Rob Suisted

The lost tribe of Fiordland

Bare footprints, remote campfires, people who slip into the bush when approached: for more than a century, the wild terrain west of Te Anau has been home to an extraordinary rumour. Many locals are convinced that a “lost tribe” of Māori—perhaps stragglers from long-ago skirmishes—not only survived here, but thrived.

Written by       Photographed by Rob Suisted

Down in Fiordland, in Tamatea/Dusky Sound, among scattered green archipelagos, lies the small forested dome of Mamaku/Indian Island. On its north-eastern tip, a small, cleared headland gives commanding views across the stippled waters of the sound. At its base, a rock protrudes into the sea.

Imagine that this island is your home. Imagine that yesterday, for the first time, you and your family had seen an enormous, otherworldly ship, and that you’d spent the night in karakia and debate about what to do, and together resolved that you would swallow your fear, hail the boat, eyeball the people aboard, challenge them. Then that rock is where you’d stand.

Your auntie and you, the youngest wife, would take barbed bird spears, your husband his taiaha. You’d pad down the path to the little secret harbour below, past your double-hulled waka moored in the creek, hush your children beside your whare and walk out into the hard, flat light of the sound.

The people who engaged Cook’s Resolution in Tamatea/Dusky Sound, depicted here by ship’s artist William Hodges, impressed the crew. Georg Forster wrote: “The courage of these people has something singular in it, for it should seem, that in spite of their inferiority of force, they cannot brook the thought of hiding themselves, at least not til they have made an attempt to establish an intercourse, or prove the principles of the strangers who approach them.”

Your husband would brandish his weapon across the water. Shout the wero. You would stand at his back and watch the boat falter, change tack, approach. Pale faces at the railings, and every emotion in your heart: fear, anguish, curiosity, excitement. Tākata or tipua? Human or spirit? Friend or foe?

The lone man who climbs from the boat makes signs of peace. He carries white cloths as koha. Your husband takes them with trembling hands and lays them down. The two men speak mutually incomprehensible words, then hongi. Curiosity swarms through you. Not foes, then. Your husband calls you and your auntie over. For the next half hour you, the youngest wife, will do most of the talking. The foreign chief and his men will listen intently, though it’s unclear how much they understand.

For nearly a fortnight you will wake each morning and go to meet with the ship’s crew. You and your kin will dress in your finest clothes and anoint your hair, bring their leaders gifts of feathered cloaks and pounamu, board and study their great ship, sing, dance and karakia, hurl yourself to the deck at the buck and flash of a musket, consider a marriage proposal, stroke the ship’s cat, against the grain of the fur, while the men laugh. Your husband will request the foreign chief’s brilliant red cloak, and will give his prized whalebone patu in return.

Then, abruptly, you and your people will decide to move on. Though the visitors will encounter other Māori families further up the sounds, they will never see you again.

[Chapter Break]

Two hundred and fifty years later, I’m standing on Mamaku, looking out from that same headland. The ship below is not Cook’s Resolution from his second voyage in 1773, but our own base ship, MV Flightless. I’m toting a pungent, clanking arsenal of CO2 cannisters, peanut butter and rat pheromones. We’re here on a volunteer trip run by charter company Pure Salt as part of efforts to re-establish Tamatea’s lost birdlife. But it’s the so-called lost tribe I’ve come here to find.

[Chapter Break]

In the century following Captain Cook’s interactions with Māori families in Tamatea, other Europeans encountered Māori people, huts, footprints and cooking fires scattered across Fiordland. In 1823, sealers at Preservation Inlet left a message scratched on a piece of slate in a cave: Beware of the natives plenty at Preservation. Another sealing party under Henry “Long Harry” Boardman pulled into Wet Jacket Arm, at the top of Dusky Sound, to find 40 Māori cooking weka on spits on the beach. They appeared friendly. The sealers found a nearby place to beach their boat, then returned along the shore to talk. They found the camp deserted. The surrounding bush stood silent; just the spit and hiss of roasting birds, the lap of waves. Unnerved, the sealers rowed away, leaving the untended fires burning on the beach.

Across Fiordland, a pattern seemed to emerge. Waka whose occupants ignored calls and paddled off. Recently abandoned campsites, bare footprints, distant figures who vanished, campfires sighted in mountainous regions too rugged to investigate. What were people doing in such godforsaken, sandfly-infested places? Why were they so unwilling to engage?

