Robyn Bargh and Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick at the signing of the agreement to return land to Ngāti Kearoa-Ngāti Tuara, on September 17, 2022. (Photo supplied)

Large-scale loss of Māori land didn’t only happen during the wars of the nineteenth century. Millions of acres were also taken over the following hundred years as authorities used legislation to force the acquisition and sale of Māori assets and natural resources.

Some councils are now starting to confront that history. In Rotorua, the local council has signed an agreement to return land to hapū Ngāti Kearoa-Ngāti Tuara, and to co-manage the springs that supply the city’s drinking water.

Here, Robyn Bargh tells Connie Buchanan about how the hapū made it happen.


Getting land back doesn’t happen because people in authority feel sorry for you or want to be generous.

Councils don’t knock on the door and say: “Excuse me, iwi, we’ve just realised that we took your land and we didn’t mean to. Would you like to have it back?”

Instead, you’ve got to assume that there’s a long, hard road ahead. Then you just have to go for it. And that’s what we managed to do with our hapū land at Karamu Takina spring in Rotorua.

Once we gathered all the information and all the facts, we were able to go to the council and say: “Did you know about this?”

The story is that in 1954 our kuia and koroua were invited to a hui with the Rotorua Borough Council. At that hui, they were told that the council wanted to use water from a spring on their land to supply water to the town.

The spring is at the base of Tihiotonga, which is a prominent hill to the south of Rotorua. There’s a stream of water that emerges from an aquifer deep in the ground there. The water is beautiful — it’s cool, it’s clear, and it’s constant. The stream never varies.

The water at Karamu Takina spring which supplies most of Rotorua’s drinking water.

Our people based their lives around that spring for hundreds of years. The slopes along the Tihiotonga area are north-facing and along the hills there were pā, kāinga, and mahinga kai. Our people were there for centuries growing food and living their lives. So it’s not as if this was some little old forgotten place out the back of nowhere. It was an important area where our people lived.

There were about 20 of our kuia and koroua in the 1954 meeting with the council. They were reasonably comfortable with the idea of the water being shared for the benefit of the town. But they said “no” to selling. They wanted a lease arrangement.

Then it became apparent that they didn’t have a choice. The council made it clear they would be taking the spring and some land around it anyway, under the Public Works Act. The hapū could either accept a small payment or not.

In the end, the council purchased an area of three acres which included the spring for 500 pounds, which our old people had negotiated up from the original offer of 200. In addition, the old people also asked for and received a guarantee that they would still be able to access the spring and take water for their neighbouring land.

Robyn’s koroua, Raharuhi Pururu, in 1937.  (Photo supplied)

In that meeting, one of our koroua was quoted as saying: “This is a beautiful spot. We don’t want to lose this land. It has special cultural, spiritual and historical significance to us.” He said all those important things right from the start. But the process just continued.

The council forced through the purchase, and, to them, the sale meant the spring was now theirs. They built a fence around it. After that, our old people didn’t have access to it anymore.

Losing access to the water was hard, but I think the more painful thing was losing our mana whenua to the area and losing that control.

Over the years that followed, under the Public Works Act, the council just took more and more of our land in that area in little bits and pieces — right up to 1973, until they had over 14 acres around the spring.

These days there’s a big pumping station there. It provides most of the water, about 90 percent, for the city of Rotorua. Most of the people in Rotorua today don’t have any idea about the history of their water supply.

But, for us of Ngāti Kearoa-Ngāti Tuara, a couple of things happened that brought the past into the light. We have a farming trust that farms land above the spring. We were paying water rates and thinking: “This is weird, we’re paying for water from our own land.” We started asking questions about that, which led to us looking into how the land sale came about. Then we learned how and why we’d lost the land.

We found a copy of the original agreement and we saw that part of what was agreed was that the hapū would continue to have free access to our water. That piece of the deal seems to have been lost over time, with neither the Māori Trustee nor the council taking action over the years to make sure it happened.

We did all the research ourselves. It was really our search for mana whenua. It took us about 12 years. Bit by bit, we slowly put the picture together.

The research into Karamu Takina was reminiscent of our earlier work on our Waitangi Tribunal claim, and through those processes we came to realise all the different ways that our land had been taken.

We’re not a big hapū, we didn’t have heaps of land. But we had around 50,000 acres in the 1800s. And most of that has been lost.

It’s like death by a thousand cuts. There are more ways to take Māori land than you would believe.

