Sir Tipene O’Regan came into the national spotlight as the chair of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board who led his iwi to successful land and sea fisheries settlements before the Waitangi Tribunal.
Signed in 1996, the historical settlement also made extensive provision for customary rights in fisheries and other natural resources.
He says the work was important but it made him and his family a target and they were subjected to some hostile behaviour.
“Ngāi Tahu initiated the first of the historical claims that the tribunal was to face after the amendment. There were all sorts of new things being discovered and you have to appreciate the whole structure of government in New Zealand was being changed, and we had all sorts of lobbyists at work.”
“I was Ngāi Tahu’s 'rent-a-mouth' on Lambton Quay. I was on the front line of a number of questions, I was the object of a fair amount of hate and loathing.”
Sir Tipene says he could personally handle the backlash but was concerned when it affected the safety of his family – his wife Sandra and their five children. He was forced to hire personal security to protect them.
'Pretty raw racism'
“The other challenges were the challenges for my children. They had a pretty rough time and carried the risk. Of course, there was a physical risk as well, tūtae in your letterbox and those sorts of things.”
Sir Tipene says the racism at the time contributed to the behaviour.
“It was a time when there was pretty raw racism, which was widespread. I think we’ve come a long way. There’s less of it and a far much wider acceptance of te reo, and place names, and a reasonable amount of enthusiasm for a bicultural New Zealand.”
Despite the backlash he received, Sir Tipene has become an influential figure for his work with Ngāi Tahu and in education, lecturing and becoming Maori vice-chancellor at the University of Canterbury.
Sir Tipene was commemorated as one of the 12 local heroes of Christchurch, and a bronze bust of him was unveiled in the city.
He was honoured again for his hard work and dedication when he was knighted in 1994 for services to Māori and the community.
“When I found out our senior women were behind this, there was a fan club for me within the tribe, I couldn’t decline it. I was appreciative of their love and tautoko.”
Sir Tipene appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The second half of the new series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.