Atop the Otago Heads, Edward Ellison (Kāi Tahu) recounts the story of the ancestor Tarewai, which begins the saga of the “lost tribe”. Tarewai was famous for his patu paraoa/whalebone club.

As contact between Māori and Europeans increased in the south, stories started filtering through about the Kāti Mamoe and Waitaha peoples who had been the dominant southern tribes before Kāi Tahu’s arrival. A complex pattern of intermarriage, fighting and peace-making saw them join with Kāi Tahu—save a few Kāti Mamoe “irreconcilables” who refused to accept peace. The last battles of this phase took place around Preservation Inlet and Te Anau. The survivors were said to have fled west into the mountains.

As a result, each sighting of Māori in Fiordland contributed to the idea of a fugitive “phantom tribe” or “lost hapū” living deep in our wildest bush. Some estimated their number at 500. Long before the obsession with finding the Fiordland moose, expeditions were proposed to find the lost tribe. In the 1860s, when surveyor James McKerrow headed into the area, his worried friends insisted he buy a gun.

Lost tribes are a commonplace of colonial thought. As industrialisation spread, so too did an obsession with the idea of untouched native tribes living in whatever terra incognita remained.

But the idea of Fiordland’s lost hapū wasn’t solely a European obsession. Some sightings were by Kāi Tahu people. Southern chiefs proposed expeditions to settle the matter in the 1890s and 1930s.

Who were the people sighted, from Cook onwards? Can we find traces of them in our whakapapa or tribal narratives today? What do our historians, elders and archaeologists say?

Last summer I packed the car and left Christchurch on State Highway 1, bound for Fiordland. First stop: the Otago Heads, where the events that triggered the whole saga began.

[Chapter Break]

A few hundred metres down the road from Ōtākou marae, above the Ōtākou channel—the origin of the word Otago—matua Edward Ellison turns his dusty blue ute onto a steep farm track.

We wind our way up the sheep-flecked hills of Edward’s whānau farm. The track ends at a steep knoll. “I think I’ll make it up here,” he says mischievously, gunning the engine. My notebook flies off the dash into my lap. We’re up, into the wind and the view.

Ahead of us lies Taiaroa Head, where Pukekura, a famous Kāi Tahu pā, once guarded the harbour mouth. Looking south, Edward gestures across Okia Flats to Papanui Inlet and the hills beyond, where there was a Kāti Mamoe pā less than a day’s walk away.

As well as farming here, Edward is chair of the New Zealand Conservation Authority and upoko, customary leader, of the Ōtākou rūnaka of Kāi Tahu. He’s also one of the holders of the story of the ancestor Tarewai, which offers clues about who the Fiordland people might have been. His soft voice grows animated, eyes shining, hands gesturing—ripped open, struck, leaped!—as he tells the tale.

Ellison looks north from his whānau farm towards the site of Pukekura Pā, visible here at the tip of the Otago Peninsula. Te Ara-a-Tarewai, the route taken by the chief Tarewai after his escape from Kāti Mamoe forces, contours around the right-hand side of the hills.

The various hapū that became Kāi Tahu migrated from the east coast of the North Island, first to Wellington, then south into Te Waipounamu. By the late 18th century, alliances, fighting and intermarriage with Waitaha and Kāti Mamoe saw the three peoples enmeshed. Peace marriages arranged by the wives of Rakiihia and Te Hau-tapu-nui-o-Tū, the respective supreme chiefs of Kāti Mamoe and Kāi Tahu, sealed a general peace—except for Rakiihia’s younger brothers, Taihua and Rakiamoamohia: fighting men who refused to accept the truce. On his death bed, Rakiihia told Te Hau that there would never be lasting peace while his brothers lived.

Locally, before those peace marriages, Edward says tensions arose between Kāi Tahu and Kāti Mamoe over fishing grounds off the Otago Heads. He lowers the ute window and indicates the contested area off Cape Saunders. “There may have been damage done to waka, some minor hostilities going on, but things settled down,” he says over the wind. “Then Mamoe invited the Pukekura people over to help them build a whare at Papanui.”

The famous Tarewai and some other senior Kāi Tahu men went over to lend a hand. When it came time for a break, the warriors entertained themselves by wrestling. They separated off into groups to practise their drills—but out of sight of the others, one by one the Tahu men were isolated and killed, until it was just Tarewai left.

