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Nine Tall Trees

Here at Co-Studio, we have a particular passion for cultivating a people-centric way of practicing architecture. We especially value collaborative work with clients, stakeholders and other colleagues, and love the learning that often comes through this.


Recently, we were fortunate to undertake some work for Tuahiwi kura. At the urging of the Tumuaki, Melanie Taite-Pitama, Dennis was compelled to improve his understanding of the area's history. His course of inquiry eventuated in him reading the documents detailing Ngāi Tahu's Tribunal settlement claim. These saw Ngāi Tahu in position whereby they were dispossessed of the majority of their land and associated mahinga kai. Dennis was inspired by the metaphor of the "nine tall trees" and also by the peaceful acceptance shown by Ngāi Tahu in the 25 years since the agreement was signed.


As well as being an accomplished architect, Dennis is a prolific amateur artist. Always keen to express himself through the medium of art and encourage others to remain lifelong learners, he created nine artworks: “tall” trees endemic to Te Waipounamu which represent the nine parts to Ngāi Tahu’s settlement claim. These artworks featured on our Christmas cards last year, and we are excited to announce that the originals will be available for purchase via auction with all profits going to Ngāi Tahu Charity: School Starter Packs.


Our Chosen Charity Ngāi Tahu: School Starter Packs

School Starter Packs are given to Whakapapa Ngāi Tahu Tamariki starting their school journey, prior to 5th birthday. 
The packs contains practical and taonga items (such as backpack, warm jacket, colouring pencils, pencil case, books, drink bottle, pounamu) to help ease financial pressure on whānau and offer an opportunity for young Ngāi Tahu to connect with their iwi.

The Auction

Each artwork was listed individually on Trade Me for Auction (who kindly waived all sucess fees) and closed on Thursday 9th May 6.30pm. 



The first in this series of Tall Trees, is the tōtara. A mighty podocarp forest tree which has amazing timber, prized for carving waka.  Due to its hardness and stability, early settlers favoured it for doors and windows in their houses. Sadly, areas like Banks Peninsula, where it used to be plentiful, have been clear felled so it is a rare timber these days.


The map shows the first deed: the 1844 Ōtākou Deed settled for £2,400

Find the Auction for this artwork here.



Tall Tree 2 is the magnificent rimu which plays an important role in our forest ecosystem and is, for example, tied intrinsically with the survival of the kākāpō. Its distinctive drooping foliage makes it easy to spot in the bush. To the architect, it’s red, heartwood timber was a delight seen in many buildings up until the 1980’s


The second deed I reference, is Kemp’s deed of 1848. I remember reading about this some years ago and was shocked at how much land swapped hands for such a small sum. By far the biggest of the deeds, affecting over half of Te Waipounamu and given for a minuscule settlement of only £2,000!  I’m not sure how that translates to 2024 money but I suspect it isn’t a great sum.

Find the Auction for this artwork here.



Tree 3 of 9 tall trees is the tallest of them all, the kahikatea. To me, this beautiful tree is a sign of strength in adversity as it grows huge in often boggy ground, having buttress roots at the base to stabilise it.  Known to the pakeha as white pine, it didn’t prove as useful useful to early settlers as the previous two trees as it rotted faster.


Contrasting with the tallest tree is the smallest land deed: the Port Cooper deed of 1849 for land which includes my home in Whakaraupō. The £200 settlement for this is at a higher value per acre, than the previous one but still seems incredibly cheap, no matter how you look at it.

Find the Auction for this artwork here.


Tawhai Rauriki (Mountain Beech)

Tall tree 4 of 9 tall trees is one I love seeing as it signals I’m near the mountains. The tawhai rauriki (mountain beech) grows extensively on the east side of the Alps and is a personal favourite (I’ve a few growing at home).


The fourth deed covers another huge area of what is stunning and largely pristine land. The Murihiku deed was settled for £2,600 and when formalised it meant 80% of Te Waipounamu was exchanged for £7,200.

