“Had the land been returned when my grandfather was alive, he and my grandmother would’ve enjoyed a much better quality of life,” says Professor Sandy Morrison about The Nelson Tenths. (Photo supplied)

Tomorrow, families fighting for the return of their land in what’s known as the Nelson Tenths Reserves will be back in the High Court in Wellington — pressing the Crown to honour an agreement in the longest-running property claim in Aotearoa. Here, Professor Sandy Morrison writes about the impact of that broken promise on her whānau.


My grandfather, Hare Rore Stafford, arrived in Waikato Maniapoto in the mid-1920s with a photo of his mother, trophies won from horse racing, and a small schoolbag.

In it were papers relating to ownership of tūpuna land in Te Tauihu o te Waka a Māui, the top of the South Island, for which he received regular but paltry rental cheques. For more than 70 years, he farmed my Nanny Roimata’s land near the small township of Hangatiki, near the Waitomo Valley. They worked hard, milking cows daily, caring for the animals and the land with its routines seamlessly merging into an annual calendar of activity.

My grandfather allowed himself only one day off farm work each year. That was Christmas Day, which came with some latitude in his sobriety as well. As the day wore on, the talk would come out.

“My people down south, you should go and visit . . . my people in Wairau, in Blenheim, in Nelson and in Motueka. My land is there, go south and see my people, go to my land.” These words were uttered in pain, a reflection of the level of sadness that he carried in his heart.

He had little understanding of his land ownership. He didn’t know that, while he owned some land, the agreement from the Crown to return the rest of the land promised under the Nelson Tenth Reserves in the 1840s to the Māori customary owners was never upheld. Neither were papakāinga, wāhi tapu and cultivation lands protected, as had been agreed. Fewer than 3,000 acres of the promised 15,100 acres were returned.

To add further indignity, the land that was returned was subject to perpetual lease, with automatic 21-year renewals from which my grandfather received 0.4 percent of the unimproved value. This meant he was forced to seek work elsewhere, dispossessed and disenfranchised from his tūpuna lands. Many of his generation moved to Waikato Maniapoto where they had whanaungatanga links — and many of us with whakapapa to Te Tauihu remain in Hamilton and this rohe still.

Professor Sandy Morrison. (Photo supplied)

Tomorrow, on August 14, the families, all of whom carry similar stories to ours, return to court to once again ask for our land back. Our case is New Zealand’s longest-standing property claim, having been argued for more than 180 years, in one of the largest pieces of litigation against the Crown.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling in 2017 that the Crown had a legal duty to reserve the customary Tenths, and directing the parties back to the High Court to determine the extent of the Crown’s breaches, remedies and any Crown defences, the Crown has yet to enter into meaningful discussions to address its legal duties with my uncle Rore Stafford, who represents the customary owners.

My grandfather passed a few months before we successfully argued against the unfair lease regime and new legislation (enacted in 1998) allowed us to finally set market rents for our own land.

Yet the return of the Nelson Tenths land remains unfinished. Had the land been returned when my grandfather was alive, he and my grandmother would’ve enjoyed a much better quality of life. There would’ve been money for healthcare, to buy a tractor, to buy shoes for their growing family. They would have lived a life of dignity and, most important of all, there would’ve been money to allow him to return to see his family, his people in Te Tauihu, even if he could not walk on his land.

Tomorrow, as we have done before, we will walk into the High Court committed to fulfilling the dreams of our tūpuna. What has now become an intergenerational commitment is encapsulated in a simple ask: Return our land.

The Crown can make the case as complex as they want. But at its heart, it’s simple. And we are not going away.

Noku te whenua, nō ōku tūpuna. Ka whawhai tonu mātou mō ake.


Professor Sandy Morrison, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Rarua, Te Arawa, is the dean of Waikato University’s Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies. She is the niece of kaumātua Rore Stafford who is the lead plaintiff against the Attorney-General in the upcoming hearing, which will run in Wellington’s High Court from 14 August.

For more on the Nelson Tenths case, visit www.makingthetenthswhole.co.nz

See also Kerensa Johnston’s piece backgrounding the history of the Nelson Tenths Reserves: A story of unmet obligations. 

© E-Tangata, 2023

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