“He was a big man, a huge man apparently,” says Edward, “and so they got him pinned to the ground, and started using a flint to open up his chest, the idea being in those days that you’d rip out the heart and have a munch.” A momentary distraction allowed Tarewai to break their grip and escape into the bush.

Tarewai hid and rested and healed himself. But he didn’t return to his people straight away. In the clash he’d lost his prized whalebone patu, known as Kakoauau, an extension of his mana, synonymous with his name.

This patu paraoa was found at Lake Te Anau in 1923, near the site of the battle that brought this tumultuous period to a close.

One night Tarewai crept back to the Mamoe settlement at Papanui. The people were seated around a fire, passing Tarewai’s patu hand to hand and retelling their deeds in ambushing the Kāi Tahu people from Pukekura. In the dark, Tarewai joined the circle, keeping his face concealed. When the patu came to him, he brandished it above his head and called: “Nāia te toa o Tarewai, kai a ia anō tōna patu!” Here is the brave Tarewai, reunited with his patu! Before the shocked Mamoe people could react, he sprinted into the bush.

Still he didn’t return home. But word reached his home at Pukekura that someone was ambushing Mamoe people who went to collect water from their local stream. That sounds like Tarewai, the Kāi Tahu people thought. Perhaps he’s alive.

From our vantage, Edward points out the route Tarewai eventually took home, across Okia flats then over rolling hills above the coast—today paddocks, then low coastal forest. Finally Tarewai reached the hill overlooking Pukekura pā. He climbed a tree and flashed his patu in the sun.

Inside, his uncles Te Aoparaki and Maru saw the signal and inferred that Tarewai was indeed alive, and that he wanted a diversion to distract the garrison Mamoe had posted to watch Pukekura. Kāi Tahu performed a mass haka on the ocean side, drawing the Mamoe forces away from the beach that gave access to the pā. Tarewai sprinted down the sand.

“He started clambering up the cliff leading into Pukekura pā. We understand one of [the Mamoe men in pursuit] may have got his ankle, so he threw his patu up around a tree—you know he had a taura, a rope on—to lever himself out of that grip, and he got himself into the pā.”

Energised, that night the Pukekura people prepared for war. “In the morning Tarewai called out to the Mamoe people, ‘Go and look after your kids, because tomorrow the anger will arise, and we’ll be coming to take vengeance. Go and tend to your kids.’”

They drove the Mamoe people from a nearby pā overlooking Pukekura, then fought a running battle from beach to beach along the harbour, all the way to Te Parihaumia/Portobello Bay. Exhausted, the two sides retired.

Many Mamoe were killed, but others remained on good terms with Kāi Tahu, and their whakapapa is still central to the area today. “We consider ourselves very strongly Mamoe,” Edward says. But Rakiamoamohia and the others involved in the hostilities were forced off the peninsula. Further war parties drove them south. They eventually settled in Rakituma/Preservation Inlet. Tarewai gathered a taua and followed their footsteps south—and, after taking my leave of matua Edward, so would I.

[Chapter Break]

I can only guess the impact of first seeing Matauira/Spit Islands over the gunnels of a waka, but seen from a helicopter, the green-topped fortress, curtained by cliffs rising from the waves, demands a sharp intake of breath. As we circle, I see the pā site at the end of a sandy spit. Gentle hills and forested archipelagos spread behind. This is where the Kāti Mamoe faction fleeing Otago built their pā.

It’s late afternoon; Tarewai and his people arrived at night. I picture them gliding up this sound in the dark. Making the hushed decision to attack in the morning. The warriors sleeping on the benches, lulled by the swell, not realising they’d been seen, not stirring when Mamoe swimmers silently tied ropes to Tarewai’s waka and slowly, inch by inch, hauled it in to shore.

When the boat hit the rocks the men startled awake. Tried to scramble out onto wet rocks to fight, slipped on kelp, were cut down. “Tarewai in particular,” Edward had told me, “got a patu in the back of the head.” Some say Tarewai was buried in nearby caves.

When news of the defeat reached Pukekura, Tarewai’s uncles Maru and Te Aoparaki led another force back here to Matauira. This time they used a ruse: Maru wrapped himself in a sealskin and lolled about on the spit below the pā like a free meal. The Mamoe people came out unarmed to claim their prize. They were ambushed and killed, and the pā burned.

Still Kāi Tahu couldn’t claim total victory. They looked up to see a Mamoe fishing party paddling past—towing the Kāi Tahu canoes. They’d been left unguarded further up the sound. The defiant Mamoe people went north to another pā in Tamatea/Dusky Sound. Maru and Te Aoparaki and their party were left stranded. They never returned to Otago, and were never heard of again.

