The history of Māori grievance over Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi dates back to the 1840s. As early as 1849 Ngāi Tahu chiefs complained about the methods used in purchasing their lands. This began a process that took almost 150 years to resolve. In 1986 the iwi lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal. This was the first large claim that the tribunal heard under its power to investigate grievances dating back to 1840, and it is one of the most significant claims that has been considered by the tribunal.
Ngāi Tahu came originally from Poverty Bay in the North Island. Migrations, wars and marriage alliances established Ngāi Tahu as tangata whenua over much of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island) by the mid-1700s.
Trade with European whalers and sealers from the early 1800s brought diseases from which the tribe had no immunity, intermarriage and knowledge of European ways. When Major Thomas Bunbury approached leading chiefs to sign the Treaty in 1840, he was surprised to find that many spoke English. By the 1840s when land purchases began, Ngāi Tahu were weakened by population loss and warfare with Te Rauparaha and his allies from the north.
In 1844 the New Zealand Company bought the Otakou block, now estimated at 534,000 acres (2160 sq km). This was done by waiving the Crown’s exclusive right of purchase. Ngāi Tahu received £2400 and less than 10,000 acres (40 sq km) for their own occupation. This purchase was dwarfed by the Crown’s 1848 purchase of the Canterbury block of about 20 million acres (81,000 sq km). This was nearly one-third of the entire country. By 1864, when Rakiura (Stewart Island) was bought, more than 34 million acres (138,000 sq km) had been acquired from Ngāi Tahu in return for just over £14,750. This amounted to a fraction of one penny an acre. About 37,000 acres (150 sq km) were reserved for the tribe’s use. Ngāi Tahu were left with about one-thousandth of their original lands.
Ngāi Tahu's long history of protest over these purchases began in 1849. The rangatira Matiaha Tiramorehu complained that lands or reserves that the tribe wished to keep had been included in the purchased area. This became a central grievance against the Crown. Official purchase agents even reported that they 'got the land [Ngāi Tahu's reserves] reduced as much as possible'.
Over the next 150 years Ngāi Tahu protested about the Crown's broken promises, including the Crown ownership of pounamu (greenstone) and the Crown's failure to provide schools and hospitals. The iwi also protested over the low prices paid for land, unclear boundaries of the purchased lands, the loss of mahinga kai (customary food-gathering places), the leasing to settlers in perpetuity of reserved lands without the tribe's consent, and the forced sale of their interests in some lands because the Crown had already purchased these from other tribes.
Various committees and commissions of inquiry investigated and upheld many of the Ngāi Tahu claims from the early 1870s. Getting compensation from the Crown took much longer. The Native Land Court judge and commissioner, Alexander Mackay, reported in 1887, and again in 1891, that what Ngāi Tahu needed most was enough land to support themselves. The South Island Landless Natives Act 1906 eventually provided 50 acres a person to be awarded to landless Ngāi Tahu. This proved unsatisfactory because the lands were often so remote and rugged as to be virtually useless, and Ngāi Tahu could not participate in the farming industry that was now the mainstay of the South Island economy.
In 1921 the Native Land Claims Commission recommended that Ngāi Tahu receive £354,000 compensation. Ngāi Tahu rejected this as inadequate; the Crown considered it too much. The Ngaitahu Claim Settlement Act 1944 provided for annual payments of £10,000 for 30 years to the Ngaitahu Trust Board. The tribe was not consulted on this until the legislation was passed. The 1944 act did not prevent the tribe from further pursuing its claim. The annual payment seemed to be the maximum amount possible for the times. It was later turned into a perpetual payment. Eventually, Ngāi Tahu leaders used much of the money to pursue wider claims under the Treaty of Waitangi.
Rakiihia Tau, on behalf of the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board, filed the Ngāi Tahu claim with the Waitangi Tribunal in 1986. It was presented in nine parts – the Nine Tall Trees of Ngai Tahu. Each of the first eight trees represented a different area of land purchased from the tribe. The ninth tree represented Ngāi Tahu's food resources.
The tribunal heard Ngāi Tahu's claim over two years from 1987, and it released a three-volume report in 1991. Finding that 'the Crown acted unconscionably and in repeated breach of the Treaty of Waitangi' in its land dealings with the tribe, it recommended substantial compensation. At the time, and perhaps still, this was the tribunal's most comprehensive inquiry.
Negotiations with the Crown began almost immediately. They were complicated by another Ngāi Tahu claim to commercial fisheries. The tribunal reported on this in 1992. It was eventually settled during the broader negotiations that led to the establishment of the Maori Fisheries Commission.
In 1998, after nearly 150 years, Ngāi Tahu completed their efforts to have the Crown address their grievances. They signed a Deed of Settlement that provided compensation valued at $170 million. This confirmed Ngāi Tahu's ownership of pounamu, granted certain rights to sites of significance and allowed them some role in managing conservation estate resources within their boundaries.
The Crown also expressed its 'profound regret' and apologised 'unreservedly' for the suffering and hardship it had caused by not honouring its Treaty obligations. In addition, Ngāi Tahu's sacred maunga (mountain), Aoraki/Mount Cook, was to be symbolically returned to the tribe and later gifted back to the nation. This gesture of mutual goodwill seemed to confirm that the Treaty relationship was at last on a more hopeful footing.