Northland kaumātua's vow to stay on Moturua Island: 'I have a job to do'

Kaumātua Matutaera Clendon, centre, with nephew John Clendon and partner Bronna Brown at Whare Otupoho, a tiny house built on a DOC reserve on Moturua Island. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

This article was first published by RNZ.

A Northland kaumātua is vowing to stay on the island where he was born and raised, despite orders from the Department of Conservation (DOC) to dismantle his illegal dwelling and leave the reserve.

Matutaera Te Nana Clendon - better known as Matu - has been living in an off-grid tiny home on Moturua Island with his partner for several weeks.

The house, which has two rooms, a composting toilet and a loft, is just metres from the site of the family homestead where Clendon was born in 1939.

It is on what is now the DOC-administered Moturua Island Scenic Reserve, at Otupoho or Homestead Bay, in the Bay of Islands.

The Ngāpuhi kaumātua has lodged a Treaty claim calling for the island’s return to Māori ownership, but worries he won’t live long enough to see the outcome of the iwi’s stalled settlement negotiations.

“It’s taking too long. The old generation is dying off. I’m 84 now, coming up to 85,” he said.

Partner Bronna Brown said a previous estimated date for Ngāpuhi settlement was 2035, which was too long to wait.

“We’ve made this move now because Matu has always talked about returning to Moturua, that’s been on his heart.”

Matutaera Clendon, 84, says he can't wait another decade for a Treaty settlement to return home to Moturua Island. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

Clendon was the ninth of 16 children born on the island, 14 of whom survived.

The family ran sheep and cows, sold cream which was collected by the famous Cream Trip boats, caught crayfish, and had extensive vegetable gardens and orchards.

Once he was old enough to go to school, an uncle rowed him to Rāwhiti every Monday and back home on Friday afternoon.

Later he attended a boarding school in Kaikohe.

After serving overseas in Malaya and Borneo, Clendon returned to the island to help on the farm.

He was not quite 30 years old when his father gave him what he described him as “the hospital pass” of running the farm, which was leased from Māori land owners, and looking after tribal affairs in the area.

His father died the following year.

However, Brown said a council revaluation of the island in 1967 saw Moturua’s official land value skyrocket from $7000 to the then-immense sum of $60,000, based on the sale of another island to a wealthy overseas purchaser.

“That just ruined Matu’s chance of ever being able to stay here because a valuation of $60,000 was going to put the rates up to an impossible level. He wasn’t rated off, but he was revalued off. So the family then had to remove all their stock, and leave the house and just go,” she said.

Kaumātua Matutaera Clendon at the site of the old family home, at Otupoho/Homestead Bay. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

The county council then rezoned the land to public open space and the Crown negotiated with the Māori trustee to buy it for $80,000, to form part of a new maritime park.

The family left in 1968 and rebuilt their lives on the mainland.

In later years Clendon took part in a legal battle to retain Māori land at Rakaumangamanga/Cape Brett and at Hauai, near Rāwhiti.

Those lands were also almost lost, he said.

He never gave up his dream of returning to Moturua, and in 2013 gave evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal as part of the Wai 1307 claim.

Always ringing in his ears were the words of his late grandmother, who was a granddaughter of the chief Te Kemara.

“She said in Maori, ‘Kaua koutou penei ngā karuirui e noho ana i runga noa ngā toka, titiro ki ngā whenua kua ngaro’. In other words: ‘don’t be like a flock of seagulls, sitting on a rock looking back at the land you lost’.”

Brown said DOC, Heritage New Zealand and hapū discussed Moturua’s future at a three-day wānanga in 2021, at the Mangahawea Bay archaeological site on the other side of island.

Agreed goals included establishing a permanent wānanga, or place of learning, on the island.

Since then, however, she said no progress had been made, not even for a storage facility so teaching equipment could be left on the island.

Moturua Island, in the Bay of Islands, with the famed archaeological site at Mangahawea Bay in the centre. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

The couple said they were finally spurred into action by Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis’ valedictory speech when he left Parliament earlier this year.

His speech expressed - among other things - his disappointment at what he saw as the new government undoing years of progress for Māori.

“We’d been talking about Matu wanting to go back to Moturua. When we listened to Kelvin Davis we said, ‘Now is the time to make a move, this act of rebellion, by just going there’,” Brown said.

Within two weeks the couple had ordered a kitset tiny home from a Northland business, and six weeks later the parts were quietly barged to the island.

The house was assembled by a team of builders with help from Clendon’s nephews in a single day, though the finishing touches were ongoing.

Brown said the house was also a first step in establishing a permanent wānanga on the island.

The couple had so far had four visits from DOC staff.

A letter delivered during the third visit on 1 May said no authority had been given for the building erected at Otupoho/Homestead Bay.

The letter continued: “I am formally requiring you to remove all buildings, structures and materials brought into the reserve, and to stop your occupation of the reserve, within two weeks of the date of this letter.”

It also spelled out the penalty for breaching the Reserves Act 1977, which was a maximum of two years imprisonment or a fine of $150,000.

The Clendon family homestead on Moturua Island, years after the family left in 1968. It has since been demolished. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

Clendon said he had no intention of leaving.

“I have a job to do… we’ll stay here all the time. I’m doing what I think of as justice, ne? I am the pou for the family, I am the one who was instructed to look after my father’s interests.”

The kaumātua said he was pleased to be living on the island again for the first time in almost 60 years.

“It’s great, because I feel I’ve achieved what my dad was trying to do.”

Brown said their proposals for a way forward included the return of the island to hapū, a change of reserve status to allow the construction of a building, a lease, or even caretaker status in exchange for looking after DOC facilities on the island.

DOC Bay of Islands operations manager Bronwyn Bauer-Hunt said the department was aware of the situation on Moturua Island.

“Contact has been made with the people involved and we are considering the next steps. As the matter is under investigation we are not able to provide further information at this time,” she said.

Moturua is part of the Ipipiri group of islands between Russell Peninsula and Cape Brett.

Most of the island is public land, bar a number of properties owned by high-profile business people at its southern end.

Moturua Island is part of Project Island Song, an ambitious programme to restore native flora and fauna in the eastern Bay of Islands.

Matutaera Clendon was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to Māori in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Kaumātua Matutaera Clendon, centre, with nephew John Clendon and partner Bronna Brown on the shore at Otupoho/Homestead Bay. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

By Peter de Graaf of RNZ.