Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki chair James Brown came out of early retirement to navigate treaty rights with his iwi

Self-taught builder James Brown focused on his tribal leadership role while strengthening his community to withstand the challenges of treaty negotiations. Now, his iwi Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki is busy building homes across Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland.

Words: Amokura Panoho  Photo: Tessa Chrisp


Ko Kohukohunui te maunga
Ko Wairoa te awa
Ko Tīkapa tō moana
Ko Tāmaki Makaurau te whenua
Ko Umupuia te papakāinga
Ko Te Whatatau me Te Raukohekohe ngā tūpuna
Ko Ngāti Tai me Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki ngā iwi
Ko Tainui te waka
Ko James Brown ahau

Kohukohunui is my mountain
Wairoa my river
Tīkapa my sea
Tāmaki Makaurau is my homeland
Umupuia is my home
Te Whatatau and Te Raukohekohe are my ancestors
Ngāi Tai and Ngā Tai ki
Tāmaki are my tribes
Tainui is my canoe
I am James Brown

James Brown is the chairperson and chief negotiator for Ngai Tai Ki Tāmaki, the kaumātua and growth advisor at careers consultancy The Ice Base, a builder, environmentalist and Māori tourism advisor.


Converting potential into impactful reality is what drives me — it’s why I came out of early retirement to work for my tribe, after selling a business in Australia when I was just 34.

As an iwi, many dilemmas concerning the legal decisions have affected our tribal authority. Thankfully, we have had the support of other iwi to help us turn around some of those decisions.

In the end, we have asserted our authority across our tribal landscape, which includes iconic places such as Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands. Getting the language right in our agreements — at the Crown level, whether it’s with Department of Conservation or with Auckland Council — about how we co-own and co-manage these assets, creates lessons we can share with other iwi.

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It has meant that in many strands of business that make up our tribal interests — the challenge in the evolution of employing our people, the peripheral domino effect of our brand, our language, our rituals, our customs our traditions — there is a momentum of those elements, not just for our tribe, but for Māori in general. We are demonstrating how to give effect to our treaty rights.


I didn’t have much of an education. I was considered dyslexic at school, and I kept trying to find ways to leave. But when I went to Papakura High School, a teacher, matua Hōne Sadler (Ngāpuhi), noticed my reo ability and challenged me to value it. I realized the benefits my background gave me. I was the only son in my family who had the opportunity to live among the old people living on our whenua at Maraetai. But I didn’t get to truly understand that value until much later.

I come from a background of being in the kitchen, behind the lawnmower, the paintbrush, the shovel, the spade and then putting on my diving glasses and my flippers to get the kai — that’s the training I had.

I also spent a lot of time working the land, the forests around our area, hunting and fishing, playing rugby for Counties. I essentially earnt a living from hard labour.

That mahi (work) also got me into the construction industry and, from there, I traveled between Aotearoa and Australia working on big projects such as Sky City, building my networks and project management skills along the way and learning how to read and write by the age of 32.

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I got involved in what was happening at an iwi level by default when there was a debt discrepancy with the building of the wharekai (dining room) at our marae Umupuia, and I used my networks within the construction industry to help us resolve the issue.


Before we got our settlement act in 2018, we developed our own tourism products, beginning in 2015 with the summit walk on Rangitoto, as well as multi-day walks over Rangitoto and Motutapu. This gave us the training and development opportunities for our young people and it was an innovative way to deliver our cultural stories, broadening visitor perceptions of Māori tourism within Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. It also gave us the confidence to explore commercial opportunities and when the pandemic hit, we diversified by getting involved with the One Billion Tree project at Motutapu Island.

We developed Kainga Ora’s largest new construction project, of 120 mixed-size units at Waterview (Homestar 6 specification, meaning they were built above current Building Code standards) in partnership with Waipareira Trust and Latham Construction. We were also involved with the Pukekohe KiwiBuild project of 93 houses and, in Hospital Road, Middlemore, development is starting on the civil works for 330 units. These should be completed by the end of 2022.

The Middlemore property development is one of the largest urban developments in Auckland. It is another partnership with Latham Construction and, this time, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. I love the fact it has our brand all over it.


My mother, Maora Okeroa (also known as Molly Brown), was the one who really roped me in, along with my many nannies of her generation. Through that association, I realized I knew quite a bit about our tribal history and connection to the land and moana (sea).

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From 2000, I decided to really get involved and it was challenging. Our people were so used to being in conflict among ourselves — and with our neighbouring iwi — that we had lost confidence in our ability to resolve our issues, so we could then represent our interests with the Crown and local government.

Being forthright got me a reputation, but it also proved successful in getting the attention we needed as an iwi; to be listened to as we had been steamrolled for generations. I put up my hand to say, kāti (enough), and then worked with our other mandated tribal representatives to build our capability and to be transparent while doing that.


The rohe of Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki is Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, extending to Hauraki/Coromandel and, in particular, the coastline, harbours and motu/islands of the Waitematā Harbour and Tīkapa Moana/Hauraki Gulf.

The settlement included the vesting of 16 sites of cultural significance in Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, $50,000 for cultural revitalization, financial and commercial redress of $12.7 million, including two commercial properties, one joint commercial property with the Marutūāhu Collective, four deferred selection properties, and one joint deferred selection property with Ngāti Tamaoho.

The Macleans College land purchase, in partnership with Hāpai, is a property co-investment with Ngāti Raukawa, Hauraki iwi and Taranaki-associated iwi.

Ngāi Tai’s total land footprint — either controlled or owned — is now 181.5 hectares, up from 168.5 hectares in 2020.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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