|Today, the central New Zealand town of Matamata is world renowned for its thoroughbred horse industry. English-style estates with elaborate fencing sell for millions of dollars.
When Peter Jackson was looking for the ideal landscape to build the film set for the Shire village of Hobbiton in both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, this was where he came. The town has so readily fused its identity with its role in Jackson’s epic films that a sign reading “Welcome to Hobbiton” now greets visitors.
On the main strand of this booming farming region, however, there is little to suggest that it was the heartland of the once mighty Ngati Haua, a tribe whose chief Wiremu Tamihana played a leading role in the formation of Maori King movement, an indigenous autonomy organisation that emerged in the mid-1850s.
After 150 years of marginalisation, things are finally looking up for the iwi (tribe). On Friday, New Zealand’s government signed an agreement with the tribe’s elders, recognising it acted “unjustly” and offering a combination of financial and cultural redress. The signing took place on a site south of the city of Hamilton, where in 1863 Tamihana reached out to the invading British forces in a gesture of peace.
“When so much of our land disappeared, it individualised us in a lot of ways. We lost our way,” Mokoro Gillett, a member of Ngati Haua who has played a key role in the negotiations, told Al Jazeera.
“The loss of land sent us in another direction, so it was really crucial to us that the Crown acknowledge that,” said Gillett, who serves as co-chair on the Ngati Haua Trust Board.
Under the agreement, the tribe is to receive $13mn New Zealand dollars ($10.5mn) in financial compensation and a number of Crown properties will be returned to its ownership.
The signing makes Ngati Haua the latest tribe to sign such an agreement in a nationwide process aimed at addressing all historic Maori grievances.
“Settling claims helps restore the relationship between those New Zealanders and the Crown,” said a spokesperson for the office of Christopher Finlayson, the minister for Treaty Negotiations. “The settlement process has also helped all New Zealanders learn more about their history.”
Dealing with the past
What followed was an attempt to allow all tribes redress for historic injustices dating back to 1840, the year the British Crown signed a document known as the Treaty of Waitangi with indigenous leaders, establishing New Zealand as a British colony.
That document, and the government’s failure to respect the rights and status it guarantees to the country’s indigenous people, has been the centre of intense controversy ever since its signing.
A new generation of Maori 1960s succeeded in reviving the issue by calling on the government to “Honour the Treaty”.
After much soul-searching, a broad political consensus emerged by the 1980s that it was essential for New Zealand to deal with its colonial past, in order for the country to move into the future.
Margaret Wilson, president of the Labour Party in the 1980s when the government of the day opened the way for the settlement process, told Al Jazeera that politicians accepted that the process was essential.
“There was an acknowledgement from the fourth Labour government in the 1980s that you had to acknowledge grievances going back to 1840 and start from there,” said Wilson, who is an expert on constitutional law and was Labour’s first Treaty Negotiations Minister in 2002.
“If you were going to do the process, you had to do it properly.”
‘Not a great deal’
“With the Tainui-Waikato settlement they were sidelined, they were just another group of people whose land was confiscated,” said Dr Des Kahotea, an archaeologist who works as a researcher and tribal advocate in the broader Waikato region.
The settlement process can span years, and demands extensive research from historians or members of the communities involved.
Not everyone supports the settlements.
“They [tribes] should be looking after their own people instead of milking off us,” Mike Smith, a Matamata resident, told Al Jazeera. “We [non-indigneous people] earned the money, but we’re not getting any of it,” he said, criticising Friday’s deal.
But the total amount of compensation paid by the government represents only a fraction of what was lost, indigneous activists say.
“It’s not a great deal, we were expecting much more. But considering all things, we’ve accepted it. I’ll put it that way,” Gillett said of the $13mn settlement.
The minister acknowledges that the settlements are more symbolic than anything else.
“The Treaty settlement process cannot, and does not attempt to, compensate claimants for the losses suffered as a result of Treaty breaches by the Crown,” his spokesperson said. “Although it’s difficult to calculate, various estimates have put commercial redress at between one per cent and six per cent of what was lost.”
Setting the record straight
For Ngati Haua, that means reviving the legacy of their great chief, Wiremu Tamihana.
“We’ve always felt the Crown didn’t treat us well, not so much nowadays, but our ancestors, especially Wiremu Tamihana,” Gillett said.
“Coming from a very deep Maori culture, and looking to the new technology that was coming in from Britain, he saw that the past was going to disappear in some way. He looked at the new world that was coming in, and tried to strategise how his people could work in that new world.”
In the mid-1800s, Tamihana was one of the most influential chiefs in the central North Island. The son of a great warrior chief, Tamihana did his best to usher in a period of peace and prosperity for his people, despite the rapidly changing times.
He embraced elements of Western culture and supported dialogue, trade and friendship with Europeans. He converted to Christianity and adapted to Western-style schools for his people.
While he was not opposed to the presence of the European population, their rapid expansion led him to play a central role in the pan-tribal kingitanga movement. He crowned the first Maori king in 1858, and his descendants retain the title of “kingmaker”.
The movement, bringing together many tribes in an attempt to establish a Maori monarch who would be the equivalent of the British Queen was viewed as a “rebellion” by the British, who in 1863 moved to confiscate the lands of the Waikato tribes.
“Tamihana was the catalyst for the central North Island resisting colonisation, and the development of alternatives,” Kahotea said. “The British sought to destroy him as a political leader, and they were successful.”
Land speculators moved in to take most of what was left of Maori land in the region, and by 1866, the Ngati Haua had lost most of their land. Tamihana died that year. His people say it was of a broken heart.
“He was a man of peace who tried his best to make peace, not only amongst ourselves, the Maori nations, but also with the Europeans,” Gillett said. “I don’t think they quite understood, or they didn’t try to understand.”
The settlement signed with Ngati Haua on Friday acknowledges the Crown acted wrongly and in breach of the Treaty, and offers an official apology.
“What I am noticing is that there’s far more pride in local Maori in the area now that they have got recognition and are working in partnership with ourselves and various other bodies,” Hugh Vercoe, mayor of Matamata-Piako, said.
The settlement grants them more direct say in the administration of local environmental sites and waterways. It provides more resources to devote to local initiatives –such as the school founded by Gillet – to teach the tribe’s children in the regional dialect of the Maori language and offer them a brighter future.
“We’ll always have that cultural background. We’ll never let that go, because that’s what makes us unique,” Gillet said. “It makes us different from anyone else, and we need to maintain that as best we can.”