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Canoe traditions

by  Rāwiri Taonui

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 more than 40 legendary vessels, from Kurahaupō at North Cape to 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.

The meaning of canoe traditions

The canoe (waka in Māori) traditions or stories describe the arrival in New Zealand of Māori ancestors from a place most often called Hawaiki. They also refer to the construction of canoes, conflicts before departure, voyaging at sea, landing, inland and coastal exploration, and the establishment of settlements in new regions.

Readers of published traditions need to be aware that such accounts are often influenced by the Great Fleet (or Grand Settlement) theory. According to this theory, the Polynesian explorer Kupe first discovered New Zealand from Tahiti in 925 CE. Kupe was followed by another explorer, Toi, in 1150; after this, in 1350, a fleet of seven canoes sailed from Tahiti and Rarotonga, bringing the ancestors of Māori to New Zealand. In the 1960s and 1970s research by the historians David Simmons and Keith Sorrenson proved that this idea was largely false. Today, as a result of further research including radiocarbon dating, it is generally accepted that New Zealand was settled by people from East Polynesia, who set off in different canoes at different times, with the first canoes arriving some time in the 1200s.

The myth spreaders

The Great Fleet theory was the result of a collaboration between the 19th-century ethnologist S. Percy Smith and the Māori scholar Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury. Smith obtained details about places in Rarotonga and Tahiti during a visit in 1897, while Jury provided information about Māori canoes in New Zealand. Smith then ‘cut and pasted’ his material, combining several oral traditions into new ones. Their joint work was published in two books, in which Jury and Smith falsely attributed much of their information to two 19th-century tohunga, Moihi Te Mātorohanga and Nēpia Pōhūhū.

History or mystery: interpreting traditions

The meaning of canoe traditions remains a matter of debate. Early writers such as Percy Smith tended to treat them all as historical accounts, on the assumption that the word ‘waka’ invariably referred to human canoe arrivals from foreign shores. However, canoe traditions cannot always be treated so literally, because many contain much that is symbolic. Some ancestors are said to have been nine feet (2.7 m) tall, while others are said to have flown, swum or travelled on taniwha (sea monsters) to New Zealand. The Aoaonui is a poetic image of a canoe transporting newborn infants into the world, and Rangikēkero and Rangitōtohu are also metaphorical vessels that convey the souls of the dead to their final rest in Te Ao Wairua (the spirit world).

In contrast, some writers including Margaret Orbell have taken the view that all canoe traditions are religious-poetic narratives composed simply for reasons of tribal identity. However, this ignores the evidence that they represent much that seems to be historical, such as place names and genealogical coincidences with Polynesian accounts. Historian James Belich has criticised both of these approaches, arguing that the while the first displayed an excessive tendency to see myth as history, the second tended to see myth too much as mystery. A better conclusion is that canoe traditions contain both symbolic and historical elements.

Migrations within New Zealand

The anthropologist David Simmons has suggested that many of the stories might actually describe periods of later migration by canoe around New Zealand’s coastline. Others, including Roger Duff and Janet Davidson, have suggested that original canoe traditions were transported and relocated several times as people moved from island to island in the Pacific. The oral accounts might therefore contain information about several voyages, including distantly remembered journeys in Polynesia before the colonisation of New Zealand, arrivals in New Zealand from the tropical Pacific, and subsequent migrations within New Zealand waters. This might explain the mix of history and symbolism in the accounts.

Canoe traditions and identity

In later years, canoe traditions became important to the identity of Māori. Whakapapa (genealogical links) back to the crew of founding canoes served to establish the origins of tribes, and defined relationships with other tribes. For example, a number of tribes trace their origin to the Tainui canoe, while others such as Te Arawa take their name from a founding canoe. When identifying themselves on a marae, people mention their waka first and foremost.

So canoe traditions do not only explain origins. They also express authority and identity, and define tribal boundaries and relationships. They merge poetry and politics, history and myth, fact and legend.

