As a young man, Tipene O’Regan had dreams (plans even) of building a boat and sailing off overseas. That didn’t work out. Various realities got in the way. But his talents led him to being at the helm during a far more influential voyage — guiding Ngāi Tahu through their Treaty claim and towards becoming, once again, a significant presence in New Zealand.

Here he tells Dale of some of the developments along the way.


Kia ora, Sir Tipene. Many of us know you from your high-profile years of battling and negotiating on behalf of Ngāi Tahu. But you’ve been busy as well, as an academic and in other fields. So, when you reflect on your 79 years, you may not find it easy to select the high point of your career. But I wonder if you can single out your most satisfying achievement.

Apart from my marriage and my family, I think the most important achievement has been something which hasn’t been noticed by many. And that was securing the legal personality of Ngāi Tahu, because there’s still only two iwi who have their legal personality formally recognised by the state. That’s Waikato-Tainui and us.

Bob Mahuta, who led the Waikato-Tainui Treaty claim, rang me one night and said: “What’s this legal personality stuff?” And I explained that we’d been struggling for years to get the legal personality of our Papatipu Rūnanga recognised by the New Zealand Parliament. We’d had a huge struggle with select committees over several years, mainly because the New Zealand Māori Council was trying to prevent that, and have all our structures set through Māori committees and the Māori Council.

That came about because we’d been talking with our primary senior counsel, Paul Temm, as we were working through our Treaty claim. And Paul kept making the point that everything that was available for Māori was by gift of the settler state, through parliament. That was the historic situation of all Māori.

If you had an incorporated society, you were subject to the Registrar of Incorporated Societies. If you had a Māori trust board, you were subject to the Māori Trust Boards Act. At the end of the day, you were just a creature of the state.

Ngāi Tahu had fought a long fight over that without any interest from other iwi. When I explained it to Bob Mahuta, he said: “I want one of those.” So I told him that, if he wanted a legal personality, he shouldn’t get it put through parliamentary legislation. He should get it done by Order in Council. By the Governor-General — not through parliament.

And there was good reason for that because we’d had so much trouble with the parliament and having the whole kaupapa politicised.

So, that’s how it was done for Waikato-Tainui. They very wisely got it done through Order in Council. And we struggled on until Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu Act finally abolished the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board Act and we achieved our legal personality.

What that means, simply, is that we have a legal personality of our own — and it’s independent. Parliament’s only function is to recognise it. And we don’t have any of our constitution subject to political interference by the state.

So I regard that as probably the most significant thing that I’ve ever achieved, but hardly anyone takes much notice of it — and it’s still not bothered about by other tribes.

And you’re saying that Paul Temm played a key part in that development?

Yes. Paul Temm had been a member of the Waitangi Tribunal and I think he largely wrote the tribunal’s report on te reo Māori. He was a very distinguished QC from Auckland and went on to become a High Court judge. And he had been, for a time, vice president of the New Zealand Law Society.

And now we have land masses and rivers with legal personalities.

That’s correct, and we’re very much supportive of that approach. In fact, Brazil started it — and, of course, the Ganges river in India has recently been elevated in the same way.

But, back here in New Zealand, there’ve been other notable developments, haven’t there?

Well, in my lifetime, the Māori world has been subject to an enormous demographic revolution. The Māori population, as a proportion of New Zealand’s population, has changed quite dramatically. For a brief period, in the late 1950s and 1960s, Māoridom had the highest birth rate of any indigenous group on earth. It didn’t last long, but we’ve still got that pulse coming through in the population today.

There are far more Māori over the age of 70 today than there was when I first went on to the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust board. The whole world was different. We were focused, almost entirely, on the young and education. And now we’ve got a much broader mandate. And we’re a much greater force economically, politically, and socially in our society.

So I think the current transformation taking place with the status of te reo in society is putting paid to the “alt right” of New Zealand. They’re all in substantial retreat at the moment — they’re much smaller, although more intense. But the climate of support for a more culturally inclusive society is well underway.

You’ve just got to look at the media. Like the Dominion Post the other week wanting to advance the cause of Wellington as a bilingual city. Those sorts of things would’ve been unheard of a decade ago. They would’ve been unthinkable.

Could we turn now to the O’Regan clan? With its Irish and West Coast connection. And to your dad and his unusual first name: Rolland.

Yes. Well, he was named after a French missionary priest, Father Rolland.

Father Rolland started a little co-educational boarding school at Ahaura. And he picked up my grandfather, this 10- or 11-year-old son of an illiterate but highly able Irish migrant father, and he put him on his horse and took him to the Ahaura school.

