We Are Ngai Tahu – Cultural Mapping Project

Tā Tipene O'Regan

‘We must remember to remember.’

Tā Tipene O’Regan is best known for his role as the long-serving Chairman of the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board leading the Ngāi Tahu Claim process before the Waitangi Tribunal culminating in the Ngāi Tahu Settlement.

Tipene was born to his Ngāi Tahu mother, Rena Ruiha O’Regan (nee Bradshaw) in Wellington in 1939. His father was Rolland O’Regan, a surgeon of West Coast Irish descent. His mother had been born at Kōpūtai but raised in Awarua (Bluff). Rena was a nurse and a singer who descended from ‘most of the major hapū of Ngāi Tahu’. ‘My taua was born at Waianakarua, south of Ōamaru. My two great-grandmothers are buried at Moeraki, which was one of the great old knowledge centres of our people.’

Although raised and educated in Wellington, Tipene spent significant time as a young child in Awarua (Bluff) where he was often ‘packed off’ to stay with his tāua. ‘Or, my tāua would come and collect me and I’d go wherever she was travelling … I had quite a lot of time as a child with her in Bluff and other southern places.’

He began studying politics and history at Victoria University in the late 1950s, and was a member of the university’s Māori club. The club’s Patron was Frank Winter, Chairman in those years of the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board. Frank and Perle Winter’s family home became ‘an important focal point of patronage and welcome to the very few Māori students in the university in those days’. He later worked as a Primary School teacher for two years, and in 1968 returned to the Teacher’s College as a lecturer. He ultimately became a Senior Lecturer and Had of Social Studies and Maori Studies remaining at the college until 1983.

In 1976 Tipene was appointed as the Te Ika-a-Maui (North Island) representative on the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board. He served on the board for 22 years, and was chair for thirteen of those years. As the chief negotiator, Te Kerēme (the Ngāi Tahu Claim) was his main kaupapa and he ‘spent the thick end of thirty years travelling incessantly through our rohe’. A major architect and negotiator of the Treaty of Waitangi fisheries settlements of 1989 and 1992, he was also the founding Chairman of the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission.

Tipene’s personal scholarly interest is largely in traditional history and ethnology of Ngāi Tahu and Te Waipounamu. As well he has a major academic interest in general New Zealand history and the Maori political economy. Tipene has published and lectured extensively over many years on Ngāi Tahu traditional history, Polynesian migration, Treaty issues and the evolution of biculturalism. Appointed to the New Zealand Geographic Board in 1985, Tipene became the longest serving member of the Board having served 28 years. His tenure on the board coincided with a renaissance in Māoridom and a marked shift in attitudes to place names in New Zealand which reflects our maturing as a nation. He remains Chairman of the Maori Names Committee of the Geographic Board/

“Language continually evolves but some remains stuck. Putting names on maps fixes those names in time. From when I first joined the board there has been a massive change in attitudes. There have been two factors at work – a much greater willingness to name things which are distinctly New Zealand and secondly, a much more accommodating welcome to Māori names and Māori pronunciation in general. You only have to listen to the weather and the news. There are an increasing number of people around New Zealand who don’t carry linguistic baggage.”

The most important role of place names in a society in which traditions and history were transmitted orally was to serve as triggers for memory. They reminded those who spoke or heard them of events or episodes important in the history of the tribe. They were the means by which the tribe’s traditions and knowledge of its tūpuna were managed and handed on. To understand a great number of New Zealand’s place names you need to know the tribal histories of the district in which the names occur.”

Since the Ngāi Tahu Archive was established in 1978, Tipene has been at the forefront of its evolution. “In recent years we have made significant advances in recovering much of our old tribal learning and the story of the last two hundred year of our tribal life. That content has been harvested from tīpuna manuscripts, Pākehā historical narratives, surveyor notebooks and even newspaper archives – both Māori and Pākehā.”

When Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu established Te Pae Kōrako, the Ngāi Tahu Archive Advisory Committee, in 2012, Tipene was appointed its inaugural Chair. The role of Te Pae Kōrako is to ensure that the archive is well managed with systems in place to ensure its integrity, validity, and accessibility to Ngāi Tahu whānui. It is essentially concerned with the management of our own tribal knowledge base and ensuring its accessibility.

“The only adequate justification for our whole tribal structure is the measure to which it serves to maintain our Ngāi Tahu heritage and identity inter-generationally. Owning and controlling our own knowledge base is at the heart of our capacity to disseminate that heritage. This does not mean that our knowledge base is exclusively ours and should not be shared with others. But we are the primary proprietors of our own story, our own heritage and our own cultural identity. That proprietorship is a fundamental expression of our rakatirataka. We do not exist for the benefit of universities – the reverse is the case – they exist for our benefit.”

Tipene points to the Ngāi Tahu Cultural Mapping Project as an example of an innovative and ground-breaking approach to uncovering, recovering and disseminating Ngāi Tahu history. ‘It is completely owned and operated by our tribal structure. It records our histories, place names and lands on our tribal Geographical Information System for our Ngāi Tahu people. We want to use new technologies and proven archival processes [to give] our people the capacity to evolve as competent, culturally confident and informed Ngāi Tahu, and to be the kind of Ngāi Tahu that they want to be.’

Our aim must be to control and shape our own tribal culture to the greatest extent possible. If it is to be ours, we must own it. We must be the primary proprietors of our own knowledge base.”