Divided Tribe

Feuds and fisticuffs in the Chatham Islands

Moriori are proud of their pacifist culture, but have been split by power struggles, employment disputes and even arguments over who is Moriori.

Tony Wall
Visuals: Chris McKeen

The fishing spot where a Moriori leader and his former lieutenant - a brash Aussie in his 60s - came to blows is about as isolated as it's possible to get in New Zealand.

To reach Manukau Point from the mainland you have to fly for more than two hours in an ancient plane, drive another 40 minutes along shingle roads, past trees bent horizontal by gale-force winds and skeletons of old cars abandoned in paddocks, before crossing private farmland where Tommy Solomon, supposedly the last full-blooded Moriori, is buried in a small family plot overlooking the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

One afternoon in mid-October, David Prater was fishing for cod from some rocks when he looked up and saw Tommy Solomon's grandson, Maui Solomon, coming towards him.

david Prater standing on rocks at Manukau Point

David Prater at Manukau Point

David Prater at Manukau Point

What happened next is fiercely disputed by both men but serves as a parable for the feuding which has periodically erupted on Chatham Island - Rekohu in the local language - since Moriori were slaughtered and enslaved in the 19th Century.

Maui Solomon

Solomon is the executive chairman and chief executive of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust (HMT), the body charged with protecting Moriori culture and improving the prospects of its people.

He lives at Manukau Point, considers the area sacred and acts as a customary tchieki (guardian) of its fisheries.

Animated Chatham Island map by John Harford

The trust owns assets including fishing quotas, farms and a tourist lodge. It controls a fund containing a $6m Government grant to preserve Moriori culture and will receive the proceeds of an $18m Treaty settlement. It has been riven by infighting over the years.

There is bad blood between the men.

Prater was sacked from his $100,000-a-year job as HMT's general manager of operations for telling people Solomon is a c....

He's taken a personal grievance case to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), claiming unjustified dismissal.

Solomon - who has been involved in Moriori politics for 35 years - believes Prater is responsible for an anonymous email circulating the island, criticising his leadership.

Solomon claims that when he confronted Prater and asked him if he had permission to be on the land, Prater punched him in the jaw - Prater claims the contact was accidental after Solomon reached for his rod.

He then alleges Solomon left him with a bloodied nose, abrasions to his temple and a black eye.

Prater says he has "never thrown a punch in anger" and at 63, would not have deliberately struck the younger, stronger Solomon.

He says he did have permission to be there - his wife, Debbie King, is a shareholder of the surrounding Solomon family farm.

Solomon says he was acting in self defence.

"The facts are - Mr Prater hit me, I hit him back. He came off second best. End of story. I am not a violent man, but I have the right to defend myself."

About the only thing the men agree on is that after their clash, Solomon told Prater to leave Rekohu.

"I told him that he was not liked on the island – a statement of fact," Solomon says.

"The man is a menace, is obviously deeply unhappy, doesn't fit in down here and is why he should leave and go back to Nannup, [Western] Australia where he belongs."

Prater believes  it's Solomon who is disliked.

He laid an assault complaint, but the local police officer, Chris Mankelow - a new arrival to the island who practices medieval combat in his spare time - declined to lay charges, citing inconsistencies in Prater's version of events.

Mankelow declined to comment, but police said in a statement one person received a written warning and one person was spoken to in relation to the incident. (Solomon vehemently denies he was warned.)

 

The irony of this unseemly altercation between the chief Treaty negotiator for Moriori and the man he shoulder-tapped to be operations manager is that Moriori pride themselves on their peaceful traditions.

They have a covenant of peace known as "Nunuku's law",  whereby fighting had to end once blood was drawn - it's still enshrined in the HMT trust deed.

Tommy Solomon

Tommy Solomon

A group of Moriori at Manukau 1877. CREDIT: Alfred Marton Canterbury Museum Collection.

A group of Moriori at Manukau 1877. CREDIT: Alfred Marton Canterbury Museum Collection.

The covenant had disastrous consequences when two Taranaki tribes, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama, arrived in 1835 and began an annihilation of the essentially defenceless Moriori.

Hundreds were killed; some roasted and eaten, the rest enslaved.

In 2017, the Crown acknowledged that it had failed to take action to protect Moriori when the Chatham Islands were annexed to New Zealand in 1842, despite their pleas for help, and agreed to pay $18m in redress.