Here, then, are the first contenders for the so-called lost tribe: Maru and Te Aoparaki’s party, and the Kāti Mamoe people who escaped. (Given Maru and Te Aoparaki’s disappearance, this story must have come down to us through the Mamoe side, though some have hypothesised that Maru was the man Captain Cook met in 1773.)

Matauira and its sweeping beaches recede, replaced by other views of Fiordland from the air. We’re not landing on the beach today for the simple reason that we’re not in a helicopter. The cinema lights come up, and I join the murmuring crowd heading for the exit. I’m in the Te Anau cinema, built by helicopter pilot Kim Hollows to showcase his astonishing aerial footage of the region.

Interest in the “lost tribe” is alive and well in these parts. In the foyer, I stop in the middle of the shuffling crowd to study a huge whalebone patu affixed to the wall. It’s taller than me, a perfect 10:1 scale replica of the real thing, down to the nicks and gouges along its edges. The original was found across the lake from here in 1923. It’s not Tarewai’s, as far as we know, but is associated with the final battle in this chapter.

Snow showers over Mt Titiroa, on the eastern flank of Fiordland National Park.

Through in the bar, I find Kim, the man responsible for the replica patu, theatre and bar. He’s in his 60s with a gleaming bald head, a generous laugh and watchful gaze. He’s long been a student of the Māori history of Fiordland, and has flown various Kāi Tahu people to key sites over the years. He’s personally visited most of the remote habitation or sighting spots—a perk of owning a helicopter line.

We sit down to chat, and before long, Kim has half the bar swapping stories about who’s seen what. Rangitāne and Kāi Tahu outdoors guide Tara MacDonald, talks about her own fascination with finding traces of occupation in the bush. Fiona Lee, owner of charter vessel Breaksea Girl, pulls up a chair and tells me how she used to regularly kayak from Piopiotahi/Milford Sound to Rakituma/Preservation Inlet. Searching out good landings or camping spots, she came across dozens of sites with clear evidence of earlier Māori habitation. Legendary retired helicopter pilot Dick Deaker tells me about a memorable flight with Kāi Tahu archaeologist Atholl Anderson to point out places where he’d found artefacts over the years.

The more I chat with locals, the more present this past seems. Some speak about places that give them strange feelings of being watched. Several say there’s no way they’ll go poking about in unknown caves. All of them have seen evidence of habitation around the lakes and fiords, and have questions about who these people were.

It’s time to have a look for myself.

[Chapter Break]

On the rocky foreshore of Lee Island, I clamber down off the front of the boat into calf-deep water. The boat churns backwards, turns and speeds north, taking its cargo of pristine trampers to the Milford Track. Quiet falls. Cicadas kihikihi in the bush, wavelets plash ashore. Weirdly, there are no sandflies. To my left and right, steep ridges haze into distance. Twenty-four hours marooned on an island: I’m stoked.

Lee Island is a spike of rock in the centre of Lake Te Anau. It’s not far from routes to key pounamu sources, and to settlements on the West Coast at Martin’s Bay. The island is about 600 metres long, maybe 200 metres wide, topped with a low hill. And on its western side, large overhanging rock shelters housed our ancestors hundreds of years ago.

I decide to start by circumnavigating the island, scrambling around rocks above the water, looking for a camping spot and the caves. To the west the island abruptly drops off into the lake. Soon I’m rock-climbing around small cliffs with blue-black water beneath my feet. Then the face becomes overhung, the climbing a little more involved. Above are steep ledges covered by loose dirt.

I’ve paused, looking for a good route, when hot pain sears my leg. F—. Wasps boil from a crevice and swarm my calves, stinging me again and again. I slap them away with one hand, holding on with the other, trying not to fall into the lake, then climb away from the hive as fast as I can, up onto the ridge. Clearly I’m to stay away from the island’s northwestern cliffs. Tomorrow, to reach the shelters from the southern end, I’m going to have to swim.

Back on the northern beach I rig my tent and cook over a driftwood fire. The faint goonk of water lapping around rocks sounds like soft voices nearby. What an outrageous, exquisite place. A light rain falls but nothing seems to get wet.

