We Are Ngai Tahu – Cultural Mapping Project

Matapura Ellison

Matapura Ellison compares the Cultural Mapping project to an onion skin: ‘peel one back, and there’s another layer and another layer. It’s a fantastic resource for those that are coming after us.’

Matapura took an interest in local Karitāne history from a young age, and recalls his father and aunties talking about lost reserves, and the issues with the Hāwea Reserve and the Tenths. He heard the stories of Te Wera and Taoka on the Huriawa Peninsula and ‘used to love walking around that pā site to see the silcrete flakes on the ground in the cooking area. You’d see where the midden was eroding out of a bank and think, “Oh somebody had a kai here, that’s someone’s kai.” Luckily I had access to my aunts and uncles who allowed me to pester them for knowledge. I feel privileged that they entrusted me with the information they imparted to me.’

His thirst for Ngāi Tahu history grew exponentially, and ‘as my understanding expanded, so too did my need to understand where [my tūpuna] went to inland.’ Archival material transformed his perception of Central Otago from a ‘barren landscape, devoid of our footprint’ into an area alive with place names, stories and cultural significance. ‘The vast wealth of information which lay just beyond our fingertips … [and] the work of Pākehā collectors like Herries Beattie … became another point of reference which the Cultural Mapping process has taken many stages further’.

As a champion of local history, it is perhaps fitting that Matapura lives once again in the house he grew up in at Karitāne, where his whānau ran a small sheep and beef farm. His father was John Rangiora Huia Ellison, the son of Teone Ellison and Hera Parata. His mother was Joan Kathleen Devlin. Joan was of Irish descent, and ‘when we were growing up we used to hear all about Bernadette Devlin (the Northern Irish civil rights leader and politician). We would always ask, “Do you think she is one of our relations, Mum?”’ His mother’s father  had immigrated from Ireland to Aotearoa in the early 1900’s and Matapura says that his mother ‘always encouraged me to explore my taha Māori background, and out of that grew my passion for all things Kāi Tahu.’

Matapura has two siblings, a sister Suzanne and elder brother Hāwea.  As a youngster he spent much leisure  time  on the Waikouaiti River. ‘Some of my earliest memories are of my father taking us out eeling, floundering and whitebaiting. It was about putting food on the table … and getting wet gumboots and getting cold was all part of the experience. I might have protested a little but we generally went home when Dad had some fish to take home.’

These experiences were reflected in the evidence Matapura gave to the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1980s, where he outlined the negative effect that government regulation was having upon accessibility of traditional food sources: ‘It used to be that you could go and get a feed for yourself but at the same time you would get a feed for Uncle, Aunty, Pōua, Taua or kaumātua who are unable to go down themselves. This was a normal way of doing things, however with the placing of certain limits per person, if we want to follow our old ways we have to break the law which is not acceptable.’

Matapura remembers that his whānau were proud of their Māori heritage and often took part in events at the Huirapa Hall, but that on a day-to-day basis ‘a lot of their generation’s focus was on getting on with life and trying to make a living’. When he was growing up he remembers a lot of local life  centred around the Karitāne Returned Services Association. When the RSA closed down in the late 1960’s and probably just as significantly, when the community build a public hall at Karitāne and with Huirapa Hall no longer being needed by the wider community, gradually the local whānau began to refocus on their hapū and iwi identity and on doing their best to keep Huirapa Hall going.

‘When I was 11 or 12, I started to experience the renaissance of Māori culture when some of the whānau associated with the Araiteuru Culture Club from Dunedin started coming out for picnics. At that time Dunedin seemed a long way away from Karitāne. A trip to town went by the old Mt Cargill road and with some of it being still unsealed, it seemed a long way for kids in the back of the car.’

Matapura began a Māori Affairs Scholarship at the Telford Farm Training Institute (near Balclutha in South Otago) in 1972, but when his father took ill Matapura came home to assist him on the family farm. ‘I came home to help with the lambing and then returned to Telford to finish the year. But Dad was seventy at the time and was needing on-going help. I was supposed to go on to Lincoln College, but I came back and didn’t leave.’

Involved with the Puketeraki marae since he was a teenager, as well as working as a Māori Warden, Matapura was elected to the Huirapa Māori Committee in 1973 under the guidance of his father and kaumātua Tom Duff.  He became the representative for Kāti Huirapa Rūnaka ki Puketeraki on the tribal council Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, following the resignation of then representative Richard Parata.

Matapura worked alongside David Higgins, Paddy Gilroy, Hemi Te Rākau and Maika Mason as the Kaupapa Atawhai Manager (and later as Pou Kura Taiao) with the Department of Conservation (DoC) for twenty years. David oversaw the Canterbury area while Matapura took care of Otago. During the Tenure Review process of the South Island High Country Pastoral Leases, Matapura and David played key roles in initiating the Cultural Mapping Project to ‘empower our people to understand the landscape’ and to ‘use that historic picture … in the tenure review process’. Papatipu Rūnaka representatives had not been provided with historical or cultural information prior to inspecting the high country stations, but this recently gathered information was now ‘available at their fingertips’.

We had to be more organised about how we empowered our people, so … they [could] be fully briefed going into such situations [and] so that they weren’t at risk of being challenged and not being able to respond. I guess this brought forward the organisational support for the Cultural Mapping Project from Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. I think that’s really where it started from and where we hoped it to go was to be able to empower our people. That was the ultimate desire.

At the same time, Kāi Tahu ki Otago [KTKO] Limited was working with Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki on a pilot project recording the traditional histories and place names throughout their own rohe. ‘I was really pleased that the pilot undertaken by KTKO Ltd has now been brought into this main tribal project. To see those names, the work that Haines Ellison carried out almost a decade ago now, still ringing pretty true.’

Matapura believes that the Cultural Mapping team have created an ‘incredibly valuable tribal resource’, and maintains that it was ‘both an experience and an honour’ to work alongside ‘great people like Trevor Howse, James Russell and David Higgins. I am happy to sit by them and, when I am in my old age, I expect I will look back on those times and think, “We did that.”’