In a column on Newsroom a few days ago, Emma Espiner spoke of her need, in the wake of Christchurch, to be “reminded of the whakapapa of racism.” Such events, she wrote, have “a lineage” which should be identified and exposed.

Racism’s lineage was on Kennedy Warne’s mind when he wrote a recent story about the sunken forest of Lake Waikaremoana for New Zealand Geographic. In the course of researching the 52-year legal battle of lake tribes with the Crown over ownership of the lake bed, and the equally drawn-out resource-use battles over trout, hydroelectricity and tourism, he found a persistent drumbeat of prejudice and injustice directed toward the lake’s traditional owners.

Here he focuses on just one of those resources, and finds that the way Māori were treated over the introduction of trout to their lake was as stinky as a fishmonger’s apron.


It began with the usual promises and paternalism. In 1895, a year before rainbow and brown trout began to be introduced to Lake Waikaremoana, Premier “King Dick” Seddon assured lake Māori (Tūhoe, Ruapani and Kahungunu) that trout would provide them with an excellent new food source, and talked about enabling them to conduct the releases and look after the fishery.

That didn’t happen. Like the autonomous Tūhoe native reserve act, legislated in 1896 — the same year that trout started swimming around in Waikaremoana’s waters and getting a taste for the lake’s native fish as prey — the Crown’s actions didn’t match the kōrero.

That was consistent with virtually every dealing Te Urewera people had with the Crown. As the Waitangi Tribunal’s 8-volume, 4000-word Te Urewera report, puts it:

“What is astonishing, in our view, is that in all the evidence and papers available to the Tribunal, the various Government departments and Ministers never once seemed to consider what would benefit Māori or what was in their best interests. Indeed, they had actively sought to defeat the rights claimed by Māori.”

As a result, from the early 1900s, local Māori watched while Pākehā anglers motored around their lake, caught and cooked the fish that were living in their lake, and never once asked for permission or thanked them for the privilege.

In its report, the Waitangi Tribunal records a revealing conversation that took place in 1905 between John Ward, manager of the government’s tourist lodge at the lake, and Te Reneti Hawira, a representative of the local people. Hawira tells Ward that Pākehā sport fishing must cease, because the owners never gave their consent for anglers to fish in the lake.

“But friend Reneti,” Ward replies, “the fish these Pakehas catch in Waikaremoana are not your fish. The Pakeha paid a lot of money to have them brought from England to New Zealand and paid men big salaries to get them up to the Lake, and have their eggs Hatched, then watch the eggs hatch out young fish, and grow into Big Trout. Don’t you know that?”

“Yes, I know that. But of what moment is it? (E aha kei ena?)” Hawira retorts.

“Oh! It’s got a lot to do with it,” Ward insists. “If the fish these Pakehas catch in the Lake here were Maori fish, there would be a cause for what you are now telling me! But they are not Maori Fish!”

Not Māori fish. Not Māori freshwater. Not Māori foreshore or seabed. The refrain continues to this day. What Ward was really saying is: “They’re not your fish, despite the fact that they’re in your lake, eating its food and displacing its indigenous fauna. And because they’re not your fish, you have to ask people like me for permission to catch one. And if you take one without asking, I’ll have you arrested.”

Ward takes it upon himself to educate his friend on the issue of access. “Don’t you think the Lake is free to all good men — Pakehas or Maoris — and therefore no one has the power, you, or me, or even the Government, to stop people going on it if they desire to do so?”

Hawira did not think so, and set Ward straight on the matter: “No one has any right on Waikaremoana Lake without I consent for them to go on it!”

Within 10 years of trout being released into the lake, anglers were taking large hauls. Photo: T W Brown album, Alexander Turnbull Library

That didn’t go down well with a government eager to promote the lake as a new tourism destination. Native Minister James Carroll — who was Kahungunu, and therefore had some mana whenua in the lake himself — when informed of Hawira’s protest, dismissed it, saying there was “nothing in the objection.”

