Ngāti Wairangi people were the first to occupy the Poutini coast (on the West Coast of the South Island). Because of the mountainous passes separating the east and west coasts, their territory was protected for some time from encroachments on their valued pounamu.
However, a woman named Raureka discovered a way to the east coast. On finding some men of the Ngāi Tahu tribe building a canoe, she commented on the bluntness of their tools and showed them a sharp pounamu adze, which she unwrapped from a small packet. Impressed by this tool, a small group of Ngāi Tahu people returned with her to fetch some pounamu, and learned the route to the highly valued resource.
Poutini Ngāi Tahu
Over time the Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Wairangi tribes came into conflict over the stone. A number of battles ensued, and ultimately Ngāi Tahu wrested control of the resource from Ngāti Wairangi. This West Coast section of Ngāi Tahu became known as Poutini Ngāi Tahu, and it incorporated both Ngāi Tahu and the remnants of Ngāti Wairangi. Poutini Ngāi Tahu were then able to supply their eastern relations, and Kaiapoi became a focus of pounamu trading.
In the early 1830s, Poutini Ngāi Tahu was invaded by tribes from the north. However, when these incursions ended, Poutini Ngāi Tahu regained control of their territory.
The loss of pounamu
By the 1860s, Crown purchasing and policies began intruding on Ngāi Tahu’s access to pounamu. The tribe’s attempts to regain control lasted well over a century.
Poutini Ngāi Tahu began negotiations in 1859 with James Mackay, who had been appointed by the government to purchase the Arahura and Kaikōura blocks.
The tribe made it clear that one of their guiding principles was the retention of their pounamu. Mackay assured them that they would keep this right, and guaranteed them ownership of the Arahura river bed. While Poutini Ngāi Tahu wanted to reserve land along the banks of the river as far as Mount Tūhua, Mackay granted them only 2,000 acres. However, he agreed that Ngāi Tahu would later have the option to buy back the rest of the land at a cost of 10 shillings an acre, although he was only paying a penny for 100 acres. He made it clear that the government had little use for pounamu:
I informed them that the Greenstone was of no use to the Government, and if it was all they wanted, they might have the whole of the Arahura bed, that it was of no use to anyone and even if they sold it to the Government, no objection would be raised as to their procuring Greenstone from it. 1
Despite this recognition, the river bed was not reserved, and no special legislative recognition was given by the Crown to Ngāi Tahu’s special relationship with pounamu in the Arahura or in any of Ngāi Tahu’s tribal area.
In 1976, the Crown vested ownership of the bed of the Arahura River in the Māwhera Corporation, which was set up to represent the original owners. Even then, it was doubtful that this returned the right to pounamu to the corporation. At the time, mining and extraction of pounamu was controlled by the Crown under the Mining Act 1971, and it had been similarly controlled under previous legislation.
The real thing
Many greenstone items sold in tourist shops are cheap copies of Māori designs, made overseas from inferior jade. The tribe with responsibility for pounamu, Ngāi Tahu, is developing a trademark so that tourists will know they are buying genuine New Zealand pounamu. In addition, toi iho™ – a registered trademark used to promote and sell authentic, quality Māori arts and crafts – requires its artists to use only this stone.
Ngāi Tahu regains its pounamu
The Waitangi Tribunal, in responding to the Ngāi Tahu claim dealing with pounamu, said that ‘the unique nature of pounamu and its deep spiritual significance in Māori life and culture is such that every effort should now be made to secure as much as possible to Ngāi Tahu ownership and control’. 2 The Crown agreed to return the legal ownership of pounamu to Ngāi Tahu and passed the Ngāi Tahu (Pounamu Vesting) Act 1997. Under this, ownership of all pounamu occurring in its natural state in Ngāi Tahu’s tribal area, including the coastline, was vested in Ngāi Tahu.
Following this settlement, Ngāi Tahu vested ownership of pounamu in the Arahura area in the Māwhera Corporation, in recognition of the special relationship of Poutini Ngāi Tahu with this pounamu. To protect the sustainability of the resource, Ngāi Tahu developed the Pounamu Resource Management Plan, which was approved in 2002.