We Are Ngai Tahu – Cultural Mapping Project

James Mason Russell

Born in Hokitika on 26th June 1939, James Mason Russell, known as Jimmy, was raised at the Tāpuwai kāika on the north bank of the pounamu river, Arahura. His parents were Metapere Wikitoria Rakaia Meihana (Kāti Waewae) and Patrick Phillip John Russell (Ngāi Tūāhuriri) and his taua and pöua were Rititia Kataura Irikaroa Tainui and Tehiwera Opene Meihana.

Jimmy spent a lot of time with his grandparents. “The house we lived in was a small house, and taua and pōua brought me up. They taught me a lot of things. It was a fantastic place to grow up. The families were very close and there was a lot of exchange of kai between the families … mahika kai from the river, from the sea … we were never short of anything.”

The river permeated their lives, and one of Jimmy’s earliest memories involves a very deep pool on its south side, “We used to dive off the top of the wooden rail bridge (now gone) which was about 30 to 40 metres high. We would wait for a train, truck or car to pass, the old bridge would rattle and shake and those who were frightened would jump or dive off the bridge. We would stand on the railings of the bridge and touch the railcar’s windows giving passengers a fright as it passed slowly across the bridge.” Reflecting on his childhood, Jimmy says that he was “a boy that ran around the pā paddocks bare feet and wore home flour sack shirts and sugar bag pants. We were kings of the castle, we loved that attire.”

In 1954 Jimmy won a scholarship to Te Aute College, the Māori boarding school in the Hawke’s Bay, but he returned to Hokitika District High School in 1957 so that he could play in a First XV Rugby Team. “My desire was to play in a First XV, and if I’d gone back to Te Aute I probably would have been in the Third XV because the College so strong in rugby. So I went to Hokitika High School, flew into the First XV as a half-back and got my blazer badge. I’ve still got it.”

While in Wellington after leaving school, Jimmy applied for a job with the Māori Affairs Department but before hearing if he had been successful he changed tack entirely. "I had a brother who was a steward on the inter-island ferries between Christchurch and Wellington. He was on the Rangatira at the time, and I went into town to see him. I told him what I’d done, and he said, 'Well, why don’t you join the Seamen’s Union, and see if you can get a job at sea? I was only a couple of days in Lyttelton and they were wanting people for the inter-island ferry, the alternative ship was the Māori at that time, and that was my first job."

For the following 28 years Jimmy worked in the Merchant Navy Service with his career taking him all over the world working on merchant ships, tankers, an icebreaker, and ferries.

In 1974 Jimmy returned to Hokitika, working week on, week off on the Cook Strait ferries. “I reinstituted the Arahura Māori Committee to make a submission to Parliament on the Treaty of Waitangi 1840 Bill for the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal. We entered into a two year dispute with the National Government on the ownership of the Arahura River in which the committee were successful. I saw that we were going to lose the most valuable pieces of estate in Māwhera (Greymouth).”

The Commission ultimately recommended that certain Tai Poutini reserves be constituted into a Māori Incorporation. Despite the government initially ignoring the Commission’s recommendations, Jimmy spearheaded the Arahura Māori Committee’s letter writing campaign. Along with the support of the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board’s Chairman Frank Winter, the government was convinced to act. The Māwhera Incorporation was subsequently established to manage specific Tai Poutini Māori reserves. Jimmy was elected to the management committee in 1981, and was elected Chairman in 2016.

A member of the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board when the Ngāi Tahu Claim was lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal, Jimmy retired from sea the following year to help with the Claim. “I envisaged that the Claim was going to be a major part of our history, and I wanted to be part of that.”

The Māwhera Incorporation had considered taking its own claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, but because of the number of claims being lodged was told that it could be ten years before it was heard. So an approach was made to the Trust Board and they joined with the larger Ngāi Tahu Claim, with Māwhera paying their own way.

Jimmy gave evidence on the histories, traditions, place names, and mahika kai of Te Tai Poutini during the Waitangi Tribunal hearings. Along with Trevor Howse, Jimmy played a crucial role on the Surplus Crown Lands Committee that was responsible for inspecting Crown land that was surplus to Crown ownership and which was to be land banked and purchased by Ngāi Tahu as part of the settlement.

Shortly after the Cultural Mapping Project began, Jimmy received a phone call from Trevor Howse to come across to Christchurch to come to a mapping hui. “They wanted me to help with the Tai Poutini names. Initially it was a slow process, but with technology, and shoulder tapping people like Iain Gover, we were able to do the mapping at a much faster pace. We then went out to the regions. The hīkoi were a great way of doing this. We would visit sites and people would share information with us and we would learn of place names, and history.”

A current member of Te Pae Korako (the Ngāi Tahu Archive Advisory Committee), responsible for the overview and development of the Ngāi Tahu Archive, Jimmy continues to be an integral part of the Cultural Mapping team, lending expertise and giving guidance as the project continues to develop and grow.

“The biggest surprise for me was the enormity of the project. When I first got the call I thought we had two or three years ahead but we are now in our seventh year and it’s getting bigger and there is still more work to be done. What is important is the story behind the name. If we had to put all of the information gathered for the project on A4 paper it would probably run into a volume of a hundred thousand pages. It is huge.”