Find the Auction for this artwork here.


Southern Rātā

Tree 5 of my 9 tall trees is the southern rātā. Tougher and more beautiful (in my eyes) than its North Island cousin the pohutukawa, the rātā flowers from around November through to January and, with the help of bees, makes a honey way better than the expensive mānuka. In the West Coast, the red splashes of its flowers can be seen for miles. 


I also remember the two remaining deeds on Banks Peninsula: the 1856 Akaroa deed (for £150. - yeah I know); and the 1857 Port Levy deed (for £300).


When you think about what happened to the trees on Banks Peninsula after this you might ask yourself why we criticise deforestation in the Amazon. The beautiful tōtara forests were felled or burned to non existence by 1920, resulting in erosion run off that is evident from space. I’m happy to know that there are great people reversing this devastation like Hugh Wilson, whose face adorns the largely unseen, west wall of our office.


You will also notice another chunk of the map changes here: the Nelson/Marlborough region (my birthplace included), where land deals remain in dispute…

Find the Auction for this artwork here.



Tall Tree 6 of 9 Tall Trees is flowering now and, like the rātā, it is a great source of nectar and honey. Besides the nectar, its bark was also used as an antiseptic bandage. The timber has an awesome, speckled grain which I haven’t seen used much but have always wanted to use somewhere special.


This deed of purchase was under governor Grey’s successor, Gore Brown. The North Canterbury deed of 1857 was settled for £500.

Find the Auction for this artwork here.


Tī Kōuka - Cabbage Tree

I’m not sure if these are trees or large grasses but for this Tall Tree I chose tī kōuka, the ‘cabbage tree’. I understood Kāi Tahu would plant these as route markers at key points along trails. Having grown a few of these, I know they transplant easily and are one of the toughest plants in the garden. We use the fallen leaves as wonderful fire lighters and I’m sure their fibres and leaves have been used in clothing, weaving and building. They also have spectacular white flower clusters that hit their peak around November and the bees and bellbirds go crazy!


The 1859 Kaikoura deed was settled for £300 and a small amount of ‘useless and worthless ’ (as described by the Crown’s appointed negotiator) land for reserves. When you compare that against the £10,000 plus 100,000 acres offered for the purchase you start to feel the massive disparity in expectations and power from each side.

Find the Auction for this artwork here.



Tree 8 grows in warmer and wetter parts of Te Waipounamu, especially on the West Coast. A stunning palm tree with upward facing fronds make it very distinctive and attractive in any setting.


Gold was discovered in the Buller Gorge in 1859, sparking the first of many NZ gold rushes. In the next, Arahura deed, The Crown agreed to buy the remaining West Coast land for £300 and set aside the Arahura River to enable Kāi Tahu access to its most precious physical asset, Pounamu. It took the Treaty settlement for the Crown to make good on the Pounamu agreement.

Find the Auction for this artwork here.



The ninth and final Tall Tree is the magnificent mataī, easily identifiable in the bush by its mottled bark. This mighty tree is often one of the largest of the large trees I have had the joy to see. Like all the NZ tall trees, none grow large on their own. They all support a large ecosystem of epiphytes, and fauna. Mataī was, and still is, a great source of hard wearing flooring timber and is widely seen in housing up until the mid 1960s. 


The final deed (but not the ninth tall tree in the claim) saw the complete sale of Te Waipounamu through the 1864 Rakiura deed for the comparatively generous sum of £6,000.

Find the Auction for this artwork here.

With this, it is worth remembering the ninth tree of the claim: mahinga kai. Gathering food is a basic necessity and core aspect of so much of Māori (or any culture). To deny it as The Crown clearly did, was inhuman on all levels. It took a Treaty Settlement to begin to return what is lifeblood and legal entitlement. I have much to learn but have a growing respect for the mana Whenua of this place I live.

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