The Waikato River region has been populated since at least the 1300s. Since that time, iwi along the river have been associated with it, including Waikato-Tainui – an iwi that belongs to the Tainui waka. Before the arrival of European settlers, the river was a source of food and resources and a key access route. From the 1840s, the river was also used as a trade route for European settlers and missionaries accessing inland areas.
The increase of travel and trade also brought more land sales to European settlers, which eventually became a concern for iwi. Many placed their lands under the mana of Pōtatau te Wherowhero and proclaimed him as King. Pōtatau was crowned as the first Māori King at Ngāruawāhia in 1858.
Era of confiscation (raupatu)
Until the 1860s, iwi, including Waikato-Tainui, were in possession of the Waikato River and the lands surrounding the river. In 1863, the Crown set in motion events that dispossessed Waikato-Tainui of the land and the river, partly to counter the recently formed Māori King Movement (Kīngitanga). In 1863, the Crown passed laws that enabled it to confiscate land from Māori who were branded “Māori rebels”.
In July 1863, the Crown’s military forces crossed the Mangatāwhiri River to gain control of the Waikato River and lands in the Waikato region. The Crown used the Waikato and Waipā Rivers to transport forces and supplies on steamers and barges. They also shelled Māori defences from the river. Crown forces occupied Ngāruawāhia, the centre of the Kīngitanga, in December 1863. Supporters of the Māori King were driven out of the Waikato, and military settlements were established in Hamilton and Cambridge in the following 2 years.
By 1865, the Crown completed confiscation of over 1.2m acres of Waikato land, stretching from the Pūniu River in the south to Te Pūaha o Waikato (Port Waikato) in the north-west to Hauraki Gulf and Karāpiro in the east. From this point, the Crown assumed control over the Waikato River.
Even though the river and surrounding lands were confiscated and Waikato-Tainui lost control of the river, the people of Waikato-Tainui continued to interact and co-exist with the river. Waikato-Tainui sought redress for the land confiscations and for being branded rebels. In 1928, the Sim Royal Commission, led by Supreme Court Judge Sir William Sim, found that the confiscations were immoral, illegal and excessive. In 1995, the Crown and Waikato-Tainui reached a settlement about the land confiscations – however, that settlement did not cover the Waikato River.
The Waikato River Settlement and co-management of the river
In 1987, Sir Robert Mahuta filed a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal about the Waikato River.
In 2009, Waikato-Tainui and the Crown signed a deed of settlement, and in 2010, the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act was passed. The purpose of the settlement is to “restore and protect the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River for future generations”. The Crown admitted that they had breached the Treaty of Waitangi and denied Waikato-Tainui their rights and mana whakahaere over the river. The Crown also acknowledged that Waikato-Tainui never willingly or knowingly gave up their rights in or authority over the Waikato River.
The Waikato Raupatu River Trust was established from the settlement. The settlement also provided for $20 million to be set aside for river-related research to be managed through the Waikato Endowed Colleges Trust.
The settlement proposed a way of sharing management of the river based on the principles of te mana o te awa and mana whakahaere. Through the settlement, the Crown and Waikato-Tainui established the Guardians Establishment Committee with the support of the other Waikato River iwi (Raukawa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Arawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa). The committee drafted a vision and strategy document that reflected the interests of Waikato River iwi and all New Zealanders.
These objectives encompass all people of the River and their relationships with it – through their communities, industries, recreation, social and cultural pursuits. It will take commitment and time to restore and protect the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River. Only by us all working together collaboratively and cooperatively, will the Vision be realised.(Waikato River Authority website, sourced 3 July 2013)
The Guardians Establishment Committee was the predecessor to the Waikato River Authority. Established in 2010, the Authority is responsible for realising the vision and strategy for the Waikato River and for funding projects to restore its health and wellbeing.
This article was written by Jonathan Kilgour, Research and Projects Manager, Waikato-Tainui College for Research and Development.
Copyright: Waikato-Tainui Endowed Colleges Trust.