Canoes of the northern tide


Ngāti Kurī of Muriwhenua say that Pōhurihanga was the captain of Kurahaupō, and that it landed at Takapaukura (Tom Bowling Bay) near North Cape. Pōhurihanga married Maieke and their children settled Kapowairua, Pārengarenga Harbour, and Murimotu.

Ngātokimatawhaorua and Māmari

After the Polynesian explorer Kupe returned to Hawaiki his canoe, Matawhaorua, was re-adzed and renamed Ngātokimatawhaorua (ngā toki – the adzes) by its new captain, Nukutawhiti. Ngātokimatawhaorua, accompanied by Māmari under Ruanui, returned to the Hokianga, where the two captains built whare wānanga (houses of learning). Ruanui began consecrating his building first, without waiting for Nukutawhiti. A metaphysical battle followed, and Ruanui’s tohunga (priests) chanted incantations, compelling a huge whale to beach itself as a sacrifice. Nukutawhiti’s tohunga performed opposing incantations, attempting to push the whale back out to sea. Ruanui’s prayers were finally exhausted and the crew of Māmari were forced to leave the Hokianga area. Māmari made landings at Ōmāmari and Whāngāpē Harbour, where Ruanui’s descendants live today. The battle of the priests is remembered in the name Hokianga-whakapau-karakia (Hokianga where incantations were exhausted). Ngātokimatawhaorua and Māmari are important canoes for the tribes of Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri.

Tinana and Te Māmaru

The Tinana canoe, later renamed Te Māmaru, is particularly important for the Muriwhenua tribes of Te Rarawa and Ngāti Kahu. Tinana, captained by Tūmoana, landed at Tauroa Point near present-day Ahipara. The canoe later returned to Hawaiki, where Tūmoana’s nephew, Te Parata, renamed it Te Māmaru. It was then brought back to Muriwhenua, its crew first sighting land at Pūwheke Mountain on Karikari Peninsula before sailing around Rangiāwhiao and Whatuwhiwhi to make landfall at Te Ikateretere, near the mouth of the Taipā River. Te Parata married Kahutianui-a-te-rangi, the founding ancestor of Ngāti Kahu.


Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi (Māhuhu) is the most important canoe for the Ngāti Whātua tribes occupying the Kaipara region between Hokianga Harbour and Tāmaki (Auckland). According to tradition Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi came from Waerota, Waeroti and Mata-te-rā after a feud over food resources. The canoe's cargo included several new types of food, including uwhi (yam), kūmara (sweet potato) and taro, another starchy tuber. Māhuhu first reached land on the eastern seaboard of Northland, where it explored the coast between Whangaroa, Tākou and Whangaruru. Some accounts say it then explored Bay of Plenty and East Coast before returning north to Pārengarenga. From here it rounded North Cape and sailed down the west coast of Northland.

Te Roroa people of the Waipoua forest say Māhuhu was captained by Whakatau and landed at Kawerua on the west coast. Here Whakatau's son, Rongomai, married a local woman called Takarita. Their , Te Pukenui-o-Rongo, overlooked the landing place of Māhuhu.

Another account according to Te Uri-o-Hau and Te Taoū (from Ngāti Whātua of Helensville and Auckland) is that Rongomai was the captain of Māhuhu, and the canoe landed on Tāporapora, an island that once stood inside the Kaipara Heads. Some time after his arrival at Tāporapora, Rongomai was drowned in a fishing accident. His remains were partly eaten by araara (trevally) and tāmure (snapper) before being pounded by the waves onto the rocks near Waikāretu. To this day the area is remembered as Te Ākitanga-o-Rongomai (the beating of Rongomai). Some accounts say that Māhuhu returned to the north and settled at Rangaunu Harbour where it was interred in a creek, Te Waipopo-o-Māhuhu.


