Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō claimed a particular and strong interest in the Te Tai Tapu block, which we were occupying at that time. In the Court Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō were represented by senior rangatira, including Meihana Kereopa and Hoani Mahuika.
Despite our exclusion from earlier Crown purchases, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō claimed rights based on what we saw as valid customary principles. The Native Land Court, on the other hand, decided that narrowly defined rights of ‘conquest’ were sufficient proof of ownership. On this basis exclusive awards were accordingly made in favour of the Taranaki/Kawhia iwi. The same principle was adopted by the Court in the Whakapuaka case.
In 1892 the Native Land Court identified beneficial interests in the Nelson ‘tenths’ reserves, set apart at the time of the 1839 New Zealand Company transaction. The precedent set in 1883 was applied by the Court, and Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō were denied access to these valuable lands.
In 1889 Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō interests were recognised in a limited way by the Native Land Court in a case involving Anamahanga (Port Gore) lands. Here, two small reserves (of 298 and 5 acres) were awarded to Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō whānau on the basis of centuries of unbroken occupation. The bulk of the lands were awarded to Ngāti Hinetuhi, a hapū of Te Atiawa, even though they had been absent in Taranaki for 30 years. The 298 acre reserve was sold almost immediately by the poverty-stricken Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō owners. The five acre reserve remained in Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō ownership. By the early-1880s it had become clear to the Crown that its policies had rendered Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō and other Te Tau Ihu iwi virtually landless. But steps were not taken to provide land for ‘landless natives’ until 1906. Lands subsequently awarded to Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō in the Marlborough Sounds were isolated and useless.
Reserves initially identified for our occupation on the West Coast (on the Heaphy River) were never granted to the iwi. These lands were later included in the North West Nelson State Forest (Kahurangi) Park. The provision of 'landless natives' reserves for Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō and other South Island iwi has been described by the Waitangi Tribunal as nothing more than a 'cruel hoax'.
By the turn of the century Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō were effectively landless and economically marginalised. We continued to be characterised as a defeated 'remnant' without rights or standing in Te Tau Ihu. A stigma of social inferiority was added to the heavy burden of poverty and social dislocation.
From the 1930’s the remaining fragments of Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō land on the West Coast were steadily eroded. Some land was taken for scenery preservation purposes, or was vested in the Māori Trustee who sold or leased it.
Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō rangatira nevertheless fought hard to achieve recognition. A series of hard-fought Māori Land Court and Māori Appellate Court cases between 1926 and 1941 resulted in Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō obtaining limited recognition of their customary interests in a number of reserves between Kawatiri (Westport) and Kahurangi.
In 1976 the iwi suffered a major setback when our remaining land on the West Coast was unilaterally vested by the Māori Trustee in the Greymouth-based Ngāi Tāhu Mawhera Incorporation. This was despite the recommendation of a 1973 Commission of Inquiry that identified a distinct Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō interest on the West Coast and a need to consult with the iwi over the fate of our lands. This became a major and painful grievance for Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, made more acute by the fact that the five acres at Anamahanga was now the only land held by the iwi anywhere in Te Tau Ihu.
In 1987 the Māori Appellate Court was asked by the Waitangi Tribunal, which was at that time considering Ngāi Tāhu Treaty claims, to determine the northern Ngāi Tāhu tribal boundary on the West Coast. Despite strong historical evidence to the contrary and the findings of the Māori Land Court and Māori Appellate Court in the 1930's and 1940's, the Māori Appellate Court described Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō as a 'beaten remnant' without rights. That was patently wrong. The Ngāi Tāhu boundary was placed at Kahurangi Point, far to the north of areas traditionally occupied by Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō. These boundaries were later incorporated in the Ngāi Tāhu Claim Settlement legislation. Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō did all in their power to reverse the Māori Appellate Court decision, including an appeal to the Privy Council in London. Because of the intricacies of the law Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō were unable to re-litigate the historical evidence. Their only avenue was to seek to overturn the decision on technical and administrative grounds. In this they failed.
Under the tireless leadership of the late Kath Hemi, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō resolved to carry on the fight. The iwi prepared a comprehensive and detailed body of evidence which was presented to the Waitangi Tribunal at Omaka Marae (near Blenheim) in May 2003.
This was the first time since 1840 (163 years) that Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō had been provided with a real opportunity to tell our story. In its 2008 Report, the Tribunal upheld all of Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō's claims. The Tribunal found that the Crown's failure to identify and recognise legitimate Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō customary interests in Te Tau Ihu, including the West Coast, had resulted in severe prejudice to the iwi and numerous serious breaches of the Treaty.
The Tribunal recommended substantial redress to settle this 'unique' claim. Lengthy negotiations with the Office of Treaty Settlements then began. Finally, on October 29, 2011, Minister of Treaty Negotiations, and Attorney-General, Hon. Christopher Finlayson and Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō signed a Deed of Settlement in a moving ceremony at Omaka Marae.
Earlier in the day Kath Hemi had signed the Deed from her hospital bed. The Minister said he profoundly regretted the Crown's failure since 1840 to acknowledge the mana and rangatiratanga of Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō. The result of this failure had a devastating impact on the social and economic wellbeing of the iwi and its development. A little over three weeks later Kath Hemi passed away. She was 85. This settlement was a long-awaited vindication of the generations of Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō people, including Aunty Kath Hemi, who despite almost insurmountable difficulties never gave up the struggle for recognition and justice for her iwi.