Te Hiku o Te Ika, the northernmost peninsula of Aotearoa, is a region in environmental decline. Far North iwi Ngāti Kuri wants to turn that around. Based on the vision of their kuia, the late Saana Waitai-Murray, the plan is to reach out to scientists, philanthropists, volunteers and others — to heal as a people and to restore their lands and oceans. Freelancer Jacqui Gibson talked to Ngāti Kuri’s Sheridan Waitai to find out more.
It’s a warm May afternoon, but you wouldn’t know it from where I stand.
In the basement of Auckland War Memorial Museum, there’s no natural light and the temperature is set to a tepid 19 degrees.
In a quiet room, a young woman carefully lifts a grey box down from a shelf and pulls out a yellow folder marked “232 Caprosma lucida, Cheeseman”.
Thumbing through its pages, she pauses at a page mounted with a large, leafy green branch and a sleeve filled with two tiny seeds.
“That’s it,” says Tom Trnski, Auckland Museum’s Head of Natural Sciences, turning to me.
“That’s one of the first specimens the original curator of the museum’s biodiversity library, Thomas Cheeseman, brought back from Kapowairua, or Spirits Bay, in the Far North. You can see it’s dated January 1896.”
When Sheridan Waitai, of the Far North iwi, Ngāti Kuri, turned up at the Auckland Museum in 2015, it was specimens just like this one that she had in mind.
“Ngāti Kuri Trust Board went to deliver the museum an ultimatum,” she tells me of that visit four years ago.
“We said: ‘Look. Your scientists have been coming to the Far North taking specimens and doing their science uninvited since Captain Cook’s first voyage. None of that knowledge ever comes back to us. None of that research is shared with Ngāti Kuri or ever takes our perspective into account’.
“We laid it out, straight,” she explains. “I mean, we didn’t know these people, but we’d been sent by our kaumātua and kuia to deliver a message. So, we said to them, you can either work with us to repatriate the taonga you’ve taken over the years, and use your science to help us achieve our goals, or you can walk away from our region for good.”
The museum chose partnership.
Partnering with scientists
I soon learn from Sheridan that pursuing partnerships with New Zealand’s science community isn’t entirely new to Ngāti Kuri.
In the 1970s, Sheridan’s grandmother, the late Saana Waitai-Murray, fostered a lifelong bond with Oliver Sutherland, a Pākehā botanist from Nelson and former scientist with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR).
The pair successfully set up a weavers’ cooperative in Saana’s village of Te Hapua, selling handmade kete and poi to Auckland stores like Modern Bags.
They experimented with sub-tropical crop and land trials, eventually launching Ngāti Kuri’s now-thriving mānuka honey industry.
For decades, Saana and Oliver took DSIR entomologists to Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) to collect rare and unusual insect species for the New Zealand Arthropod Collection.
When entomologists discovered a new genus and species of stick insect, they assigned naming rights to Saana, ultimately writing Tepakiphasma ngātikuri into the science books.
“Nan always believed in our relationship with scientists — with Oliver, in particular,” says Sheridan.
“Oliver bought into our kaupapa and became a son to our people. Nan knew we needed scientists to help our people re-establish a relationship with our taonga — our birds, insects and trees — and to heal as a people.
“But she also knew we had a lot to offer the science community if they were open to it. Our Māori knowledge is thousands of years old. It ties in every element and aspect of the world — it can teach us a lot about the planet in this age of climate change and environmental sustainability.”
Oliver, for one, was definitely open to it.
By the mid 1980s, he and Saana had convinced the DSIR to host a landmark summit in Christchurch to figure out how New Zealand scientists might work with Māori communities.
But their partnership reached a full head of steam at an ethnobotany workshop in 1988, when scientists revealed what they’d been up to in the absence of any relationship with iwi.
They’d given away a collection of 300 New Zealand kūmara varietals — including New Zealand’s oldest and most culturally significant, pre-European cultivars — to the Japanese Tsukuba Research Institute in 1969.
And plans were afoot to commercialise Māori taonga species such as mānuka under the then new Plant Variety Rights Act (1987).
Both revelations rang alarm bells for many workshop attendees, including Saana and Oliver.
A few decided to act.
The WAI 262 claim
Within a year, one of the most complex and wide-ranging Treaty of Waitangi claims New Zealand had ever seen, WAI 262, was in train, penned by Kāhungungu lawyer Moana Jackson on behalf of claimants Dell Wihongi (Te Rarawa), Te Witi McMath (Ngāti Wai), John Hippolite (Ngāti Koata), Tama Poata (Ngāti Porou), Kataraina Rimene (Ngāti Kahungunu), and Saana, with Oliver and others in support.
The goal of the WAI 262 claim was to protect indigenous fauna and flora in perpetuity and give Māori more control over things Māori.
“Nan dedicated her life to that claim,” Sheridan explains to me from the head of her grandmother’s burial site at Kapowairua.
At Sheridan’s invitation, I’ve come to the family urupā to learn about her grandmother’s legacy, WAI 262, and the new direction Ngāti Kuri is taking in response to the claim.