The Mataatua canoe of the north has a strong association with the traditions of Bay of Plenty. Descendants from these two regions held a reunion in 1986. Some northern accounts say Mataatua first made landfall in Bay of Plenty before sailing north. One account says that after leaving Bay of Plenty it rounded Cape Rēinga and then sailed southward along the west coast and into Hokianga Harbour. From there it was hauled overland to Kerikeri before sailing to Tākou Bay. Others claim the canoe was carried across the Auckland isthmus before sailing northward along the coast to the Hokianga. The earliest Ngāpuhi account says that Mataatua landed in the north first and went to Bay of Plenty some time later. Northern accounts name Puhi, Te Wahineiti and Miru as the leaders on the Mataatua. Miru is also credited with circumnavigating the North Island in the canoe.

Other northern canoes

Tākitimu, Riukākara, Waipapa, Ruakaramea

Muriwhenua people have a tradition that the Tākitimu canoe, captained by Tamatea, landed at Te Awanui, near Kaitāia. Stories from the Kaipara region say that Tākitimu also landed there, and a number of streams are named after crew members including Tamatea, Kahukuranui and Ruawharo. Riukākara, which was captained by Pāoa, landed at Mangonui, as did Ruakaramea, captained by Moehuri and his son Tukiato. Waipapa was captained by Kaiwhetu and Wairere, and landed on the Karikari Peninsula.

Tūnui-ā-rangi, Moekākara, Te Wakatūwhenua

Tūnui-ā-rangi is credited with bringing the Ngāi Tāhuhu people to New Zealand, and is said to have first landed at Motu Kōkako (Hole in the Rock) in the Bay of Islands. From there it went south along the coast to Ngunguru and then to Whangārei. Ngāi Tāhuhu are said to have spread out and inhabited all the land from Tāmaki (Auckland) to Cape Brett.

There are two stories about Moekākara. One is that it landed at Kawau Island near Mahurangi, bringing the ancestors of Te Kawerau to the district. Another is that the captain was Manaia and that it landed beneath Rākaumangamanga, near Motu Kōkako; in this way Ngāti Manaia came to occupy the lands between Cape Brett and Whangārei. A third account says that Manaia was the captain of Ruakaramea.

Te Wakatūwhenua is a canoe said to have landed at Cape Rodney (Te Wakatūwhenua), its crew suffering a mysterious illness; this is sometimes thought to have been leprosy.

Te Tō Waka – the canoe portage

A little over 200 metres of land separates the waters of the Tāmaki River and Manukau Harbour at Te Tō Waka in Auckland. This was the most important canoe portage in pre-European times, as Manukau Harbour gave canoes access to the west coast. Canoes could sail to Waiuku where, after crossing another portage, they could enter the Waikato River and access the interior of New Zealand. Canoes crossing in the opposite direction could paddle down the Tāmaki River to the Waitematā, and then coast north toward Whangārei or east towards the Coromandel Peninsula. Another option was to paddle to Riverhead on the Waitematā, then use another portage to access Kaipara Harbour. From here they could travel along the northern Wairoa River to the Hokianga, the Bay of Islands or Whangārei. The Matawhaourua, or Matahourua, of Kupe, the Aotea, Tainui, Mataatua and Tokomaru are all said to have been hauled across Te Tō Waka.

Canoes of Bay of Plenty

Mataatua, Te Aratāwhao and Hīnakipākau-o-te-rupe

As well as being linked to Ngāpuhi in the north, Mataatua is said to have landed in Bay of Plenty. According to the traditions two visitors, Hoaki and Taukata, arrived on Hīnakipākau-o-te-rupe from Hawaiki, bringing kao (dried kūmara, or sweet potato) which they gave to Toi, one of the first great Polynesian explorers. Toi sent the canoe Te Aratāwhao to Hawaiki captained by Tama-ki-hikurangi, charging him with retrieving more kūmara. Tama stayed on in Hawaiki and sent the kūmara back on Mataatua, captained by Toroa with his brother Puhi, his sister Muriwai, and his daughter Wairaka. The canoe arrived at Whakatāne, which was named after an incident when Mataatua came adrift. Wairaka saved the vessel, uttering the words, ‘Me whakatāne au i ahau nei!’ (I must act like a man!). In other accounts, it was Muriwai who saved the boat.