The final fight between Kāi Tahu and Kāti Mamoe fugitives is said to have happened on the western shores of Lake Te Anau. By this point most Mamoe and Tahu people were thoroughly entwined and living peacefully. But after the old Kāti Mamoe ariki Rakiihia’s bones were desecrated, a group of Mamoe rebels captured and executed another senior chief from Pukekura. Realising the gravity of what they’d done, they fled Otago and split up. A party under Te Māui went to Moturau/Lake Manapōuri; another, under another of Rakiihia’s brothers, Pukutahi, came to Te Anau.

Pukutahi was old and sick. He lay in his bed while his people made mokihi/raupō rafts and went up the lake searching for a refuge. At dawn a large Kāi Tahu force under Te Hau-tapu-nui-o-tū attacked their camp. Pukutahi and many others were killed; others bargained their lives for their lands. Some say survivors fled into the bush.

Here are two further candidates for membership to the lost tribe—and possible explanations for the many sightings in these parts.

Te Anau water taxi skipper Blain Finnerty (Kāi Tahu) whisks unsuspecting trampers past rock shelters on Lee Island every day.

Filmed by artist Alex Monteith for her project Kā Paroro o Haumumu, Kāi Tahu archaeologists Atholl Anderson, Gerard O’Regan and other iwi members inspect an enormous midden of pāua shell. “[Fiordland] might not belong to us in a legal sense, but everyone on the trip had the sense that it’s still our place,” Atholl says.
Decades later, a Kāi Tahu man named Te Waewae and his party spotted six people paddling a canoe down the lake; they ignored calls and paddled off. Years later, Rawiri Te Awha saw lights up the lake. He and his companions assumed it was others from their party, but later found everyone already back at camp. Rawiri had Mamoe whakapapa and badly wanted to know who the people were. The next day they found paraerae, flax sandals, and kohika, spits for roasting birds, a whare in good repair and naked footprints they considered could only have belonged to Māori. The searchers followed a trail of campfires west into the mountains, but gave up when the country got too wild.

On the other side of those mountains is Hāwea/Bligh Sound. There, in 1842, a sealing party under Captain Howell saw smoke coming from the mouth of a cave. When approached, the occupants fled on foot. It’d recently snowed to the waterline, allowing the sealers to track the locals far inland, up what they named Wild Natives River. The last to give up the pursuit was a man named Te Au, who also had Kāti Mamoe whakapapa. (A route at the head of this river gives access to Lake Te Anau’s Houmuteiti/North Fiord; a shelter containing Māori implements was later found near the saddle.)

Thirty years later, another Kāi Tahu sealing party found Māori shelters and footprints at Lake Ada, now part of the Milford Track. Pākehā hunters up the Glaisnock found bare footprints in 1925; in 1930, “frenzied publicity” greeted another hunter’s discovery of a human thigh bone, with tissue still attached, up the Lugar Burn—10 kilometres from where I sit, my leg still aching from the sting of wasps.

[Chapter Break]

The next day I strip to my shorts and slip into the chilly lake, then breast-stroke around the base of the island’s southern cliffs. My sodden shoes tug me down with each kick, but I don’t want to roam the caves in bare feet. A kārearea calls loudly overhead then banks away west: a better sign. (One of our kaumātua, Muriel Johnstone, later tells me the bird of prey has always been iconic for Kāi Tahu in these parts.)

Soon I see a break in the cliffs: a deep overhang rising diagonally from the lake with a rocky natural slipway at its base.

I wouldn’t be here if these were tapu caves; still, before entering, I recite karakia, and introduce myself.

The shelter is maybe six metres wide and 15 metres long, with a significant roof protecting gently sloping ground. I wander up and down in the false twilight of the shelter and adjacent beech forest. Today there’s nothing but dust and leaves. Back in the early 1980s archaeologists found a long wooden rack for spit-roasting birds—a kohika, like Rawiri found—and concentrations of bird skin, feathers and bone. They also unearthed a little cache of pounamu woodworking tools.

The northerly chills my wet skin. There are more shelters to visit. I slip back into the water and swim north.

Round a small point I see a dark slit in the rock. Inside, the cave is mere shadow and hint, like an old master’s painting. The space is protected, the wind gone. A jumble of pale driftwood covers the floor like bones. I pace out its dimensions, then crouch and look out at the water and bush beyond. They found a tōtara-bark basket here, undisturbed since the 1500s. Its maker had scored along the folds, gathered and bound the ends with flax, and affixed a sharpened mānuka pin through one end to hold the folds in place. Such baskets were used for cooking or transporting birds.

