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Sir Tipene O'Regan Recording Tumultuous Years With
Ngai Tahu

Ian Henderson - 03/08/01

Reprinted from the University of Canterbury Chronicle

Senior research fellow Sir Tipene O'Regan is busy at the University detailing his involvement with Ngai Tahu over the years.

Sir Tipene
Sir Tipene O'Regan
Senior research fellow Sir Tipene O'Regan is busy at the University detailing his involvement with Ngai Tahu over the years. GradDipJ student IAN HENDERSON visited him recently and discovered this documenting does not mean he has moved into totally reflective mode just yet.

Waiting to talk with Sir Tipene O'Regan, one cannot help but feel awed by his mana in Maoridom. His reputation precedes him and it is intimidating. However, the man who is synonymous with Ngai Tahu and their long struggle for compensation from the Crown greets me warmly, and the nerves that had been jangling within me all morning settle.

In his office, he offers tea or coffee. He asks my name as he spoons sugar into his coffee and he stirs his as I fumble with the taperecorder and my questions. Sir Tipene is a man with extraordinary presence. His bright, airy office is like many others on campus but he, even just sitting at his desk drinking coffee, is the undoubted centre of the room. As he chats amiably in his deep, rumbling voice about his studies, you cannot help but feel the mana of the man. And when the topic he is discussing is recording Ngai Tahu's past for the future, his words take on even greater significance.

Sir Tipene is a senior research fellow at the University of Canterbury, a part-time appointment based at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. He is editing his 1998 Macmillan Brown lecture series at Canterbury, an enormous collection of manuscripts, translations and commentary on the traditional history of Ngai Tahu, and what he calls "ordering paper" for the Ngai Tahu archive housed at the centre. Finally, there is what he describes as a "major task": recording on tape his recollections of the past 30 years of Ngai Tahu claims to the Crown.

"To some extent that will be autobiographical, but what's more important is getting it into some sort of systematic order on the tape."

With the chance to look back at the history of the Ngai Tahu claim, Sir Tipene is philosophical about the momentous events. "There were surges of achievement, there were surges of satisfaction, but the overwhelming motif in my memory is exhaustion."

This was what he believes most people directly involved in the process would feel, "and a need to change our lives from that huge focus of concentration that had been there."

Going into the papers frequently reminds him of events he has forgotten. It also means re-evaluating his own memories of what had taken place. For example, his understanding of a meeting described to him between Ngai Tahu and government ministers was altered by correspondence from a colleague.

"It was very interesting for him to send me some years later a copy of the file note of the particular occasion and what I found was that I'd got a quite different perspective of the nature of the meeting and its participants and how it worked. That was quite a little marker for me of the importance of, where possible, going back to original file notes, diary notes and that sort of thing.

"It is very important to have that paper in some sort of order and context, because otherwise you can end up having some pretty horrible distortions subsequently in the historical record."

Collating the history of the claims process involves not just his thoughts, his archival and recollected viewpoints, but those of other participants still living. This, naturally, summons thoughts of those who are no longer here.

"It is mainly emotional in terms of one's memories of people who were right at the centre of those processes who have now passed away. Our own kaumatua, our elders, who were basically the ultimate cheerleaders when things were hard and heavy and difficult. They were there, those senior men and women."

These people, says Sir Tipene, were the bedrock of the Ngai Tahu claims process. "They just locked down like a scrum and didn't say a hell of a lot, maybe gave their own personal piece of evidence at some point in the process, but were basically just there with you. And they've been dying."

The scope of the history took in the Ngai Tahu fisheries litigation as well, he says. "There have been some quite wonderful people, both Maori and Pakeha, with whom one has been associated. You pick up a paper from the archive and it's an argument, or report, or document, and they're smiling out of the pages at you as the memory of some dear friend that has been a staunch ally and thinker that contributed to the ideas. They're all still around, but the person has been buried."

The respect that Sir Tipene feels for these people is illustrated by a story he tells with deep emotion. "I've got one very warm recollection of a very beloved friend, a Pakeha, who was part of that whole fisheries battle, and he lies in his grave with a lovely piece of pounamu in his hand, just as a little marker of our feeling for him."

It is these moments and emotions that Sir Tipene feels most strongly, "rather than the reliving battles, because most of those issues, questions, in one way or another are still there."