Solomon, a barrister based between Wellington and Rekohu, was the lead Treaty negotiator and was previously a Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commissioner.

His critics believe that as chief executive and chairman of HMT he wields too much influence.

They believe he is responsible for a high turnover of staff, pointing to the number of people who have moved on or been sacked and lodged personal grievance claims.

Solomon, a barrister, declined repeated requests to be interviewed in person and at one stage communicated  through lawyers, who warned of defamation action.

By email, he said he did not tolerate "inappropriate behaviour from employees".

Any action he takes against errant staff is done with the full backing of his board, he says.

Solomon says he moved to the island in 2009 to sort out HMT's financial problems - it was technically bankrupt - and a major restructuring was required.

Some staff were made redundant, others left voluntarily. During his time as a senior manager, Solomon says, six employees have been dismissed by the board or left "under a cloud", three lodging personal grievances.

Prater's wife Debbie King - second cousin to Solomon - grew up with him in Temuka, South Canterbury, and says he's been interested in the plight of his people since he was in high school.

But she believes he has too much power and she stood - unsuccessfully - at trustee elections in November hoping to topple him. She received 85 votes to Solomon's 190.

"I just wanted to try and stop the stronghold of him running the show. "

In 2012, Solomon was accused of rigging trust elections as general manager, in order to get rid of then executive chair Shirley King.

He lobbied for another candidate, Tom Lanauze, and announced that Lanauze had won, unseating King.

But King cancelled the elections and Solomon was suspended for allegedly undermining the trust and electioneering.

Solomon told the trustees they couldn't cancel elections because they didn't like the results and took a case to the ERA.

The ERA ordered his reinstatement and awarded him $8000.

Solomon says he did nothing inappropriate around the elections.

"I did contact members of my own hunau (family)...and a handful of other members lobbying support for whom I thought were suitable candidates. I did so in my private capacity.

"We live in a democracy and it is up to individuals within each Moriori family to vote how they wish. Not all family members will support a candidate just because they are from that same family."

Following the election debacle a group of elders from seven prominent Moriori families went to the High Court seeking the removal of King and her faction - who they called "rogue trustees" - and for new elections to be held.

Justice Brendan Brown found that the terms of all trustees had expired and removed them.

He touched on the history of HMT in his decision, noting it had been formed in 2001 from the amalgamation of two competing trusts. ‘Hokotehi’ had been chosen for the name because it was the Moriori word for unity.

"Regrettably, the trustees are now anything but united," Justice Brown wrote.

In 2015, new elections were held - Solomon was elected and appointed executive chairman.

He told the board he would look at standing down as general manager if he was elected, but is yet to do so.

Solomon says he advised last year that he'll be stepping down as CEO no later than 2020.

He wears many hats for Moriori, he says, but will divest himself of some roles in the near future.

"The job is an extremely challenging and demanding one. It has also taken a toll on my family and private life."

Maui Solomon, left, during the repatriation of Maori and Moriori ancestral remains at Te Papa.

Maui Solomon, left, during the repatriation of Maori and Moriori ancestral remains at Te Papa.

King has since had a stroke and is being cared for on the mainland. She is too ill to be interviewed, friends say.

Her brother-in-law Barrie Eyles, a former deputy chairman of HMT who lives in the Marlborough Sounds, believes the feuding was a "major contributor to her demise".

Eyles describes his relationship with Solomon as "20 years of open warfare.

"I have clashed swords many, many times with this guy.

"There's a lot of people like me who've become totally disillusioned with the whole thing and stepped back.

"I fought it for a long time...but you get to the point where it becomes exhausting and you decide you've got better things to do with your life.

"With Maui it's his whole life, it's his mission, his total focus. To a lot of them he's God and can do no wrong."

Eyles believes  Solomon has cost the trust board a lot in personal grievance settlements.

"Basically, if you don't toe the line you're out."

But Solomon says there has not been a high staff turnover in the past few years.

"I expect staff to do what they are employed to do and to get along with other staff members. Nothing unusual there."

Eyles believes the board should have taken action after Solomon's clash with Prater.

"He should have been stood down by the trustees just purely on the clause in our trust deed of bringing the trust into disrepute."

graveyard overlooking the sea

The grave of "the last Moriori", Tommy Solomon, sits alone in a family plot.

The grave of "the last Moriori", Tommy Solomon, sits alone in a family plot.

The deputy chair, Solomon's nephew Aaron Donaldson, of Timaru, says the board backs Solomon, who is a man of "utmost integrity" and is the victim of "muckraking" by a disgruntled former employee.