In a letter to Carroll, Hawira made his position clear, not just about the fishing but the use of a government launch on the lake. It was the principle he objected to: the government was freeloading. It was collecting revenue from fishing licences and not sharing it with the lake’s owners.

“O Friend,” wrote Hawira about the boat, “I object also to the steamer which is eating the riches of the Lake the same as the fishing is. Free use is made of my Lake, and I get no benefit therefrom, that is why I say that they must be sent back.”

For the Waikaremoana people, trout and its licensing regime were the thin end of an expanding wedge. The government had already established an imported game reserve around Waikaremoana, and, in 1903, it prohibited hunting of both native and imported animals. Traditional Māori hunting, trapping and fishing were coming under increasing government scrutiny and pressure. Māori were being squeezed by the Crown in terms of their ability to go about daily food-gathering activities, the heart of their economy.

Reactions like Hawira’s to that growing threat were hardly surprising. As the Waitangi Tribunal put it:

“The Government and the Western economy having arrived at the lake in a very material way, the people’s response was that the lake was their economic asset, not the Government’s, and that the Government should not use it without their permission and without paying for it.”

Patronising responses like Ward’s were hardly surprising, either. Ward’s superior, the superintendent of the Tourist Department, told him not to take any notice of “the old Maori. I presume he is quite harmless.”

By the time the Native Land Court found in favour of Māori over ownership of the lake bed in 1918 — a decision the Crown fought for half a century before eventually accepting it — the government’s presumption of dominance had hardened considerably.

John Salmond, solicitor-general at the time, declared it was “out of the question” that Māori should have freehold title to lakes or other freshwater bodies. “Such titles would enable the Natives to exclude the whole European population from all rights of fishing, navigation and other use now enjoyed by them,” he wrote.

Do those words have a modern ring to them? They should, because such thinking has never been laid to rest. Divisive “Iwi vs Kiwi” sloganeering remains a reliable strand of nationalist rhetoric.

In January of this year, the Wanganui (without an “h”) Ratepayers Association engaged in some race-based fearmongering when it trotted out the claim that if local parks and reserves came under joint management by iwi as a result of the settlement of their Treaty claim, there was a risk that access could be charged for or blocked.

Yet history shows that it is invariably Māori who have been denied access by Pākehā to that which is precious to them, not the other way round.

There were other odious aspects to the lake trout saga as well. For three years, the government operated a trout hatchery on land near Waimako Pā, at Tuai, but paid no rent. The manager justified that decision on the basis that “we do not know where a thing like that might end, especially as there might be several natives with a communal interest in the property.”

A group of Māori owners suggested granting five free fishing licences in lieu of rent for the hatchery, but the district manager of the Tourist Department in Rotorua resisted even that modest request, judging that it was an “effort to get something extra.”

A report commissioned by the Waitangi Tribunal noted with bitterness that the accusation of seeking “something extra” was “particularly mean-spirited when that is just what the department received from Māori for the use of land and water for three years.”

Equally sad, in the wider environmental picture, is that to protect their trout investment the government ordered that colonies of kawau, or black shags, be shot. These birds were revered as guardians, and their loss would have been keenly felt and deeply grieved.

A century later, the situation is different — dramatically so. Like the Whanganui River, Te Urewera is now a legal person. Legislation in 2014 declared that Te Urewera — “ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history” — has all “rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.” It is owned by no one. It owns itself. It has its own kawa, central to which is managing people for the benefit of the land, not the other way round.

This political reset is powerfully symbolised in Tūhoe’s new building at the lake edge — Te Wharehou o Waikaremoana. On a façade of blackened timber evoking the scorched-earth devastation of colonial times glows a declaration of enduring identity: “Mauna, moana, iwi, tanata.”

The consuming fires of prejudice and oppression are extinguished by the long-awaited waters of justice.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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