Story: Canoe traditions

It was once believed that the ancestors of Māori came to New Zealand in a single ‘great fleet’ of seven canoes. We now know that many canoes made the perilous voyage from Polynesia. Through stories passed down the generations, tribal groups trace their origins to the captains and crew of over 40 legendary vessels, from the Kurahaupō at North Cape to the Uruao in the South Island. Rich in conflict and drama, and blending history and symbolism, these canoe traditions form a founding narrative for Māori New Zealanders.

Story by Rāwiri Taonui
Main image: Garden of seven stones, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

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Canoe traditions: fact or fiction?

There are many Māori traditions about the arrival of ancestors in waka (canoes), from a place called Hawaiki in East Polynesia. Some people believed these accounts were literally true. Others have seen them as poetic imaginings. The reality is likely to be somewhere in between. These traditions contain information about distantly remembered voyages, but have been enriched over time.

Canoes of the north

The major canoes of the northern people are:

  • Kurahaupō, which landed near North Cape
  • Ngātokimatawhaorua and Māmari, whose priests battled each other with powerful spells
  • Tinana and Te Māmaru, important to Te Rarawa and Ngāti Kahu
  • Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi, the most significant canoe for Ngāti Whātua people
  • Mataatua, captained by Puhi, Miru and Te Wahineiti.

Tainui and Te Arawa

There are many similarities between the Tainui and Te Arawa stories. Some people have suggested that the two canoes were actually the twin hulls of one boat which separated on arrival in New Zealand. Te Arawa made its final landfall at Maketū in Bay of Plenty. Tainui arrived at Kāwhia Harbour, between Auckland and New Plymouth.


A major canoe of the Bay of Plenty area is the Mataatua, captained by Toroa. His sister (or in some stories, his daughter) bravely rescued the boat as it began to drift. From her cry, ‘Me whakatāne au i ahau nei!’ (I must act like a man!), the settlement of Whakatāne got its name.

East Coast stories

The East Coast has stories of the ancestor Paikea, who came to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Two important canoes are the Horouta, which brought kūmara (sweet potato), and the Tākitimu, whose crew were the ancestors of Ngāti Kahungunu.


The Aotea canoe arrived near Kāwhia, but the crew then journeyed south before settling around Pātea, so named because that is where they threw down their burdens (pātea).

Southern canoes

There are many canoe legends associated with the South Island. In one, the Ārai-te-uru was caught in a storm and its cargo of sweet potatoes was washed ashore – they remain today as the massive Moeraki boulders. In another, the captain Rākaihautū sailed the Uruaokapuarangi to present-day Nelson. He then explored the South Island, shaping the mountains and digging out lakes with his stick.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 June 2023)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005