Iwi calls Moriori 'conquered and subjugated' in modern-day land battle

Attempts to hand land back to Moriori of the Chatham Islands are opening up old and painful wounds.

The iwi which invaded their home from Taranaki in 1835 say it can't happen, because Moriori have been "conquered and subjugated".   

"I've often thought what it must have been like for those families. [What] it would have been to actually have your family ripped apart," Hokotehi Moriori Trust chair Maui Solomon says.

Moriori lived on Rēkohu - the Chathams - for hundreds of years following a law of peace called Nunuku's law, which forbade war and killing in any form.

That way of life was shattered in 1835, when a combined force of around 900 - comprising of displaced Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama invaders - arrived from Taranaki in European vessels.

"It was devastating for the people," Mr Solomon says.

Moriori chose to obey their law and refused to fight back. In less than thirty years, 90 percent of the population - or 1561 people - were dead and the survivors were kept in slavery until they were freed in 1863.

"When my Granddad was born - Tommy Solomon - in 1884, for all intents and purposes the culture had almost been obliterated," Mr Solomon says.

He says the Crown also failed to intervene under its Treaty of Waitangi obligations - which came into force on the islands in 1842 - and could have prevented many of the deaths.

"They knew it was happening and they did nothing to intervene, so the Moriori population collapsed by some 90 percent."

Now,  Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri is trying to block a planned transfer of 12,000 hectares of Department of Conservation (DoC) land back to Moriori, saying they have no right to have it exclusively.

"Ngāti Mutunga did conquer and subjugate Moriori at that time and have maintained their mana whenua status ever since," Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust chair Tom McClurg says.

"I don't think there is any other way of looking at those events than using those terms - ugly as they are - by present day ears.

"It's not a thing you ever agree to, it's a thing that happens to you against your will."

The land - named Taia - is significant for Moriori because their Karāpuna - or ancestors - were buried in the sand dunes, and there are ancient tree carvings on living trees in forest on the block.

"If we'd decided to fight them, fight back against the invasion and to break with our ancient covenant not to kill again and we'd lost that battle, I could accept that there was a conquest, but there wasn't," Mr Solomon argues.

The High Court has already ruled against Ngāti Mutunga's case. It is based on an argument that the vesting of land in Moriori would infringe on its rights to the land under sections 18, 20 and 21 of the Bill of Rights Act.

Mr McClurg says his people have an historic interest in it, as they have been there since 1835. He also believes the land may contain wāhi tapu, or sites sacred to his iwi. He would rather see the land stay with DoC, or have it vested in both his iwi and the Moriori imi.

"The most constructive thing would be for both iwi to commit themselves to respecting each other and operating on a cooperative basis and a shared basis," he says.

"We do not think that that can be done effectively by carving up the Chatham Islands into Moriori only places and Mutunga only places"

The case is now bound for the Court of Appeal.

Many on the Chathams now whakapapa - or hokopapa in the Moriori language - to Moriori and Mutunga, but this is part of an ongoing conflict.

A sacred kopi tree carving was hacked with a machete in 2011, there are reports of others being shot at, and historic cave carvings on Chatham Island have had graffiti painted next to them.

"You know it's pretty hurtful stuff," Mr Solomon says.

"The rifts are already there and they're quite serious and our concern is to prevent those rifts becoming set in concrete," Mr McClurg says.

While this battle is now in the hands of the lawyers, many on the islands want the argument to end.

Both Mr Solomon and Mr McClurg say they want to move forward, despite the difference in opinion.

"Moriori and Ngāti Mutunga have more that unites us going forward than divides us going back, and I thought through the claims process we could ring-fence the past and leave it in the past, but it's been dragged up into the present," Mr Solomon says.

Both Moriori and Ngāti Mutunga are currently going through the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.

In 1870, the Crown set up a Native Land Court on the Chathams, and by this time almost all from Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama had returned to Taranaki.

Despite that, the court awarded 97.3 percent of lands on the islands to Ngāti Mutunga.