There are several more shelters further along. But it’s been close to an hour. I’m shivering. I step back out into the light and ease myself down the slimy slipway like an awkward seal. I swim back, delighted to be visiting places where ancestors lived, and a little uneasy at being cold and alone.

[Chapter Break]

Emeritus professor Atholl Anderson (Kāi Tahu) excavated Lee Island in the 1980s. He still gets excited thinking about the shelters. “They were just fabulous. There were beautifully made tōtara baskets, a fantastic adze, just perfect, a feather cloak that had fallen into the fire, but the neck part was still there with dogskin around the top hem, bundles of kākāpō tail feathers wrapped up with flax, all sorts of wonderful stuff.”

Southern elders had been reluctant to allow a dig, preferring to leave things where they lay. But when fossickers started helping themselves, the various southern rūnaka agreed to a salvage operation.

Whakapakoko rākau/god sticks, like this one found in Taiari/Chalky Sound, were used by tohuka as portable shrines.

Once material had been analysed, it seemed the sites were primarily birding camps, likely occupied for short periods at a time. Kākāpō, kākā and kererū were caught in the bush around the lake’s shore. Feathers or skins were taken for clothing and adornment, then the birds were spitted and roasted over wooden troughs to collect the fat. They were preserved in pōhā, air-tight kelp bags, labelled with tail feathers to identify the species inside, and rafted back to the coast. Stone artefacts found in the shelters suggested various people from Foveaux Strait.

Zooming out to other known sites across Te Anau and nearby Moturau, a similar pattern of hunting camps emerges. Many were on islands where breezes kept sandflies at bay; others were in more remote spots. In the Takahe Valley, high above Te Anau, a rock shelter was used as a base for hunting kiwi and moa. Traditional history tells us there were villages at the foot of each lake.

Zoom out further again to the western side of Fiordland and the pattern holds. In the mid-1980s, Atholl travelled from George Sound to Pātea on a Park Board boat with Tā Tipene O’Regan. They went ashore in many little bays.

“There’s a lot of material there,” Atholl says. “It’s quite clear that people were using Fiordland, certainly frequently, and possibly living there, possibly for long periods. The evidence is that people were going back and forth all the time.”

Tā Tipene formed the view that some sites may have been semi-permanent: “There were enough indications to my mind, urupā, burials, systematic signs.” Even in one of the most sandfly-infested bays, they found evidence of habitation on a low saddle that was miraculously devoid of sandflies, with burial caves in the cliffs behind.

There has been little systematic archaeological work in Fiordland. But in the 1960s, graduate student Peter Coutts excavated numerous sites. He removed hundreds of boxes and bags of archaeological finds, and once he’d finished his analysis, they went to the Southland and Otago museums, where they’ve sat largely untouched. A recent collaboration between Gerard O’Regan (who is now curator Māori at Tūhura Otago Museum) and University of Auckland artist Alex Monteith has seen Kāi Tahu whānau working alongside artists and archaeologists to open boxes and study the contents. One of the impressions they’ve been getting? Abundance.

“Man,” Gerard says, eyebrows raised, awe in his voice, “when you’re sitting here in the lab in Dunedin looking at this big bag of pāua shells, then you go to the shelters where they came from and there’s actually even more of them, then you’ve got to come to this question: Were these people down there in Fiordland doing it hard? Or actually, were they having a bloody nice time with a really good feed of pāua, hāpuku coming out their ears, barracouta as much as they wanted, heaps of different bush birds they were able to hunt? When you paint that kind of picture… Well actually, this is not people on the edge of civilisation, the edge of the known planet, clinging on for dear life.”

Dawn breaks over Lake Te Anau’s Houmuteiti/North Fiord, looking through The Narrows towards the main body of the lake. It’s remote today, but the area had seen hundreds of years of human presence by the time of the “lost tribe”. “We talk about isolation down there,” says Gerard O’Regan. “Well, isolation from what? If they’ve got a community down there, whether they move around or how resident they are, you have to ask: to what extent are they isolated and lonely, or comfortable and safe?”

One of the most intriguing items from the Coutts collection is a “god stick” used in religious ceremonies. Gerard has also noted rock art in a handful of shelters, evidencing artistic and spiritual thought. With Atholl and Alex, he recently saw a lizard painted in kokowai, red ochre, which gives anyone who’s familiar with te ao Māori pause: it signals the presence of the spiritual world. “Ngā tūpuna would have been thinking about te ao wairua too, not just worried about the economics of the puku and getting a feed.”