Lodged in 1991, the WAI 262 claim took 20 years of Crown consideration.
The hearings alone took 14 years.
When the Crown’s report, Ko Aotearoa Tēnei, documenting Māori taonga species, intellectual property and how they should be protected was finally published in 2011, Saana was the only claimant still alive to read it.
“She was actually in hospital when we got the embargoed copy. She fought like a mangōpare, a hammerhead shark, till her last fighting breath, to see that report. But, look, it’s another eight years down the track and we’re still awaiting a formal response from government.”
It’s mid-morning in the Far North. The sound of cicadas fill the air. The clouds are clearing, giving the searing sun a free run at our bare skin.
From our position on the hill, we have an unhindered view to Te Rerenga Wairua in the distance and Te Aroha, the weathered pōhutukawa that serves as the spiritual gateway back to Hawaiki.
It’s a sacred tree reportedly at risk of the deadly fungal disease myrtle rust. And it’s just one of many Ngāti Kuri taonga species in decline.
Environmental decline in the Far North
The iwi’s main taonga, the pūpū whakarongo taua, a flax snail, once prolific within the Ngāti Kuri rohe, is now extremely rare.
Recent data collated by Birds New Zealand show a dramatic decline in a Ngāti Kuri-prized bird species, the kuaka (or bar tailed godwit), from 4,500 birds five years ago to about 700 birds last summer.
Pīngao, is not in a good way. A sand-binding plant that plays an important role in dune ecosystems, pīngao is found only in New Zealand.
Meanwhile Ngāti Kurī’s much-treasured Rātā moehau, Metrosideros bartlettii, despite a tentative foothold in nearby Te Paki and Spirits Bay, has been deemed the most threatened tree species in the country.
For a region that’s considered a global hotspot of biodiversity, the rate of species loss is a headache for local iwi and scientists worldwide.
“Nan had this song she’d sing,” Sheridan tells me, gesturing towards Saana’s headstone.
Te Kōkota o Pārengarenga, te kainga o te pingao, o te huawai, o te kuaka. Maranga mai e te rangatahi, pupuritia tō koutou mana, kei ngaro noa te tauranga waka e, te onepu Kōkota o ngā tūpuna o Pārengarenga, o Ngāti Kuri.
“It’s a lament about the sand mining at the Pārengarenga sand dunes, which went on back in the day. But it’s still relevant now, when you look at our declining bioheritage.
“Translated, it talks about Kōtaka, the home of pīngao, huawai, and kuaka. It’s a call to the younger generation to take hold of our heritage lest the canoe’s landing place, the white sands of our ancestors, disappear forever.”
Kaitiakitanga — a legacy passed down
“I grew up with that message. I know what it means to treasure our lands, oceans and all living things. For Ngāti Kuri, kaitiaki is the daily obligation we have to the world. It is who we are. For me personally, it’s about honouring my grandmother’s legacy and getting on and living her vision.”
In 2014, Ngāti Kuri became one of four Northland iwi to collectively reach a $100 million settlement with the Crown for historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.
To manage their assets, the tribe of approximately 6,500 people established the Ngāti Kuri Trust Board, electing Harry Burkhardt as chair, with Sheridan brought on to the board as a general member.
‘Te Ara Whānui — The Flightpath’
Within a year of settlement, Ngāti Kuri Trust Board launched a thousand-year plan called Te Ara Whānui — The Flightpath, drawing on Saana’s vision.
The plan covers the iwi’s one million square kilometre rohe, extending from Maunga Tohoraha (Mt Camel) in the south, to Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) in north, to the off-shore islands of Manawatawhi (the Three Kings Islands) and Rangitahua (the Kermadecs).
It takes in land and marine reserves, the scientific reserve of North Cape and, of course, Te Rerenga Wairua — a sacred site that Sheridan dubs “New Zealand’s version of the Sistine Chapel.”
Today the iwi’s goals are to completely rejuvenate the tribe’s lands and oceans, bring back taonga species and transform 33,000 hectares of their rohe into an ecosanctuary, protected by an 8.5 kilometre predator-proof fence.
“It’s pretty ambitious,” says Sheridan. “But I think very few people realise what a unique place we have in the north.
“Walk these lands and you can experience everything from volcanic landscapes, to white sand beaches, to golden beaches with shells so smooth they shine and refract the light like rainbows.
“We even have a tiny bonsai forest that’s full of freakishly tiny endemic insects, moths and weta you’ll find nowhere else on earth. To see it for yourself, you’d think it was Jurassic Park in miniature.
“And, look, we have an indigenous community prepared to throw everything we’ve got at this.
“Some of our people will become the permanent workforce needed to trap and kill predators and pests, like possums, stoats, rats and feral cats within the sanctuary. Others will be the conservationists and scientists we need to care for our taonga species and grow their populations. Some of our people will work in tourism, welcoming manuhiri to experience this extraordinary part of the world and enjoy Ngāti Kuri-tanga.
