Wananga landing Wananga landing

Sir Tipene O'Regan

12 July 2023

Sir Tipene O’Regan, visionary leader of the Southern Māori Tribe Ngāi Tahu, is another Cantabrian who put his community before himself. Called by his tribal Kaumātua to the frontline of Ngāi Tahu leadership, he put himself and his family through enormous financial and emotional strain to serve his people. Learn more about this local hero.


Sir Tipene O’Regan, visionary leader of the Southern Māori Tribe Ngāi Tahu, is another Cantabrian who has put his community before himself. Called forward by his tribal Kaumātua in the 1970s to the front line of Ngāi Tahu leadership, he put his family and himself through enormous financial and emotional strain to serve his people during the 1980s and 1990s.

When Sir Tipene remembers this period he is uncharacteristically terse: “I remember only exhaustion.” In this period, he drove the foundation and establishment of the now-substantial wealth of his mother’s people. Generations of impoverishment were transformed into a tribe with the capacity to choose their own future. Sir Tipene’s own description of his achievement is: “I was able to give Ngāi Tahu the power of choice. To what end, and how, they choose to exercise those choices is their challenge.”

In the flesh, Sir Tipene looks like anybody’s Uncle or Grandfather; relaxed, kindly and affable. Yet when he begins talking in his delicious long copy about his topics of expertise – economics, Māoridom and the state of our nation – when he starts brandishing his tokotoko defiantly in particular moments of passion – one comprehends the uniquely New Zealand notions of Mana and Rangatiratanga – of authority and chiefly leadership.

To Sir Tipene, one of the fundamentals of being a Māori, or of any indigenous culture, is belonging to a particular place or region. Identity is a function of place. His lifelong commitment to Te Waipounamu, the South Island, is inseparable from his sense of Ngāi Tahu mana whenua, or traditional authority, which covers some 80% of its lands and coasts. The mission statement of Ngāi Tahu: “Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri ā muri ake nei – for us and our children after us”, has always been more than a simple statement of social purpose to Sir Tipene. For him, being Ngāi Tahu “…is about having a collective soul. It means being bound together by kinship and culture for years to come…and your economics will flow from this vision.”

That vision and that culture are rooted in his southern sense of place. In Sir Tipene’s view, the huge cultural significance of land and sea coast is hollow without recognition of their associated economic significance. “If you lost your own territory, if you can’t put your stamp on your own mountains,” he says, “or if, as a people, you don’t have a base, or any real long-term assets, then you are going to be singing to phantoms.” That belief informed Ngāi Tahu’s pursuit of the orderly and systematic reclamation of the Māori Treaty rights through due process of law.

In the later 1980s, Sir Tipene played a key role in the Māori Treaty litigation in lands, forests and fisheries and he was the architect of the Treaty Fisheries settlements of 1989 and 1992. He became the founding Chairman  of both Te Ohu Kaimoana and the reconstituted Sealord Group Ltd. In 1994 he was appointed a Knight Bachelor in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Yet what the children of Ngāi Tahu will always remember is his leadership over a 35-year campaign culminating in his tribe’s Treaty negotiations and subsequent settlement of the 1990s. The Ngāi Tahu Treaty settlement of 1998 put an end to a seven-generation-long struggle for Ngāi Tahu and re-established the tribe as a central element of the southern economy. It enabled Ngāi Tahu to move out of grievance mode and begin to imagine a future which was economically and culturally positive. The Ngāi Tahu Treaty settlement of 1998 established customary rights in lands, fisheries and other natural resources and empowered the revitalisation of Ngāi Tahu culture and identity.

What makes Sir Tipene a hero of Christchurch and of New Zealand is the manner in which all of this was achieved. Whilst the long political and economic struggle of the 1980s and 1990s provided no shortage of robust public debate it was conducted with relatively little rancour and considerable mutuality of respect. The outcome was met with overwhelming public approval and support.

Sir Tipene’s leadership of Ngāi Tahu was very much shaped by his erudition and education background. He has a long association with the University of Canterbury, teaching post-graduate history and as Assistant Vice-Chancellor Māori. In 1992 Canterbury awarded him an honorary D.Litt. and he has subsequently been awarded an honorary D.Com. by both Lincoln and Victoria Universities and held a number of short-term academic appointments overseas. He has delivered a number of major scholarly public lectures in New Zealand and Australia and held significant academic fellowships.

An independent professional director of companies in New Zealand and Australia, he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute of Directors in 2001. He has served many major companies in both the state and private sectors and as a member of numerous boards in the not-for-profit sectors. He was for many years heavily involved in New Zealand’s heritage administration – the National Museum, Conservation Authority and the NZ Historic Places Trust. He remained a long-serving member of the NZ Geographic Board.

He is happiest, according to his family, either in his workshop or cruising on his boat. When he talks about his vision of the indigenous economies of the future, his language is filled with metaphor and allusions to the sea – his lifelong personal pre-occupation. According to Sir Tipene, if Māori are to achieve what almost no other indigenous culture around the world has achieved, an economy sustainable for future generations, they must forge their own way independent of the liberal capitalist model. “Although we sail the same ocean,” he says, “our voyaging requires different horizons and our own systems of navigation. Our horizons must be our own.”

For tribes to continue to exist, argues Sir Tipene, they must have a vision of what they want to be in future generations. From that vision, he says, the economic solutions will flow. That, he says, is the only way that the “tino rangatiratanga” of the Treaty can be realised.

By Sue Wood (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

Sue Wood is a long-time friend of Sir Tipene and Lady O’Regan. As a government relations advisor she has worked professionally with the leaders of Hauraki, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tahu iwi on the allocation of Māori fisheries assets and the Foreshore and Seabed issue. She was the first woman elected president of a major pollical party in New Zealand in 1982.

Privacy Preferences

By clicking "Accept All Cookies", you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.