As to the importance of his work and what the historical document will mean, he is blunt: "I don't know." The Ngai Tahu claim was unique; quite different from the Tainui settlement." It has comparisons with settlements to indigenous peoples in British Columbia, Canada, he says, but the shape of the final settlement "took a number of different forms over the eight years - the form, the content, the structure of it, what was going to be in it, what wasn't going to be in it."

Sir Tipene believes it is worthwhile "building into the record one's views as to the merits and otherwise of some of those propositions, because the shape of Treaty settlement in this country probably could have been done a hell of a lot better. We might feel we've done it well, but there are much more imaginative and, in my view, satisfactory ways of handling those matters."

There is now a settlement model, based on the elements of the Ngai Tahu and Tainui settlements. "There is nothing very innovative happening. It's all pluses or minus off those standards."

People have told him his experiences are historically important and that he should "get the information off my chest before I die. I'm prepared to take their word for it for the time being. But I do not intend to spend the rest of my life reviewing the past 30 years, I've got other things I want to do and I'm still doing them. I have not yet gone into totally reflective mode."

The "other things" include editing his 1998 Macmillan Brown lectures. The three lectures focused on Ngai Tahu - the past, present and future of the tribe. Looking at his words from three years ago, Sir Tipene has one concern. "In the last [lecture, about the role and identity of Ngai Tahu in the post-settlement 21st century] I regret that I was relatively diplomatic - I think that I should have been much more pungent."

Sir Tipene has concerns about certain directions in which Ngai Tahu is heading, particularly in the area of economic development. "I think the grave danger that Ngai Tahu has is following the standard New Zealand models of economic behaviour."

Ngai Tahu is not losing capital, he says, but is just imitating the "drab" economic behaviour of the rest of the country. "They are essentially just transactional, rather than transformational. That's all right, but at the end of the day it's not going anywhere, it's just operating things, and it's not really clear economic and strategic direction. They talk about vision and dream... but I have to say it's pretty hard to perceive it."

Ngai Tahu could be "vigorously creative" about developing the economic and development alliances "between the centre and the region". New Zealand does this very badly, he believes, and Ngai Tahu were not doing it any better.

Building a strong economic centre would not help those in the more distant parts of the Ngai Tahu territory. "What you end up with is those communities basically in another form of collective dependency. They get the scholarships, they get the grants, they get that sort of stuff... all you've done is privatise welfare."

There was economic potential in Ngai Tahu's territory, such as the Otago coast and in Bluff, and particularly in Kaikoura. Creative exploration, with a sense of purpose, is what Sir Tipene believes will develop strength in individuals and communities "as well as inherent strength that is so important."

His other area of concern is the Ngai Tahu archive, a massive collection of files, documents and papers. The main Ngai Tahu archive contained about 12 to 13 metric tonnes of documentation, with what Sir Tipene calls "the Waitangi Tribunal phase" creating "about 7.3 metric tonnes of paper."

The actual volume of the traditional history manuscripts "is not enormous . . . it's wonderful." Much of the editorial work on the texts was done in the 1980s and there had been some "outstanding" analysis since that time, he says, by writers such as Professor Atholl Anderson and Dr Te Maire Tau.

"It is quite important that they [the documents] are readily accessible in an intellectual and literary sense for our own people. It's easy enough to pump stuff into academic reference frames, but you also want to have something which is workable and able to be handled by your people."

There were occasional insights in the material, he says. "I don't think I'm in the mode for discovery or astonishment." He believes he is essentially "tidying up for transmission" material he has studied and worked on for a long time.

Still very much involved in the hurly burly of driving Maori economic structure and wealth, Sir Tipene says he has not withdrawn into the ivory tower of academia. "My difficulty in the last six weeks is having enough time to plant myself behind the desk and focus on it."

Despite the "element of grind" in the final editing stage of his work, the "rest of it, assembling the paper, reading through it, getting it into order, is really quite good fun". It enables him to relax. "It's very amiable, very pleasant." As I pack things away to leave, he brings out his pipe. When I thank him for the interview, and he shakes my hand, he says "you're welcome. Go well." The phrase is strangely archaic but beautiful, and wholly appropriate for someone so deeply steeped in history.

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