The descendants of the crew of Mataatua settled the region. The descendants of Wairaka, Awanuiarangi and Tūhoe-pōtiki became the ancestors of Ngāti Awa and Ngāi Tūhoe. Muriwai became an important ancestor for Whakatōhea. According to traditions, the brothers Toroa and Puhi fought over food resources, and Puhi took the canoe north to Tākou Bay in the northern Bay of Islands, where he became an important ancestor for Ngāpuhi.

The ancestors Tīwakawaka and Māku

Te Aratauwhāiti, captained by Tīwakawaka, was an early migration canoe that made landfall at Whakatāne. Those remembered in the crew are Tīwakawaka's wife, Haumianui, his brothers Toikairākau and Hīrawe, and the crew members Māku, Areiawa, Turuturu, Tokamauku and Hīmoki, each of whom had rocks named after them at the mouth of the Whakatāne River. The migrants built a named Kaputerangi above the present-day Whakatāne township. Other accounts say that Māku arrived on another canoe, either before or after Tīwakawaka.

Another seven canoes

There are traditions about the arrival of seven other canoes in Bay of Plenty:

  • Tākitimu was captained by Tamatea, great-grandfather of Ranginui, the founding ancestor of Ngāti Ranginui in Tauranga.
  • Te Paepae-ki-Rarotonga, under its captain Waitaha-ariki-kore, is said to have landed near Matatā.
  • Te Rangimātoru, under Hape-ki-tū-mātangi-o-te-rangi, which landed at Ōhiwa, is the ancestral canoe of the old tribes Te Hapū-oneone and Ngāi Tūranga.
  • Arautauta was sailed by Tarawa – accompanied by two taniwha (sea creatures) – and landed at Waiōtahe Beach, between Ōpōtiki-mai-tawhiti and Ōhiwa Harbour. On arrival, Tarawa placed the creatures in the spring, Ōpōtiki-mai-tawhiti, and then travelled inland to the Mōtū River, where he met and married Manawa-ki-aitu. Their descendants became part of Te Whakatōhea.
  • Ōtūrereao, captained by Tairongo, landed at Ōhiwa. Another account has it that Taikehu was the captain.
  • Tauira, with Mōtataumaitawhiti as captain, landed at Te Kaha in eastern Bay of Plenty. From this canoe came the ancestors of Panenehu and Te Whānau-a-Apanui.
  • Tūwhenua, captained by Tamatea-mai-tawhiti, is another Bay of Plenty canoe.


Tāwhirirangi was the canoe of Ngāhue, who is said to have landed in Bay of Plenty and then explored much of New Zealand. According to the tradition, Ngāhue discovered greenstone and the moa in the South Island and returned to Hawaiki with greenstone adzes, which were used to construct several other well-known canoes.

Te Arawa and Tainui

Te Arawa

Te Arawa and its crew left Hawaiki after a conflict over food resources which pitted Houmaitawhiti and his sons Tamatekapua and Whakatūria against the chiefs Toi and Uenuku. When Whakatūria was killed, Tamatekapua departed on Te Arawa, having kidnapped Ngātoroirangi (Ngātoro) from the Tainui canoe to act as his navigator. He also abducted Whakaotirangi, the wife of Ruaeo, a prominent man of the village. While at sea Tamatekapua also tried to seduce Ngātoro’s wife. Ngātoro threatened to destroy the canoe in Te Korokoro-o-te-Parata (the whirlpool of Te Parata) but relented at the crew’s pleading. According to some accounts the canoe was saved by a mystical shark (arawa), for which the canoe was named.

When the canoe arrived at Whangaparāoa near East Cape, a chief named Taininihi, mistaking the flowers of the rātā or pōhutukawa tree on the shore for kura (red feathers), threw away his own red feather head-dress. Te Arawa explored the Bay of Plenty, Coromandel Peninsula and Tāmaki (Auckland) areas before making its final landfall at Maketū Harbour in Bay of Plenty.