According to Atholl, while there are very early Fiordland sites containing moa bones, much material dates from the 16th century onwards. This covers the time of Kāti Mamoe in the south. By the time the fugitives arrived—Rakiamoamohia, Pukutahi and Te Māui’s parties—people, possibly their relations, had been frequenting the area for generations. Tā Tipene cautions against making any assumptions about the tribal identity of those living in Fiordland: there’s too little corroborating evidence in our whakapapa. But it is clear that the landscape they headed into had seen human presence for hundreds of years. “When we look at people being pursued into Fiordland,” Gerard says, “were they being chased into a remote landscape, or were they going somewhere they knew and felt comfortable and safe?”

[Chapter Break]

I’m sitting in the offices of the Ōraka-Aparima rūnaka with brilliant morning sun streaming over the shoulders of manager Riki Dallas, and Rangimaria Suddaby and Shona Fordyce, two of the kuia who supported my southern journeys when writing my last book. Our marae, to the west at Ōrāka/Colac Bay, is the closest in the country to Fiordland. This southern coastline is where inland hunting and harvesting parties left from and returned to. It’s also a place where Kāti Mamoe identity runs strong. Over cups of tea and fresh cherries, we chat about the stories of the lost tribe, and how they’re perceived today.

The aunties are clear: the people out there in the fiords and lakes aren’t separate from us, nor were they lost. “We were never lost,” Shona says.

Lost tribes make no sense from an indigenous point of view. Fiordland was just another part of the southern Māori domain. “Who says they’re lost?” Tā Tipene later says, sounding a little hōhā. “They’re living there, they weren’t lost. Who’s lost them?”

“They almost certainly knew where they were and what they were doing,” Gerard says. “They might have been trying to lose the people pursuing them, but I think the whole terminology of ‘the lost tribe’ is not a helpful construct. It’s something we see from overseas. ‘The lost people of the Amazon forest’, that kind of thing.”

Atholl concurs. “I think lost tribes are just a kind of Pākehā excuse, in a way, part of the colonial deprecation of Māori as savages that hide in the bush, and part of the desire generally to see Māori die away—the dying race for which we smooth the pillow. ‘The Māori are disappearing, so now we find fragments lost in the wilderness.’ I think it’s nonsense.”

Even if there were survivors, Atholl thinks it makes little sense that they would have lived out their days in the scrub. They could have survived economically, but not socially. Key was retaining your mana in the main villages which, though politically aligned with Kāi Tahu, still honoured their Kāti Mamoe roots. “There was and is still a strong sentiment for Ngāti Mamoe in Murihuku, so you might even have been greeted as a favoured son. If you came out of the bush after a year and said, ‘I was one of those who fought Ngāi Tahu at Te Pā-a-Te-Whara’, I don’t think you’d be jumped.” This is purely speculation: there’s no corroboration in whakapapa. But it does further highlight how unlikely the lost tribe narrative seems from a Māori point of view.

But how, then, to explain the sightings of Māori who fled when approached? Why were they so wary, if not part of a fugitive tribe?

[Chapter Break]

On his stopover in Tamatea/Dusky Sound, Captain James Cook spent considerable time charting its inlets and bays—including the presence of seals. Less than 20 years later, in 1792, the first sealing gang arrived. In the following decades, sealers moved across Fiordland harvesting intensively, in and out of different sounds, and into conflict with southern Māori over resources.

Unlike later shore whaling, which required close engagement with local iwi, sealing’s transitory nature meant relationships weren’t formed, permissions not obtained. “Sealers set up and think they can do what they want,” Kāi Tahu historian Michael Stevens tells me, “but if there’s a lot of Americans in the mix, they’re going to be particularly racist. And a lot of the sealers were people coming from Port Jackson—awful convicts. It’s not your best and brightest.” (He says this with a wry smile: we both descend from sealers.)

On the West Coast near Arawhata in the 1820s, Māori raided a sealing gang, with somewhere between one and three Europeans killed. In retaliation the sealers fired upon the nearby village from their boats, then came ashore and killed anyone they could find. Later in Piopiotahi, they surprised an unrelated Kāi Tahu party gathering takiwai, a type of pounamu. They shot the chief, Hupokeka, when he stood on a rock to welcome them in, then massacred the people on the beach. They heaped the bodies into the Māori canoes, set the canoes alight and towed them out to sea.