“If things go to plan, we’ll be one of the few places in the world to have an entire community living inside one of the world’s largest predator-free ecosanctuaries. The people of Te Hapua deserve it. And our taonga need it.
“Thing is, we know we can’t do this alone. We need all hands on deck — that’s everyone from mana whenua to researchers to volunteers to big strategic partners.”
Relationship with Auckland Museum
That’s why the relationship with Auckland Museum, the iwi’s main scientific partner, is such an important first step in the journey, says Sheridan.
In just four years, they’ve achieved a lot together.
They’ve drafted a memorandum of understanding, setting out the rules of engagement (which is written, not signed, because somehow everything works well without actually having to sign it off, Sheridan tells me).
They have a work programme in place to help achieve the goals of Te Ara Whānui — The Flightpath.
And there’s plenty of hands-on science underway, with the museum now overseeing the research efforts of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA); Manaaki Whenua, Landcare Research; and the Universities of Auckland, Christchurch and Otago.
Research into the ancient species that lived on the mainland is ongoing to give Ngāti Kuri direction on what species to reintroduce to the Far North.
Last year, Dr Nic Rawlence, a senior lecturer in zoology at the University of Otago, found dozens of ancient tuatara bones during an eight-day scientific audit led by Ngāti Kuri and Auckland Museum.
Other species discovered by Nic’s team include the now-extinct moho (or North Island takahē), moa, kiwi, kōhatu shag, and prehistoric New Zealand sea lions.
“Discovering the tiny bleached skeleton of a prehistoric New Zealand sea lion pup was pretty special,” Nic said at the time.
“It’s one of only three sea lion lineages in New Zealand at the point of Polynesian arrival. And it’s the very species that gives Ngāti Kuri its name because it barked like the dogs — or kuri — their tīpuna brought with them to Aotearoa.”
Together, the museum and iwi are counting predators and taonga species to figure out what pests to eradicate first and what treasured species most need protection.
All data gathered within the partnership reflects both a Western scientific and mātauranga Māori worldview, with the ever-growing database available to the public through the museum’s online records.
Auckland Museum has set up an education programme for Ngāti Kuri kids, who museum scientists say are destined to become the iwi’s next generation of botanists, marine ecologists and ornithologists. There’s even a 12-year-old seaweed expert among them.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Anyway, says Sheridan, it’s the quality of the relationship with Auckland Museum that’s the real game changer.
Every year, Auckland Museum scientists attend wānanga at Far North marae to stand on the land, meet Ngāti Kuri, and learn more mātauranga Māori. They regularly travel north as a team and with their families to carry out new research and share their findings.
A few months ago, Ngāti Kuri and Auckland Museum jointly hosted an “intro to the WAI 262 workshop” at the national museum conference to upskill the country’s museum curators on how and why the claim came about and how they can play their part in bringing it to life.
“From my perspective, Auckland Museum were relationship-ready when we knocked on their door that day,” says Sheridan.
“As a trust board, we knew we were challenging them to do something different as scientists and as a museum. But, right from day one, they were prepared to respect our authority, our mana motuhake and let us lead the partnership. They trusted us to bring them into our world and we’ve never looked back.”
A model for the Crown relationship
It’s a partnership model Sheridan would like to replicate with the iwi’s Treaty partners.
“I often wonder what it would take for Crown agencies like DOC to tautoko or support us in a similar way. We have a similar starting point — bad blood, conflict, the trauma of colonisation — but it’s like we’re stuck in a dysfunctional relationship that we just can’t move on from.
“I mean, how can we get them, and the general public of New Zealand, to engage with us and trust us to lead the conservation of our land — not just for us and our future generations, but for everyone, for all New Zealanders?”
Later, Sheridan and I jump in her four-wheel drive and gun it to Saana’s abandoned cottage on the Muriwhenua block nearby. It’s our last stop before we climb into our togs and take a dip in Parengarenga Harbour and call it a day.
Honouring Saana’s memory
The Muriwhenua block itself is slowly undergoing a renaissance of sorts as shareholders return to the land and begin to build family homes there.
For Sheridan, Saana’s cottage serves as both a final monument to her grandmother’s memory and a reminder of the values that Saana passed on to her as a kid growing up.
“Things haven’t been easy for us. But, as a people, we know who we are — and a lot of that comes down to Nan. As kids she constantly told us how intelligent we were, how loving we were, how playful and special and how strong and fierce we were. To me, her greatest legacy was the bond of aroha that’s come down through the generations.
“I spent a lot of time with Nan growing up. I was raised in Awanui, with Dad working in the dairy factory there. But any chance we’d get, he and I, we’d drive up to see Nan in Dad’s big old Valiant. I was always desperate to get back to Te Hapua.
“I believe Nan lived her purpose. She’d promised her mother, when her mother was dying, to keep pursuing our rights under the Treaty, to bring that promised partnership with the Crown to life and to reach out beyond ourselves to achieve our goals.
“Now it’s my generation’s turn to step up — whānau, hapū and iwi. It’s time for my children and my moko to pick this up and get on with it. It’s our time for action.”
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.