For the last twenty-five years, over 400 cassette tapes recording the Waitangi Tribunal hearings into the Ngāi Tahu Claim, have been stored in the Ngāi Tahu Archives at Macmillan Brown Library at Canterbury University. As part of the Ngāi Tahu Archives kaupapa to make this historic material available to Ngāi Tahu whānui, academics and researchers, the tapes are being digitized by Christchurch sound archivist, John Kelcher.
Kelcher, who has fifteen years’ experience working for the Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, has been doing private preservation work for many years. He considers the Wai-27 collection “a great taonga” and he is delighted to be a part of preserving such significant material.
“I detect that there is a great sense of respect for this material and it is of major historic interest to us all because it represents a watershed moment in Pākehā/Māori history. It’s very satisfying to know this collection is so highly valued and that the Ngāi Tahu Archive is actively preserving these treasures,” he says.
“We are fortunate that someone had the foresight to record pretty much the entire Ngāi Tahu Waitangi Tribunal Treaty Claims hearings. This would be a challenge for any broadcaster, so to make these recordings on cassette and cover all, or most of the proceedings, is quite an achievement.”
Back in 1987, it was Trevor Howse, lead researcher for the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board during the Waitangi Tribunal hearings, who had the foresight to ask the Tribunal at Tuahiwi Marae during one of the first Claim hearings if he could record the Ngāi Tahu proceedings. They agreed and over the course of the following three years, he recorded between four and five hundred cassette tapes.
Tā Tipene O’Regan, Chair of Te Pae Kōrako (The Ngāi Tahu Archives Advisory Committee), says the main significance of the tapes lies in the fact that they are an actual record of the proceedings in one of the biggest things Ngāi Tahu has done as a people.
“Mounting the Ngāi Tahu Claim was a massive effort – financially, intellectually and in terms of human effort – and it basically set the template for almost all settlements since, up to the Tūhoe Claim,” he says.
“And because it is such a hugely important record, it needs to be available to scholars, historians, whānau and academics. It needs to be systematically arranged, safely stored and made available for posterity. Simply put, it represents the single biggest effort Ngāi Tahu people have ever undertaken and it would be a tragedy if it was lost.”
For John Kelcher, the digitization of the 400-plus tapes will be a six-month job. The process is straightforward he says, and his first task was to set up a file-naming scheme to create a good administrative filing system. He says all the tapes have been meticulously labeled and numbered – “although there have been challenging gaps and interruptions to make sense of” – and he begins by playing each one back through a professional quality Tascam machine.
“In most cases, the sound quality is excellent and I’ve been able to get high quality digital recordings at the end of the process. It’s my role to preserve everything. I don’t edit, or embellish, or do any noise reduction. Preservation archiving is about preserving as much information as possible,” he says.
“It seems the cassettes have been well looked after. So far, the only signs of age have been broken leader tapes and missing felt tabs, which I can fix by splicing and sometimes putting the cassette in a new shell. You need steady hands for this work, as the tape has a mind of its own.”
He says now that the tapes are around 25 years old, they are “well into the danger zone for audio cassettes.”
“With music recordings, you’d be hearing drop-outs but with speech it’s less noticeable. To preserve them, we must continue to care for the actual tapes, plus copy the sound and text content onto another medium.”
Once John has completed the digitization of each tape, he uploads them to a portable hard drive, sends copies to the Ngāi Tahu Archives and makes sure they also keep extra copies.
“The idea is to have multiple copies so we never lose this material,” he says.
Ngāi Tahu Archives Manager, Takerei Norton says the Wai-27 material is “an incredible historic record that contains a wealth of information from Ngāi Tahu individuals , many of whom have since passed on.”
“Our aim is to build a Ngāi Tahu search engine where Ngāi Tahu whānui can listen to the audio-tapes, see the photographs of the tribunal hearings and read the actual evidence that was presented to the Tribunal, both from Ngāi Tahu and the Crown. The possibilities are pretty exciting, however we need to urgently press on with this digitisation project to give ourselves an opportunity to build this search engine in the future.”
Tā Tipene O’Regan adds that the main purpose of the digitization is the protection and maintenance of heritage.
“That’s what we’re engaged in – the making of structures to ensure intergenerational access. There are some big holes in the record – we don’t have a very full record of the amazing hīkoi undertaken by whānau and Tribunal members to see our places and meet our people for instance – but what we’ve been able to assemble is very important.
“The main thing is that whoever puts material into the Ngāi Tahu Archives has some measure and right to say who can have access to it. Ultimately our history belongs to all New Zealanders but first and foremost it belongs to our whānau.”