The twin passions of Aunty Jane are tītī and whānau but somewhere along the way she has managed an awful lot of work for Ngāi Tahu.
Muttonbirding has been a constant in Jane’s life. She first went to the family’s island of Putauhinu the year she was born in 1930, or so she has been told. “Then I went until I went to school in Riverton. My grandmother didn’t want me going to the island, she wanted me to stay at school; but my mother always went, and my brothers. In my teenage years I went back with her to the island and we just carried on really.”
Her late husband Bill was a fisherman who spent a lot of time in Fiordland waters. They got married in 1951 and Jane and the boys used to join him during the school holidays. The couple had three sons – Rewi, Tāne, and Patu, and a daughter, Karina. They bought a pub in Riverton when Bill got tired of fishing. That’s when her work for the tribe really began.
“We had begun what were called Māori Committees and Bill was the Chair. Eventually we bought a building in the main street of Riverton. I think we put our house or part of the pub up for collateral. I know we took on the mortgage. That was the early 1980s and it became this process of the Claim, because we got involved and started going to the hui in Bluff, and then Tipene came down. I remember going to a meeting at the museum here in Invercargill where he came. Trevor Howse was also involved.”
They had been brought up on the stories of Ngāi Tahu grievances. But did Jane know what she was in for?
“We had gone from the Māori Committee to what the four rūnanga here had decided to make, which was a rūnanganui. We had become involved in those sort of politics, both of us really, because it would never have happened for me if Bill hadn’t agreed. In a sense we both did it because he went everywhere with me, and he was listened to sometimes more than me.”
Jane was born in a nursing home in Invercargill, and brought up at Riverton by her grandmother and grand-aunt. It was the Depression, she says, and Pearl, her mother, had to get back to work.
“For us it was quite normal. We had two houses side by side that my grandfather had built.”
Her whakapapa goes back to Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), and the whalers and sealers who married Ngāi Tahu women. On her grandmother’s side, she is descended from the marriage of George Newton and Wharetutu and on her grandfather’s side, she is descended from John Hunter, a native American, and Kawhiti.
She was brought up in Riverton with two older brothers, John Patu and George Pahia, who was always called Gordon; and an older sister, Pasha Josephine. Her father, Jens Rasmussen, was a Dane who had been working on the West Coast.
Ask anyone about Jane and they will likely say something nice about her. She appears to be almost universally liked in the tribe, but you sense steel in there somewhere. The stories of her negotiating skill are legendary. She agrees.
“I am pretty strong, and Bill knew that. Somebody did say to him, ‘Oh you know, she’s a nice lady to go on to the board’, and he said, ‘Don’t be too sure of that.’”
In 1864 when the Crown purchased Rakiura (Stewart Island), there were two groups of tītī islands governed by one set of regulations. The “beneficial” islands were those where individual whānau had hereditary rights, while the Crown islands were for those who didn’t have a right to go birding on the “beneficial” island. The Department of Conservation was in charge of the Crown Tītī Islands.
Along with George Te Au, and her husband Bill, Jane was one of the key witnesses who presented evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal advocating for the return of the Crown Tītī islands. This was to be one of the successful outcomes of the Ngāi Tahu Settlement. The following year Bob Whaitiri asked Jane to stand for the Ngāitahu Māori Trust Board in which she was duly elected as the Murihiku (Southland) representative. That was when the really hard work started, she says.
“It was a really steep learning curve for me in 1989 when I first went up to board meetings. I think I was pretty silent that year.”
At the time she was asked, she wasn’t enrolled as Ngāi Tahu. “They talk about the blue book and the pink book which is almost a bible to us now. People had them in those days, but we didn’t actually do anything about it. I mean the Tītī Islands were our main concern.”
After Bill had passed away, she took the Ngāi Tahu seat on the Southland Conservation Board. Ngāi Tahu was fighting hard to have the Crown tītī Islands returned. The tribe was ultimately successful, but it took plenty of hearings, she says. That changing relationship epitomises changing attitudes to Ngāi Tahu stewardship of assets such as national parks.
“So at that time we were advisers to the Department of Conservation, whereas now the role has changed and they are our advisers. That is really important, and for me personally. Apart from all the other wonderful things that have happened, that was the best thing I did.”
She stayed on the trust board until Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu was created. A vivid memory from those days in the early 1990s when the tribe was still negotiating a settlement was a visit to Queenstown.
“I went with Maika (Mason) and probably Trevor Howse. Suzanne (Ellison) was there and the thing that sticks out in my mind was when she spotted a notice in a shop window which said, ‘Keep out Ngāi Tahu’, and she went in and demanded that they take it down. It has changed now in Queenstown, with all the Ngāi Tahu buildings.”
She says the true unsung heroes from those days were all the people who put money in to support the Claim. “Probably money they couldn’t afford. All those men and women who are gone now, who were there to support the Claim.
“For a lot of us, our lives went on hold, like my oldest son. He couldn’t be here but he always paid our phone bill. That was his contribution, you know – our families contributed wherever they could to make the load a bit lighter.”
She worked much of her life for the tribe, but her overwhelming passions are conservation and whānau. On another wall of her home is a picture of Putauhinu Island, where Jane has been going the whole of her life.
“We’ve always been extremely careful for the little island,” she says. “The story from my mother especially, who loved the island, was, ‘Look after the island and it will look after you.’ That was her saying and I’ve grown up with that. My children have grown up with that and now my grandchildren do too. And I think that’s a story for everywhere.”
There’s a lesson right there for all of us, and then Jane says something which probably sums up her attitude to life.
“It’s our connection to the land that is important,” she says. “But you’ve got to have a heart for the people too.”
“I think the Claim takes hold of you. You don’t take hold of it. It’s like it knocks on the door and is inside your heart and your head and that’s it. I grew up listening to my grandmother talk about it.”
“It took just two generations for us to lose our language and even for our minds to be changed. In a way we were like second-rate people in our own country.”
“People ask why do you keep going back [to the Tītī Islands]. The answer is simple. Each season we go home, we go back to where our tīpuna were.”