Waikaremoana Lake and Lands — A Short History of the Ngati Ruapani Claim

In 1840 the Ngati Ruapani people lay claim to an area of more than 250,000 acres around the shores of Lake Waikaremoana (much of it subject to overlapping or contested claims from other hapu and iwi). Today, with the exception of a few tiny reserves, they are a landless people. The process by which Ruapani lands were wrested from their ownership and control was a long and at times complex one. Yet one key theme dominates the history of land alienation in the region: the Crown’s acquisition of almost the entire land base of Waikaremoana Maori was achieved only through compulsion or coercion. Ngati Ruapani never willingly parted with any of their lands.

Ownership of the lakebed of Waikaremoana itself was also bitterly contested between Maori and the Crown. Although the Crown lost that battle, it effectively won the war by ignoring Maori ownership of the lakebed for half a century, and then imposing a settlement that gave it perpetual access to the lake. But the battle for control of Lake Waikaremoana was merely one instalment in a much longer saga of conflict with the Crown in the region.

Lake Waikaremoana, en.wikipedia
In the 1860s Ngati Ruapani found themselves caught up in the maelstrom of the New Zealand Wars. When government troops invaded the Waikato in 1863, some Urewera Maori saw this as a direct threat to their own way of life and rushed to the aid of their beleaguered Tainui kin. Two years later Waikaremoana Maori were attacked by government forces in punishment for adopting the allegedly ‘fanatical’ new Pai Marire faith. Several so-called ‘Hauhau’ prisoners were subsequently executed by government-allied troops from other tribes.

Herbert Meade, 'Pai Marire Karakia', 1865, B-139-014, ATL

Worse was to follow in the late 1860s, when Waikaremoana Maori provided shelter to the prophet and commander Te Kooti. Crown forces engaged in a systematic scorched earth policy around the shores of Lake Waikaremoana, torching all homes and cultivations in the area. Hundreds of Maori throughout the Urewera district were said to have died of starvation as a result. Hungry and homeless, the remainder had put down their arms by the early 1870s, encouraged (as Judith Binney has shown) by promises that the Crown would allow them to continue to control their own lands and other affairs, through institutions of their own choosing.

Despite such promises, 172,000 acres of Ruapani land on the southern shores of Waikaremoana was in 1875 awarded to ‘loyalists’ from the lower Wairoa district, in accordance with earlier agreements of 1867 and 1872. The decision of the ‘rebel’ Ruapani and Tuhoe tribes to withdraw their claims to this land, leaving the way clear for the ‘loyalists’ to promptly sell the land to the Crown, followed receipt of a telegram from the Native Minister warning that the Native Land Court’s jurisdiction was under the East Coast Act of 1868, by which any interests they were found to have to these lands would immediately be confiscated in punishment for their ‘rebellion’. Critics of this government tactic called it ‘begging with a bludgeon’.

Redoubt at Onepoto, Lake Waikaremoana, 1874, 1/2-020463-F, ATL

Notwithstanding the brutal and devastating years of warfare and land confiscation that had been visited upon them, Ngati Ruapani persisted with their opposition to land alienation and their determination to control their own affairs. Yet the unwelcome and costly Native Land Court was now a fact of life on the fringes of their remaining territory, and from the 1880s onwards Ngati Ruapani were forced to participate in hearings concerning their Waipaoa lands or once again lose all. Like many iwi, they found the court’s ordinary operations to be as unpleasant as any under confiscatory legislation and by the early twentieth century their interests in Waipaoa had been extinguished — taken to pay huge survey costs or purchased by Crown officials taking full advantage of the poverty to which many Waikaremoana Maori had now been reduced.

Just one major land block now remained in Ngati Ruapani ownership. The Waikaremoana block, bordering the northern shores of the lake and containing nearly 75,000 acres was, like other lands in the district, the subject of special legislation passed under agreement with the Crown. The Urewera District Native Reserve Act 1896 had promised Urewera Maori continuing tribal control and ownership of their remaining lands. From 1900 onwards, however, a series of legislative enactments weakened the provisions of the legislation to the point that by 1916 the Crown could embark on a policy of full-scale acquisition of individual interests from as many Maori as could be persuaded to sell. And with poverty now rife in the region, and tribal leadership deliberately marginalised and undermined, this was not hard to do.

View of Lake Waikaremoana, 1902, PA1-0-042-46-1, ATL

Despite their desperate plight, Ngati Ruapani had held out against any alienation of their remaining tribal patrimony. Even so, with the lake’s potential to generate hydro-electric power now recognised, the Crown was determined to acquire the Waikaremoana block. After seriously considering compulsory acquisition under scenery preservation legislation, it eventually agreed with a Tuhoe proposal to include the block in the newly-established Urewera consolidation scheme.

The Urewera Lands Act 1922 repealed the legislation of 1896 and appointed two Crown commissioners charged with consolidating interests in the Urewera district. The new Act further empowered the commissioners to award in favour of the Crown ‘such portions of the Waikaremoana Block…as they deem fit in accordance with the scheme, although no instrument of alienation to the Crown may have been executed by the Natives affected or interested.’