My grandfather had three years of primary schooling there, before he was whipped off to run a farm for a widowed cousin in Taranaki, at Kaponga. And he was sitting on that farm reading things like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. As a boy. He was almost entirely self-taught.

Anyhow, he went back to the South Island, and by 22, he was the editor of the Reefton newspaper, and by about 23 or 24, he was a member of the Seddon parliament. He was quite a character. He was known as Big Pat O’Regan. A big, tall man. Very strong.

He went on, through his time in parliament and then out of it, to become a lawyer. He put himself through university with his young family in Wellington by writing as a jobbing journalist. He eventually ended up as a judge of the New Zealand Supreme Court (now the High Court) and, in his latter years, was appointed to the Legislative Council — the old Upper House of Parliament.

As a lawyer, he won the Buller miners case over the awful disease, phthisis. He also  won compensation for the Napier earthquake victims. But he really came to fame as the man who defended the Catholic Bishop of Auckland for sedition in World War One over the Home Rule for Ireland issue.

Anyhow, he ended up, with the arrival of the Labour Government in the mid-1930s, as a member of the Supreme Court and as the judge responsible for arbitration and compensation. He worked at that, but he was also a passionate Christian socialist, environmentalist, and all sorts of other things. And he infected his sons with the same sort of interests.

My father, who became a surgeon, was one of his middle children. He became a devotee of his dad’s thinking and looked after him in later life. And he became a very well-known and distinguished surgeon.

But he was active in other matters, too, and served a long period on the Wellington City Council. He led the No Māori—No Tour fight, with Ngāi Tahu, against the 1960 All Black tour of South Africa. He was politically active in the Labour Party on land related socio-economic justice matters, and he took a deep interest in the Ngāi Tahu claim, particularly in the fiscal injustice it represented.

A young Tipene O’Regan pictured here with his father Rolland, sister, and mother Rena.

And I understand he was encouraged in that by your Ngāi Tahu grandmother. Can you tell us about her?

My taua’s name was Rena (Ellen) Harawata (Harwood). She was born at Waianakarua in North Otago. After her father’s death, her mother married a man called Rendall and had another family.

Rena and her husband Taare (Charles) Bradshaw were first cousins. They came from two sisters, Katerina and Rena Lahey-Russell — daughters of Hinekino Te Horo and Michael Lahey, an Irish ex-convict who landed in Moeraki from Tasmania. He’d been convicted in Ireland as a Fenian troublemaker and transported to Australia. He’s the sort of tupuna I cherish having!

She had six children, of whom my mother, Rena Ruiha, was the mataamua, or firstborn.

My taua was the one who “carried The Claim” — Te Kerēme — in our whānau. She never missed a claim-related hui if she could possibly avoid doing so.

And she leaned heavily on my father, Rolland, for advice, reviewing papers and analysis of claim issues. She was a tough little woman and a pretty determined matriarch.

When did you yourself get pulled into Te Kerēme?

I was recruited to the Ngāi Tahu cause during my early undergraduate years at Victoria University by Frank Winter, who was, at that time, the already long-serving chairman of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board.

He and his wife, Perle Taiaroa, were the patrons of the university Māori club, and it was made very clear to us that participation was compulsory!

I was a law student, one of those who were called in quite often to assist in drafting and editing the innumerable parliamentary petitions and select committee submissions by which Ngāi Tahu waged its cases. From claim-related matters, to the perpetual leases to the Titi Islands — there was always something on the go.

As a young law student, I felt quite flattered to be invited to this work. I didn’t realise it was a snare!

My earliest connection with that work was in the late 1950s, and then I didn’t do much for a few years until the period leading up to Frank Winter’s death in 1976 and my succession to his seat on the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board. From then on, the world of Ngāi Tahu became my dominant pre-occupation.

By that time, I was already working as a lecturer in Māori Studies and New Zealand history — an enormous support to my Ngāi Tahu interests — and I had already accumulated some pretty amazing kaumātua mentors from North Island iwi, who took a kindly and supportive interest in my work.

Another important factor in my formative experience was, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, my involvement in the Māori Graduates Association with Api Mahuika and Koro Dewes, amongst others.

Out of that particular crucible was to come my involvement in the battle over Māori land that was perpetually leased under the Māori Reserved Land Act 1955. All that was to lead to my work in forming the Mawhera Incorporation in 1976, and a very active experience in Nelson and Taranaki supporting the formation of Wakatu and PKW Incorporations.

The Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board elected in 1977. Back row (from left): Tipene O’Regan, Bill Solomon, Rakiihia Tau. Front row (from left): Bob Whaitiri, Sid Ashton, Bill Torepe, Maurice Pōhio. Insert: Hawea Ellison.

That was all powerfully instructive and contributed a great deal to what I was able to bring to the Ngāi Tahu Trust Board table in 1976. It also meant that I had formed a strong network of well-informed and deeply committed contacts in the wider Māori world.

All in all, I’ve been seriously engaged, at one level or another, on the front bench of our peopIe for 52 or 53 years now. Before that, I was just a protester.

And it did take a toll on my family — of course it did. Especially on my wife, Sandra (nee McTaggart), who, for many years, was the source of our net income as well as having to raise five children with little help from me. She’s the real hero of the Tipene Story.

We were introduced by a mutual friend on Lambton Quay in Wellington, on an evening when I happened to be in no fit condition to be introduced to anyone. She, not unreasonably, took no interest in advancing any contact with me for some years. Roughly 12 months after she finally relented, we got married. That was in 1963.

We have five children, 13 mokopuna and, to date, two mokopunanui.

I’ve been intrigued at your reference to Moeraki as a learning centre of knowledge of great importance to Ngāi Tahu. Many people don’t realise what it used to be and how important a landmark it is for the people of the south.

Well, Moeraki in North Otago was originally a smaller centre of Ngāi Tahu Māori, but it was greatly expanded by a large number of refugees from Kaiapoi — after the Ngāti Toa genocide of our people in Canterbury and their dispersal around the island.

That’s where my great-great-grandmother Mereana Teitei lived, and where both she and her first-born daughter, Pokiri, lived out their second marriages, and had their second families.

And Moeraki was where the Ngāi Tahu claim, Te Kerēme, is usually dated from. We mark the beginning of our claim with Matiaha Tiramōrehu, who was a Kaiapoi refugee living at Moeraki. But there were others there as well. There was Te Mamaru and Te Kaahu, and quite a crop of them.

Following the Kemp Purchase of 1848 (which saw 20 million acres sold for 2,000 pounds), our people were concerned that the Crown seemed not to be honouring its agreement in respect of reserves, and especially those specific to our mahika kai, our food sources.  So, in 1849, Matiaha addressed a very courteous letter to the Crown — and it’s that letter which we regard as the opening document of a seven-generation heritage of grievance.

Why Matiaha? Well, at that point he was a community leader in a quite vibrant community which was, for a time, quite an important political and intellectual centre of our tribal life. Remember, most of Canterbury was still on its knees from the genocide and the old political structure of our people was still reassembling itself.

Moeraki flowered briefly in this role — but that flowering was historically very significant to us.

Going back well before the Treaty, Moeraki and Murihiku were busy communities, actively trading with Poihakena (Sydney), Hobart, and Melbourne. Especially with potatoes — and, in return, getting guns and whale boats. That gave us the capacity to drive the invaders out of our territory. In many ways, that process of transformation has defined Ngāi Tahu’s history.

And because the ships arrived from the south, up through the Southern Ocean to Murihiku and Otakou, and left by way of Pewhairangi (the Bay of Islands), you had a north and south hub of transformative culture taking place at the same time.

Looking ahead now, you’re suggesting that, with the changing demographics in New Zealand, naturally there are other changes in store.

Well, Māori leaders and others are now discussing what they feel a New Zealand constitution should look like. And the great challenge is the redesigning and rethinking of how we’re going to be, rather than just reacting to globalised or majority cultural pressures.

I think that’s what our leadership was doing back in those early days of contact. It’s always impressed me that, in 1870, when George Grey’s education ordinance was brought in — which made primary education in New Zealand compulsory, free, and secular — it was reported that Māori literacy in te reo Māori at that time was running at something like 60 percent, whereas Pākehā literacy in English was running at about 20 percent.

That was almost entirely due to the vigour with which our people took up literacy once the missionary elements had put Māori into a written form.

Let’s face it — it was a revolution, and our people surged through literacy, potatoes, and whale boats, at least in the south, with enormous vigour. They were surrounded with technological innovation — and they turned to it with enthusiasm.

For example, the whale boats were much safer than waka in the southern seas. In 1824, my tupuna Tutupahi and 24 others drowned coming back from the Titi islands to Pahia in Murihiku. A generation later, whale boats were being built all over the country. That was a transformation which our leadership undertook quite deliberately.

Because you’ve studied politics and history, you have a platform for kōrero that isn’t shared by many. And we still have a limited number of Māori historians. How important, do you think it has been in your work, to have a rich understanding of the past in order to build the foundations for the future?

