Ngāi Tahu’s links to Rakiura can be traced back to the time of Māui, who is said to have reached into the sea to pull up an anchor stone to keep his waka Te Wai Pounamu – the South Island – from drifting away. He named the anchor stone Te Puka o Te Waka o Māui, and according to Ngāi Tahu legend, the anchor stone – Rakiura – is attached to the sternpost, or taurapa, of the canoe at Bluff Hill/Motupōhue by the Aurora Australis ‘Ngā Kahukura O Hine Nui Te Pō’, which is also known as Māui’s ropes.
The pathway of Kiwa, Te Ara a Kiwa / Foveaux Strait, is said to have been formed when Kiwa became tired of having to cross the land isthmus that joined Murihiku (Southland) with Rakiura (Stewart Island). Kiwa asked the whale Kewa to chew through the isthmus and create a waterway so that he could cross by waka instead. The crumbs that fell from Kewa’s mouth are the islands in Foveaux Strait, and Solander Island’s name Te Niho a Kewa translates as ‘a loose tooth that fell from the mouth of Kewa’.
For Ngāi Tahu, these histories not only reinforce tribal identity, solidarity, and continuity between generations, they also document the events which shaped the environment of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island) and Ngāi Tahu as an iwi. Te Wera built two pā in Kaiarohaki - Tounoa, and Kā-Turi-o-Whako - and a permanent settlement was located at Port Pegasus at the south-eastern end of Rakiura, where numerous middens and cave dwellings remain. Permanent settlement also occurred on the eastern side of Rakiura, from the Kaik near the Neck, south to Tikotaitahi (or Tikotatahi) Bay, and a pā was established at Port Adventure.
The production of food was essential in the relatively harsh environment of Te Wai Pounamu and mahinga kai was considered the currency of Ngāi Tahu. Mahinga kai sites, where food was harvested, were integral to the tribe’s way of life and these were accessible from the coastal settlements to Te Whaka-a-te-Wera (Paterson Inlet), Lords River, and Toi Toi wetland.
Rakiura and its surrounding islands were rich with bird life and provided a wide range of kaimoana (sea food). Many reefs along the coast are known by name and are customary fishing grounds, while many sand banks, channels, currents and depths are also known for their kaimoana.
Precious plant resources included raupō, fern root, tī kōūka (cabbage tree), tutu juice, kōrari juice, and harakeke (flax) for the everyday tasks of carrying and cooking kai. Black mud (paru) was gathered at Ocean Beach for use as dye, while tōtara bark was important for wrapping pōhā in, to allow safe transport of the tītī harvest (pōhā were made from bull kelp gathered around the rocky coast). Tītī from the numerous titi islands were traded as far north as the North Island, and people sailed from as far away as Kaikōura to exercise their mutton-birding rights.
The traditional mobile lifestyle of the tangata whenua led to their dependence on the resources of the coast. Knowledge of these mahinga kai areas continues to be held by whānau and hapū, and is regarded as a taonga.
In 1998, after nearly 150 years, Ngāi Tahu and the Crown signed the Ngāi Tahu Deed of Settlement, confirming Ngāi Tahu’s rights to sites of significance and allowing them a role in managing conservation estate resources within their boundaries.
The mauri (life force) of the forests and coastlines of Rakiura has diminished greatly due to the predation and destruction of indigenous species by introduced mammalian pest species. With this destruction has come the alarming decline and extinction of taonga flora and fauna on Rakiura and surrounding islands, impacting on Ngāi Tahu and their ability to practise kaitiakitanga of their ancestral lands and access their mahinga kai places.
Mauri is a critical element of the spiritual relationship of Ngāi Tahu Whānui, representing the essence that binds the physical and spiritual elements of all things together, generating and upholding all life. All elements of the natural environment possess a life force, and all forms of life are related.
Predator Free Rakiura will support recovery and revitalisation of Ngāi Tahu tikanga, and when the mahi is done, the re-establishment of threatened species and reintroduction of locally extinct species will return the mauri of the islands to a state of hauora mai i nga maunga ki te moana – health and wellbeing from the mountains to the sea. This state of hauora will support the recovery of many threatened or locally extinct taonga. While predator eradication is the aim, for tangata whenua the goal is the re-introduction of mahinga kai species, and the thriving ecosystems those taonga species require to exist and multiply.