailaki (sic Ngāi Tahu)* were a large and powerful tribe, stretching from Cook Strait to Akaroa.”

Well I’m pleased our tupuna was ever-so-slightly wrong in his prediction, by around 60,000 Ngāi Tahu. We’re a great story.

Since our settlement in 1996 we have taken a $170 million figure and grown it to $1.3 billion (give or take a few dollars). I don’t think we can truly appreciate the stunning economic success story this represents. With the economic power has come political power, and a true expression (and exercise) of our mana.

Part of this has been the Iwi Chairs Forum (ICF) and the role of Ngāi Tahu within it. And if there’s any doubt as to the Ngāi Tahu influence over it, it first convened at Takahanga in 2005.

During the reign of the National-led Government from 2008 to 2017, the ICF took on an increasingly important role in Crown/iwi relations. This was in no small part due to the Māori Party and its strong tribal development focus (along with its flagship “whānau ora” policy). National was happy to take the lead through the Māori Party as it engaged with iwi.

This was not unnoticed by the then opposition Labour Party, who came to increasingly resent the developing relationship between the ICF and National. It was seen as encroaching on Labour’s turf, as Labour has always believed it is the natural party for Māori.

The new Labour-led government has signalled almost immediately its intentions regarding the ICF, with the newly-minted Minister of Māori Development, the Hon. Nanaia Mahuta, stating: “I don’t think people in the room if they had their hand on heart would say to us that the way in which the forum has been operating has been entirely satisfactory”.

And equally newly-minted Minister of Treaty Settlements, the Hon. Andrew Little, added: “I think they may have a few issues about emotionally disconnecting themselves from their ex.”

These statements are to be expected, and signal that a new sheriff is in town. It’s now Labour’s gig, and iwi will just have to get used it.

But there is a troubling element to all this. Last December, New Zealand First’s Shane Jones said “Halley’s Comet would be back” before he met with the ICF. And Labour’s Willie Jackson was dismissive of the ICF in relation to charter schools, because “they had never spoken for his constituency in Auckland”.

Willie Jackson’s comments in particular point to a growing sentiment that is feeding into a larger narrative about our tribal leaders and their mandate to represent. This, and not politicians’ posturing, is the troubling aspect.

The term “tribal elites” became an increasing catchcry for those claiming to represent… well, I’m not exactly sure what. The term came to permeate the language of those resistant to both the Māori Party and to the mahi of the ICF (the accusation being that both were too close to National).

The slur carries on from the term “corporate warriors” that arose in the 1990s in relation to the rise of Māori economic success. And it was a term we Māori threw at our own. Today we use “tribal elite”. The term conjures up images of suit-wearing, corporatised Māori, divorced from their tribal roots and having taken their positions via some form of either self or government appointment. Well, let’s look at a few of those elites.

Tā Mark Solomon was a fitter and turner before his time as kaiwhakahaere. This is about as blue collar as it gets. Yes, Mark came to wear a suit and take on a leadership role across the country – but his roots are blue collar, and hardly elite. Our current kaiwhakahaere, Lisa Tumahai, came from a health administration background. If I go across to my other whanaunga on Wharekauri I see a farmer, hairdresser, small business owner, fisher, painter, and other working professions at the helm of Ngāti Mutunga. Hardly “elite”, and most definitely not government appointed (let alone “self-appointed”).

Across the country our iwi boards are full of anything but elites. Our representatives are our mothers and fathers; our brothers and sisters; and our aunts, uncles, and cousins. They are people who have been courageous enough to put themselves forward to be elected (not appointed) by their own iwi to take on these roles. And it is a thankless task they perform, as the term “tribal elite” points to.

They are subject to the most awful of tribal hui where their characters are denigrated, their integrity disparaged, and their “taha Māori” called into question. They are often verbally assaulted and physically threatened. And God forbid if they actually act like a human and make an inevitable mistake.

No, these people are not elites – masochists maybe – but not elites. And when you see what most of these representative leaders earn for all of that – you’d wonder why anyone would actually take up the roles. So in the case of the ICF, the Chairs are your elected representatives. As in: the ones that were voted into their iwi entities.

Turning back to Ngāi Tahu, Lisa Tumahai has taken over the role Tā Mark Solomon played. And that is entirely right. She will head to the various ICF hui to put forward our Ngāi Tahu position, and to continue to try and exert influence as Ngāi Tahu has always done. She will be supported by the Office of Te Rūnanga in that endeavour. She will work collaboratively with other iwi chairs, and at times will argue with them on policy and iwi direction. She will continue to work to achieve the mana motuhake envisaged by the likes of pōua Tikao during his mahi with the Kotahitanga movement.

That doesn’t mean, “Don’t hold her and Te Rūnanga to account.” Of course we should. They are paid to do the jobs they do, and they have a duty of care to ensure they act with integrity and with their best foot forward. However, let’s not fall into the trap of treating our own whanaunga as “the other” – as somehow removed from us, the “ordinary Ngāi Tahu”. Because they are just doing the best they can in the time they have at the table.

Ward Kamo (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga Chatham Island, and Scottish decent) grew up in Poranui (Birdlings Flat) and South Brighton, Christchurch.