For example, we had a big block of land where I’m living now at Horohoro. It was taken in the 1930s for the Māori Land Development Scheme and processed through what they called “consolidation and amalgamation”. That’s where the government took large blocks of Māori land and subdivided it into smaller and smaller blocks until you end up with small farms which were uneconomic even at that time.

We lost a lot of land that way right through till the 1960s. For example, we had some land at Tārewa where the people were told by the council that it was too swampy to build on. They were persuaded to sell. And, a few years later, the council drained the land and built on it.

These were the assets of our hapū. For us, colonisation has meant our assets being taken bit by bit over 150 years.

A lot of attention is paid to people who lost their land through raupatu, which was devastating for the iwi involved. But losing the land little by little is just as painful — and it’s hard to find out what happened, and almost impossible to get the land back.

But that’s the kind of history that a lot of us are facing.

The little bits and pieces are now all owned by somebody else. It’s become private land and our people can’t afford to buy it back.

We got to a point in our hapū research where we had a really clear picture of what had happened with the spring. We started meeting with council management and saying: “Here are the facts about what happened, and we need something done about it.”

First, we negotiated to get the water situation fixed and the wrongful payments addressed. But we also knew that we needed to come to a wider arrangement that suited both parties. The council agreed. It took three or four years from the time that we started negotiating — and this was with a reasonably willing council. Even then, it still took that long to get through the various processes for a formal agreement.

The gist of the agreement is that we do get that land back. Fourteen acres around the Karamu Takina spring will be returned to our iwi. We have some other land coming back which was gifted to the council for use as tennis courts in the 1960s. In recent times, the tennis courts haven’t been properly maintained and the council no longer needed them. So that’s coming back too.

The other major part of the arrangement is that the council has agreed to co-governance and co-management of the spring. It’s a big thing for us because now we will be involved in how the water, the land, and the infrastructure on it, are managed into the future.

Members of Ngāti Kearoa-Ngāti Tuara visit the Karamu Takina spring, which was taken from their hapū under the Public Works Act in the 1950s. (Photo supplied)

What helped our case is that in Rotorua there’s another smaller spring, Pekehaua Puna, which was returned to Ngāti Rangiwewehi in 2015. So the council had already seen that it can work. They knew the world doesn’t come to an end with co-governance — that you can make it work for the betterment of not only the iwi, but also the community.

So now we’re working through how it’s going to work for our spring. Who’s going to be responsible for what? It’s a major exercise providing water for a city.

The main principle we’re bringing to the arrangement is kaitiakitanga, which is looking after and caring for the water. We’re concerned that the quality of the water is maintained. We do have a say in how much water will be taken, how it will be used — those kinds of things that are really important to ensuring the future health of the spring. This is not something we’re in just for this year or the next six months. This is for the long haul.

The signing ceremony that we had to mark the agreement was a wonderful thing. It was a beautiful moment for our hapū to be together and proudly remember our tūpuna who had agreed to this in the first place, and to acknowledge the gift that they had given all of us at that time. It was a powerful and emotional day.

After the ceremony, I was reflecting on it all, and I thought about Eva Rickard and the Raglan golf course. She was such an icon to us and that was such an important case which showed that it was possible to get land back that had been taken under local legislation.

I realised from our little case that the Public Works Act was just a weapon. It was an abuse of power. And it didn’t need to be. They didn’t need to take that land from us and strip us off our assets. Our old people were willing to help. The council could have leased it from us. There were other ways to go about things. It didn’t need to be taken in ownership.

This sort of thing happened all around the country. We’re nowhere near the only ones.

So, I’d say to other hapū: Do your research. It’s so much easier when you’ve got the facts in front of you, and you know exactly what you’re talking about.

Getting Māori land back is not going to happen by magic. It’s not going to happen by other people’s generosity. It’s only going to happen by our own straight-out determination and persistence.

Representatives from Ngāti Kearoa-Ngāti Tuara and Rotorua Lakes Council at the signing of an agreement to co-manage the Karamu Takina springs that supply Rotorua’s drinking water, and to return the land to local hapū. September 17, 2022. (Photo supplied)


Robyn Rangihuia Bargh is chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kearoa Ngāti Tuara, a trustee of Te Pūmautanga o Te Arawa and a director of the Central North Island Iwi Collective. Robyn founded Huia Publishers in 1991 and continues that work as a director of the company. In her role as chair of the Māori Literature Trust, Robyn has continued to support the development of Māori writers. Robyn was made a Companion of the Order of New Zealand in 2012.

 As told to Connie Buchanan, made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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