Tohora (Whale) buried at Te Karaka (Marfells Beach)

For over 800 years the arrival of a whale onto the shores of Te Koko a Kupe (Cloudy Bay) and Kapara Te Hau (Clifford Bay) has been greeted with much pomp ceremony and excitement by the tangata whenua, people of the land. The arrival of one of the denizens of Tangaroa was tangible evidence that the atua smiled on our people. The Tohora was the harbinger of social, cultural and economic wellbeing to the small communities dotted along the Wairau coastline. These people were the ahi kaa or residents who’s fires could be seen on the land.

Over time groups of whanau and hapu occupying a stretch of coastline where whale strandings often occurred would become rich in trade goods. Whales tooth necklaces found in many of the graves of the original Wairau Bar settlers are indicators of the ability of the whale to enhance tribal mana.

In 1854 Donald McLean met with the ahi kaa at Wairau Bar to acquire their assent to Pakeha settlement in their lands. Those accepting the £100 described themselves as ‘matou o Rangitane nga Morehu Pakiaka o te whenua’ – their descendants still reside in Blenheim to the present day. They are the people who hold the customs and traditions of these lands and waterways and it is they who should have the right of deciding the fate of their taonga.

They are the people who hold the customs and traditions of these lands and waterways and it is they who should have the right of deciding the fate of their taonga.

The arrival of a sperm whale last week created a similar flurry of activity, occurring as it did during an exhibition celebrating the Kurahaupo Settlement in 2010. It is not the first time in recent years that a sperm whale has washed ashore on this stretch of coastline. This event is an opportune moment to once again reflect on the Kurahaupo settlement, as it demonstrates just how quickly history can be forgotten. 

Historically the positions of the two iwi, Rangitane and Ngati Kuri, are quite well documented. Ngati Kuri appeal to the 1990 Maori Appellate Court decision that gave Ngai Tahu exclusive customary rights from Kaikoura up to the White Bluff visible from central Blenheim. The basis for this decision was that in 1859 the Crown purchased this land from the Ngai Tahu rangatira.

However, this situation was reversed in 2007, where following an extensive enquiry, the Waitangi Tribunal found no evidence that the Crown had alienated Rangitane’s customary rights to the coastline extending from Parinui o Whiti to Waiau Toa. The Tribunal, in its WAI 785 report, found that Rangitane customary rights to that stretch of coastline were still “extant” or as controlled by Rangitane according to their tikanga.

Realising there was a legislative difficulty, a letter of agreement between the Crown, Rangitane and Ngai Tahu was signed off in 2010. Both parties gave their word (Ngai Tahu and the Crown) that they would progress the recognition of Rangitane customary interests in the extant area. The Ngai Tahu leadership have steadfastly refused to exercise their ‘best endeavours’ to progress the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal, holding fast to the widely discredited 1990 decision.

With this in mind it will be interesting to see what transpires in relation to the recent sperm whale washed up at Te Karaka. Rawiri Manawatu, deputy chairperson of Ngati Kuri (based in Kaikoura), is reported as saying that his people were ‘working in partnership’ with the Department of Conservation and that he was pleased to see Rangitane ‘support’ (Ngati Kuri and DoC) ‘to complete the process’. Whether Rangitane ‘support’, or ‘lead’ the process will depend upon their leader’s knowledge of the past, a past some would like to forget.


Posted by Keelan Walker on Monday, July 9, 2018