Trustee Sharon Wadsworth says Solomon is fair-minded and a passionate advocate for Moriori. The other five trustees also sent statements backing him.

But Eyles doesn't want the imi (tribe) to confirm its Treaty settlement while the current board remains in place.

"The membership list needs disassembling and starting completely again," he says.

"One of the main reasons why people have stepped aside is the lack of faith in the membership - it's been diluted by non-Moriori and caused a major rift in the organisation."

It's a sore point on Rekohu - a dispute over ancestry that goes back to the formation of HMT.

Eyles says some factions wanted to sign up as many people as possible to maximise Treaty compensation.

"It was a numbers game."

According to the 2013 Census there were 738 people who identified as Moriori, down from 942 in 2006 - only five per cent of them resident in the Chatham Islands, the rest spread around the mainland and further afield.

But the tribe believes Census counts are inaccurate and in Treaty claims has conservatively estimated the overall Moriori population at 3500.

(The resident population of Chatham and Pitt Islands is around 600, most of whom identify as European or Māori.)

Critics claim  there was a rush to sign people up during fisheries and Treaty negotiations.

"If they walked through the door and had a pulse and two eyes they were Moriori," one source says.

Lois Croon, who runs Admiral Gardens, one of Rekohu's most popular visitor spots, says it was decided during this process that a tipuna (ancestor), Ngahiwi Dix - Croon's great grandmother -  was Moriori.

"So therefore they got most of the island registered [as Moriori].

"It's caused a terrible rift around the island - most people know that she was never Moriori."

Croon says she's registered with HMT but has had her DNA and that of two close relatives tested, the results showing no Moriori connection.

"We shouldn't be in there."

Croon says her true whakapapa is Ngati Mutunga, the conquering tribe, which has its own Chatham Islands Treaty claim.

In 2010, the Māori Land Court was asked to rule that Ngahiwi Dix was not Moriori, based on evidence she herself gave in the Native Land Court in 1870, where she described herself as Ngati Mutunga.

The court found that while Dix was clearly Māori, it did not have the jurisdiction to rule whether she was or wasn't also Moriori.

Solomon believes DNA is of no help in determining Moriori identity because a genetic marker has not been found that can identify tribal affiliations.

Members of the Dix hunau have been accepted as members of HMT for the past 15 or more years, he says, and most have approached the trust, not the other way around.

HMT probably has one of the most robust registration processes of any tribe in the country, he says.

Solomon says Moriori identity has been "misunderstood, denied and oppressed for a very long time".

Several karapuna (ancestors) were either forcibly removed or fled to the mainland in the mid-1800s and due to the stigma that was attached to being identified as Moriori, hid their true identity, he says.

"Over the past 20 to 30 years descendants of these 'missing voices'...have been coming forward to reclaim their Moriori heritage and identity. That is their right."

No-one knows the history of the tribe like academic Mana Cracknell, an expert in Moriori art, language and culture who lives at Kaiangaroa at the far north-eastern tip of Rekohu (the island is shaped like a malformed fidget spinner, dotted with circular lakes and a large lagoon).

Mana Cracknell

Mana Cracknell

Cracknell was employed as HMT's cultural development manager and was close to Solomon until he says he was sacked in 2010 following a dispute over payments for articles for the School Journal.

Cracknell is concerned that the organisation has $11m of debt, according to the financial accounts, which will eat into the Treaty settlement money.

"It's not much left for looking after your people."

Solomon says HMT's debt to equity ratio is conservative at 20:80. While some of the Treaty money might be used to repay borrowings, he says, no decisions have been made on how the money will be used.

Another concern for Cracknell is the use of $3.5m from a cultural fund, held by the HMT subsidiary Te Keke Tura Moriori Identity Trust (TKT), to buy a commercial building next door to the Roxy Cinema in Miramar, Wellington.

Cracknell says the trust holds a $6m Government grant that was supposed to be used for cultural purposes.  

"It wasn't for buying commercial real estate," he says.

Solomon says the money was loaned by TKT to an HMT subsidiary company at 5 per cent interest and the building is returning up to 6.4 per cent a year from rentals.

"It's the first off-island investment by HMT which is considered … a way of spreading our risk. The benefit to Moriori is that it is will immediately improve their returns on … funds."

Solomon says that within 12 months of arriving on Rekohu in 2009 he had turned around HMT's fortunes and it went from an $857,000 loss to a $1m profit.