Well, when we were working through this Treaty claim process, we started to recognise that our culture had essentially become the claim itself, and we were totally locked into a grievance mode, seeking justice. But we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to do with it. We didn’t have much clarity on what a structure might look like that would hold capital, because we had never had capital before.

The things that bound us were mahika kai, whakapapa, and grievance. In the late 1980s, we came to realise that we were engaged in a process of reinvention.

Essentially, that’s what all settlements are engaged in. We could see the patterns of New Zealand history which had been all aimed at individualising Māori into Article Three type citizens, and which failed to recognise, in any way, the character of our personality as different iwi.

There was a certain amount of confusion over what’s a hāpu and what’s an iwi. It was largely linguistic games used in political debate. But the key factor that we realised was that we had to reinvent and that reinvention requires purpose. So, we had to work out why we wanted to reinvent ourselves and how we wanted to be.

We’re still engaged in that process. After all, the settlements are just over 20 years old. And there are a lot of processes established in the Ngāi Tahu settlement that we’re still working on. And we’re still evolving.

But we do have a much clearer idea about what we want to be as a people and I’m very proud to have had some part in that conversation and in persuading our people to become as engaged as they have become in that process.

One significant element of this process is understanding and recording our history. And that is a race against time because so much can be lost as people pass on. I’m told that you’ve been putting a lot of work into archiving.

It’s my primary late life occupation. Calling it the archives is not quite enough. There are 2,500 VHS tapes now digitised. A somewhat larger number of C60 sound tapes are now digitised. There are metric tonnes of paper being organised. We have a world-class archiving system. But putting the material into it will take another generation or so.

It’s attracted quite a lot of attention from other indigenous people. Particularly the Sami of Norway. Also, the North American iwi both in Canada and the United States have taken a considerable interest in what we’re doing. We’re really trying to evolve a model which says your rangatiratanga is meaningless unless you control, or are the primary holders of, your own knowledge base.

So, we’ve been engaged in the construction of a knowledge system, which is very exciting. And the New Zealand Geographic Board is now proposing that our online atlas, Kahurumanu, should become an authorised, authoritative source — for Waipounamu at least, which is our interest.

Have you personally, or the iwi, come to terms with the challenges to Ngāi Tahutanga, if I can put it that way, by the European settlement? And by the Ngāti Toa raids? You don’t want to go around carrying the hara all your life.

No. You don’t want to do that. My mother used to say: “Forgive thine enemies, my son, but write down their names.” You forgive and remember what you’ve got to do because you can’t keep carrying those things forever.

I remember, a long time ago, an encounter with old Joe Rene, a Ngāti Toa kaumātua of great distinction. He was the kaumātua who led us into parliament with the Māori language petition. We were visiting someone in hospital, and old Joe Rene could sense how I was feeling when I met him in this hospital corridor.

And he just said to me: “E tama. Why should we feel like this when our tūpuna have made the peace?” And I realised that he didn’t feel like that — he was being very courteous and including himself in the context. He shamed me, to the extent that I realised that it was time to put aside the resentment that I’d inherited from my childhood. And I was very happy to be with him on the day the Māori language petition was presented to parliament.

But remembering that past that we had, and our experience in the 19th century, has led us to the constitutional model we have with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. And it’s that experience in the 19th century that has shaped us — and that make us different from other iwi. So our structure is different too as a consequence of the Ngāti Toa incursion.

When you look with your mind’s eye into the future and the world that our moko and their moko will inherit, what do you see there?

I can only talk about my hopes. But my dream would be that our people will feel confident about who they are. That they’ll maintain their heritage and treasure it. At the same time, I’d hope that they would follow the example of our tūpuna and grasp the benefits of new technology. I want to see that continue.

And I want them to have in their minds that “we must remember to remember as we look to the horizon.” That way we can’t go far wrong in maintaining our Ngāi Tahutanga and our identity as a Te Waipounamu people, and as part of the wider New Zealand society.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In 1994, Tipene O’Regan was appointed a Knight Bachelor “for services to the Māori people and the community”. He began his working career in the 1960s as a primary school teacher and then lectured and headed social studies and Māori studies at Wellington Teachers’ College. In 1976, he began serving on the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board and became the board’s chief negotiator for the fisheries settlements (1982 and 1992) and for Te Kerēme (1998). Among his other significant work, he has leading roles with the New Zealand Geographic Board and with the Ngāi Tahu Archive project.

© E-Tangata, 2018

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.