Sir Mark Solomon received the Insignia of a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori and business, in 2013. He is pictured at the investiture at Government House, Wellington, with his wife, Lady Maria Solomon. Photo: the office of the Governor General.

James Ihaka reviews a memoir of a great Māori leader

As someone from Ngāti Porou (who doesn’t purport to have any mandate to speak on behalf of my iwi or represent its views) I’ve sometimes lived vicariously in the successes of Ngāi Tahu.

You see, Tahu Pōtiki was a descendant of the whale-riding Paikea and the younger brother of Porourangi – a central figure in Ngāti Porou ancestral lines to whom many within the Tairāwhiti whakapapa to.

Tahu Pōtiki would leave his Whangarā home to eventually become the eponymous ancestor of the Ngāi Tahu people, now one of the largest iwi in Te Waipounamu (the South Island).

In recent times, I’ve watched in equal measures of awe, respect and envy at how Tahu’s descendants, ie Ngāi Tahu, have in my opinion, led the way in the era of post-Treaty settlements.

Their prosperity, success in growing their asset base and the astute management of their investments for their future generations has been well-documented and led me to the conclusion that technically speaking, they’re from Tairāwhiti so that’s probably why. I say this with tongue firmly in cheek.

But really, I did wonder how the iwi managed to not only prosper, commercially, socially and culturally in recent years but more importantly, who would lead them through these times.

In Mana Whakatipu, a new book co-authored by former Listener journalist Mark Revington, we find a page-turning and fascinating insight into the man in many ways who helped to steer their waka, Tā Mark Solomon.

He was duly elected kaiwhakahaere or chair of the iwi just days before the Ngāi Tahu Settlement Act became law in 1998 – just the second major Waitangi Tribunal Claim behind Waikato Tainui at that stage, and one that would set precedents for future claimants.

So how does a man who spent more than 20 years working in the heavy metals industry as a foundryman and had stints in shearing gangs, commercial pāua diving and as a freezing worker lead an iwi to success despite initially holding few aspirations for the top job?

The book could be viewed in it’s own right as Tā Mark’s blueprint for best business practice – or even his no-nonsense, straight talking and pragmatic tikanga on how to do life.

For example, he views tapu as something that originated for practical purposes but “some people like to make more complex than I think it is”. He gives this example: “Why did you have a tapu on a garden? Don’t play in there, that’s where we’re growing the food. Don’t use it as a footpath…that’s what a tapu is.”

His thoughts about the settlement that equated to less than 2 per cent of Ngāi Tahu’s own $20 billion estimate of what was actually taken by settler governments?  “If we couldn’t make it work with $170 million then it didn’t matter how much we would have got”.

When Tā Mark started attending board meetings he felt “they were speaking a foreign language, with corporate speak and acronyms all the way through”. He tells the story of stopping one meeting to lecture the board about how to strip an electric furnace. Upon finishing he says to the chairman, “Now repeat what I’ve said to you.” Of course the guy couldn’t – but they all got Tā Mark’s point: “Why don’t you just speak so everyone can understand you?”

Despite being feted by political parties throughout New Zealand, Tā Mark reckons politics on the whole is “time-wasting, costly, crap”. He writes, “Most politics is not about the issue – most politics is to play the person. If it were strictly about the business, politics would be good because then you’d end up getting a better answer in the end.”

Relationship building? The key is respect and humility, says Tā Mark, who prefers to stand in line at hākari (feasts) rather than be ushered to the top table and following pōwhiri goes out the back of the marae to meet the cooks because “that’s where the real information is”. As he puts it, “For me, it’s simple. Just be respectful. Use your manners. Everyone responds to that. You’ve just got to be polite and people will be polite back to you. Be an arsehole, they’ll also give it back to you. Everything is about relationships. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, it all comes down to relationships and how you deal with people. There is nothing magical about it.”

Mana Whakatipu, written by Tā Mark with Mark Revington, is an enjoyable book that leaves few topics off the agenda including his eventual departure from Ngāi Tahu leadership. Tā Mark delves into domestic abuse and violence, racism (at length), water rights, carbon farming and how we’re already seeing change as a result of climate change.

Much like his thoughts on leadership, his insights are often practical and sensible and easily understood. 

Mana Whakatipu: Ngāi Tahu leader Mark Solomon on leadership and life by Mark Solomon with Mark Revington (Massey University Press, $35), is available in bookstores nationwide.


James Ihaka (Ngāti Porou, Te Aupouri, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga) is manager of communications and engagement with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. A cricket lover and average golfer, he is the father of three...

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