Faced once again with the compulsory acquisition of their last remaining land, Ngati Ruapani sought to retain a modest 3200 acres in reserves around the lake. In the event, in 1923 they were forced to accept a mere 600 acres and a small payment by way of debentures for their last substantial landholding. In 1921 Apirana Ngata had informed the government that Ngati Ruapani’s ‘chief need’ was for farmable land to the south of the lake, close to their Kuha and Waimako settlements. Yet Crown indifference to their plight meant no such land was reserved to them, hindering Ngati Ruapani’s ability to generate any farming income.

When depression struck in the early 1930s, it struck an already impoverished and landless people harder than most. And incredibly their plight was made even worse by the refusal of the Native Trust Office to pay them money owing on the debentures used in payment for Waikaremoana — and by the unilateral decision of two Cabinet ministers to reinvest this capital sum on maturity. Various deductions made in the amount payable — all in breach of the original agreement — and the regular harassment of Ngati Ruapani for petty sums owing on bills for electricity generated from their own lake — bills they could not afford to pay until they received the money owed them by the Crown — hardly helped matters either.

In 1931 a tribal leader, Kehua Winitana, informed the Native Minister that the Ngati Ruapani people were so poor that they could not even afford a doctor for ill people — let alone in cases where a death certificate was required. Two years later members of the tribe were reported to be ‘living in small iron sheds without floors or windows and in one case a family is living in a corn-crib…slightly improved for human habitation.’

In 1935 Judge Harold Carr of the Native Land Court, a former consolidation commissioner for the Urewera district, wrote that Ngati Ruapani were in ‘distressingly poor circumstances’. In some cases they had attempted to lease out their few remaining reserves around the lake, in defiance of Crown restrictions against all but the government acquiring rights to these, and Carr wrote in defence of the tribe that ‘persons not concerned or not conversant’ with the history of how the Ngati Ruapani people had lost their lands should not be harassing them ‘in the ownership of their birth-right’.

Yet despite similar pleas from Ngati Ruapani themselves, the few remaining reserves dotted around the lake were loaded with so many restrictions on their use that they were all but a liability from an economic perspective. The owners might be charged rates, but could not build on their reserves — and could not even hunt on their own lands without winning a special license to do so by means of a ballot. And for more than twenty years the Government unsuccessfully badgered Ruapani into selling their last remaining reserves at the lake.

At Lake Waikaremoana, 1950, 1/2-046971-G, ATL

Sympathetic and often shocking reports from Crown officials in the field met with terse responses from head office in Wellington. Even while Ngati Ruapani’s plight continued to remain desperate they found themselves engaged in a mammoth legal battle with the forces of the Crown over the ownership of their one remaining asset, Lake Waikaremoana itself.

In 1918 the Native Land Court had awarded the title of the lake bed to Maori, at a hearing which the Crown failed to even attend. The Crown nevertheless rejected the court’s judgment, arguing against overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the lake belonged to the Crown. After a staggering twenty-six year delay, the Crown’s appeal was finally heard and dismissed in 1944, with further inter-tribal appeals eventually settled in 1947.

In the meanwhile, though, ignoring Maori ownership of the lakebed, the Crown had proceeded to build a hydro-dam at Waikaremoana (drastically reducing water levels and depleting fish stock in the lake), as well as exercising numerous other rights of ownership. And with unbounded arrogance, the Crown continued to contemplate squashing the court order by legislative fiat.

Finally, in 1954, the Crown reluctantly acknowledged Maori ownership of the lakebed. Yet against an overwhelming Maori desire to merely lease this to the Crown (whose illegal occupation of the lakebed was now a fait accompli), the government persisted with a lengthy campaign to persuade the owners to sell. This pressure was only halted in 1971, when the Crown secured a fifty-year lease of the lakebed (with a perpetual right of renewal) at 5.5% of the valuation.

From the Ngati Ruapani perspective this agreement was seriously flawed. No compensation was payable for the considerable hydro-electric revenue the Crown generated from the lake, and the deal was backdated to 1967, when there were very strong claims for it to be backdated to 1918 or even earlier. Effectively, the Crown had trespassed on the lake for fifty years and got away with it more or less scot-free. Moreover, the Lake Waikaremoana Act 1971 also transferred legal title over the lakebed to two Maori trust boards whose mandate to represent the people of Ngati Ruapani has been much disputed.

Urewera National Park, localyte.com

The establishment of a national park in the area in the 1950s may have been a boon for visiting trampers and hunters. But for tangata whenua the presence in their midst of the Urewera National Park has often been difficult to reconcile with their own traditional uses of the land and its resources. Sadly, continuing desecration of wahi tapu located in the park only adds to the tribe’s anguish.

Yet despite the unremittingly bleak and unfortunate nature of Ngati Ruapani’s contacts with the Crown since 1840, there is a positive note to this story. Of more recent times a number of younger Ngati Ruapani tribespeople have returned to the lake to discover their rich tribal ancestry, a movement which will be stymied only by the tribe’s continuing state of near landlessness. The settlement of their historical claims (and with it perhaps an opportunity to revisit the unjust perpetual Crown lease of their lakebed) can not come soon enough for the tangata whenua of Waikaremoana.


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