In the same period assets have increased by $25m and staff numbers quadrupled, he says.

Thirty years ago, he says, Moriori had no land or assets and were not officially recognised as an imi - today they have $53m worth of assets.

Cracknell says all the feuding takes its toll.

"This island does your head in, you've got to get off it from time to time. Then New Zealand goes to your head so you've got to get back here."

Prater, too, says people need to get off Rekohu every six months or so.

"There is a sense of evil on the island. I think it impregnates people.

"If you look back at what happened to the Morioris - they were slaughtered, raped, enslaved from 1835 to 1865 - if you have any belief in spiritualism, it may be a bit far fetched, but I believe there's a lot there."

seaweed-covered rocks
Horses in coastal paddock
car on gravel road

Prater’s personal grievance remains before the ERA. The trust board said through its lawyers it could not comment while the case was before the authority. Solomon too, says he can’t comment.

Prater was sacked after two local men signed statements saying he'd told them Solomon was an "absolute c...".

The board found Prater was seeking to undermine Solomon, his comments had damaged the trust and amounted to serious misconduct.

Prater admits he used salty language but denies the other claims.

He was on holiday in the Chathams in 2016 with his wife, King, who’d lived in Australia for many years, when Solomon sounded him out about a job.

A diesel fitter by trade, he'd also worked as a machine operator and real estate agent.

A few weeks later he was offered the role of general manager of operations, overseeing all of HMT's staff and contractors.

Prater's package was generous - $100,000 a year plus a house and car.

"I was brought over here to get the place running properly, because it was just so badly organised," Prater says.

His notes from this time record the minutiae of the job: discovering a marijuana plot, getting a digger stuck in a lagoon, chasing a cattle beast that jumped into the ocean.

Prater claims he received no support after two traumatic incidents.

In the first, just a couple of months after he started the job, an employee came at him with an iron bar and had to be restrained.

Then, in March 2017, a problem tenant whose belongings Prater had removed from a trust house rang his home and threatened to come around and bash him and his family.

"This guy was a known violent person, an ex-cage fighter. I ended up sleeping with a loaded 12 gauge shotgun beside my bed for a week."

Around April 2017, Prater says, he broke down under the pressure and went to see a doctor.

He says he was given the OK to keep working, but told to avoid high stress situations.

Prater claims Solomon suspended him on medical grounds.

It was around this time that he made the derogatory comment about Solomon to two acquaintances, which the board cited in getting rid of him.

He describes the process as a kangaroo court.

"I was dismissed for … having  a private conversation with a mate and saying my boss was a bit of a c..."

Although some people have fallen out with Solomon, others believe he is a good boss.

Fellow trustee John Swain says in a statement he worked for seven years under Solomon and found him to be honest and caring towards his staff.

“He will go the extra mile to sort things out and almost always there is a very good outcome. He is a boss you can aspire to be like.”

Solomon claims Prater has repeatedly clashed with people on the island and has caused a lot of problems.

"I'm not saying I'm the easiest person to employ," Prater says. "I'm very head strong … my purpose was to change work practices.

"The island is absolutely beautiful - there are so many really lovely people on the island but one thing I will say … is no-one will stand beside you when they see an injustice.

"You are a complete loner when it comes to standing up for what is right."

Statue of Tommy Solomon

Waitangi street sign
Waitangi township

Statue of Tommy Solomon

Lawyers for Solomon have written to Prater accusing him of launching a smear campaign, asking that he sign a retraction and apology and pay $5000 towards legal costs, which Prater is refusing to do.

The HMT board is also considering legal action over the anonymous email it claims to have evidence that Prater wrote.

Is there anything about his management style that Solomon would change?

"I believe I have been a firm but fair and respectful leader and manager of my tribe and of my staff over a long period of time," he says, adding that on a remote island he's had to adopt a different style than he'd use in the city.

Solomon says his motivation is to see that justice is done for his karapuna and people.

"I wish to see a fully-fledged revival of Moriori identity, culture and eventually the re (language).

"I would like to see future generations growing up knowledgeable and proud of their Moriori heritage and identity and be able to express that in their own re and using their own tikane (protocols) on their marae and on their own henu (land) and anywhere else that they may live in the world."

Words: Tony Wall
Visuals: Chris McKeen
Design & layout: John Harford
Research: Lesley Longstaff
Editor: John Hartevelt