Gerard O’Regan (Kāi Tahu), curator Māori at Tuhura Otago Museum, with fishing tackle, ripi pāua/pāua levers and a rough patu paraoa/whalebone club perhaps used for gathering seals. All were among the hundreds of boxes of material excavated from western Murihuku and Fiordland in the 1960s by grad student Peter Coutts.

Similar incidents live on in Fiordland placenames, like Te Tara-o-te-puhi-tuia, after an attempt by sealers to rape a high-born woman. Sometimes retribution was indiscriminate, sometimes a targeted tit-for-tat on either side. Some sealers later married Māori women; some sealing gangs had Māori members. But the upshot was that Māori groups in Fiordland became extremely wary of the appearance of unknown boats.

“The sealing was a difficult time for Māori,” Atholl says. “There were quite a lot of lethal encounters between sealers and Māori. You must have felt pretty vulnerable if you’re a family and sealers turn up with muskets in a boat.”

So were those people really the fugitive members of a lost tribe? Or were they various Māori groups continuing the long tradition of hunting and harvesting across Fiordland, but who now chose to disappear rather than wait to see if European boats contained friends or foes? To me that seems more plausible than the idea of 500 “wild natives” hiding in the bush, but we’ll never know for sure.

Nor are we ever likely to know those people’s identities. They may have been parties coming from inland where there were permanent populations around Wānaka and Hāwea, or from down the West Coast, perhaps even the Kāti Wairaki people who preceded Kāi Tahu there. “It will remain a mystery to be fondled, tested, discussed,” Tā Tipene says.

[Chapter Break]

Back on Mamaku/Indian Island, I finish my work replacing CO2 cannisters and clearing mummified gristle from snap-traps. I flick rat skulls with yellowing incisors away into the ferns. Before heading to the pickup point, I return to the little inlet known as Waka Harbour. It’s an intimate, sun-dappled amphitheatre where a tea-coloured creek eddies and pools before running out through a fissure to the sea. There’s a small headland above that was obviously cleared at some point; you can still see what look like storage pits. That’s the kind of breezy, sandfly-free spot where you might build a wharerau, the round houses our people used in the south.

I sink to my haunches and listen to the wind stir the trees overhead, and think what it would be like to come here each year with your whānau: the excitement of preparations, days navigating the coast, steering your waka through that little gap to reach this home-away-from-home. There were several families in the area when Cook visited, and likely similar numbers in Chalky and other sounds. Based on how traditional resource allocations are still managed today, each whānau would likely have had rights to, and returned to, the same spot each year.

Fiordland visits diminished with sealing conflict. Trade with Pākehā further shifted people’s focus from Fiordland to Foveaux Strait. But the Māori presence has persisted. Everyone I spoke to has direct history with the place.

Kaumātua from Takutai o te Tītī marae with ancestral Fiordland treasures held at Te Hīkoi Museum. The translucent pieces and the blue-green, partially worked piece at left are takiwai, a prized bowenite primarily found in Piopiotahi/Milford Sound.

Michael Stevens’ grandfather helped build the Milford Hotel. Horrified that they’d been provisioned with tinned fish in such a place of abundance, he used the mosquito screens destined for the hotel windows to catch whitebait for the crew instead (he also found a sizeable piece of pounamu). One of Edward Ellison’s earliest memories, from around the age of two, is flying in to Preservation Inlet with his whānau to holiday with his dad on their cray boat; his uncles ran boats in Fiordland from the 1940s, and Edward worked them in the 1970s himself. As a youngster, Tā Tipene O’Regan had a job on the Milford Track packing supplies in by horse to Quinton Hut. My own cousins fished these waters in more recent decades. The kaumātua at Ōraka-Aparima are all active in their Fiordland kaitiaki role. A voyage last year, organised by Gerard O’Regan and Alex Monteith, took Kāi Tahu whānau, artists and scientists to key sites.

The sentiment is the same for everyone: it’s a profound experience to keep the fires burning by setting foot on the land and paddling the seas. In a small way I’m doing the same thing myself. We’re all Kāi Tahu and Kāti Mamoe and Waitaha. We’re all members of the so-called lost tribe. And we’re all still here.

The Māori words in this story use the Ngāi Tahu dialect, which is most obvious in rendering ng as k. So Ngāi Tahu is Kāi Tahu, tāngata is tākata, tohunga is tohuka and so on. 

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