Several ancestors from the Arawa canoe made long inland journeys. For example, Īhenga and Kahumatamomoe explored the Rotorua lakes district, the Waikato River, Whāingaroa (Raglan Harbour), Manukau and Kaipara harbours; they also looked at the Bay of Islands before returning to Maketū along the coast. Ngātoro and another ancestor, Tia, voyaged inland to Lake Taupō. Tia climbed Tītīraupenga in the Pureora Forest, while Ngātoroirangi climbed Mount Tongariro, where he nearly froze to death. He called for fire from Hawaiki, which was implanted in several locations between Whakaari (White Island) and Tongariro.

The descendants of Tama’s contemporary chiefs Hei, Tapuika and Waitaha occupied the country around Maketū. The offspring of Tama’s descendant Rangitihi occupied the Rotorua lake area. Ngātoro's progeny remained in the Taupō district and were eventually dominated by Ngāti Tūwharetoa.


The Tainui canoe, under the command of Hoturoa, landed at Whangaparāoa about the same time as Te Arawa. A whale was found stranded on the beach and the place was named Whangaparāoa (whale bay). The people of both canoes claimed ownership of the whale, whose flesh, bones and teeth were valuable for food, ornaments, tools and weapons. Various accounts say that one or both crews scorched flax over a fire to make their rope appear older, in order to prove that it had been tied to the whale first.

From Whangaparāoa Tainui sailed along the coast to Tōrere, Tauranga, the Coromandel and Tāmaki (Auckland). Different crew members settled at each place they visited. They landed at Te Haukapua (Torpedo Bay) near North Head in Tāmaki before going up the Tāmaki River to Ōtāhuhu, where they carried the canoe across Te Tō Waka into Manukau Harbour. Tainui sailed out through the Manukau Heads into the western sea and went south along the coast. Some of the crew disembarked near Whāingaroa and others at Mōkau before the canoe was interred at Te Ahurei in Kāwhia Harbour. Two upright stones mark its resting place.

Some accounts say that the priest Rakataura was left in Hawaiki and that he came to New Zealand on a taniwha (sea creature); others say that he walked under the ground. Whatever the case, there appear to have been several disputes between Rakataura and the captain, Hoturoa. One tradition says that Hoturoa resented Rakataura because he revealed that Hoturoa’s wife, Mārama, had had an affair with a commoner. Another says that Hoturoa tried to prevent his daughter, Kahurere, marrying Rakataura. Yet another account says that Rakataura’s son, Kōwhitinui, was killed and buried in the wooden chips of the canoe when it was being constructed.

Ngā Māhanga-a-Tuamatua

The canoe Ngā Māhanga-a-Tuamatua (the twins of Tuamatua) is sometimes considered to be an ancient reference to both Tainui and Te Arawa. The scholar Apirana Ngata suggested that the two canoes were in fact a double vessel, with one hull under the control of the captain Hoturoa and the other under Tamatekapua. Ngata thought that perhaps the boat was separated into two single-hulled canoes around the time it arrived in New Zealand. This idea is supported by a number of overlaps in the traditions. Tuamatua is a common ancestor of both Tamatekapua and Hoturoa. The priest Ngātoroirangi appears on both canoes, as does Whakaotirangi and her basket of kūmara. Te Arawa refer to her kūmara basket as ‘te kete-rokiroki-a-Whakaotirangi’ (the secure basket of Whakaotirangi). Tainui speak of ‘te kete-rukuruku-a-Whakaotirangi’ (the small basket of Whakaotirangi). The accounts of the whale at Whangaparāoa and the discarding of the red feathers are identical. The people of each canoe claim the honour of putting the birds Mumuhou and Tākeretou ashore at Rēpanga (Cuvier Island), and they share almost identical canoe-launching chants.

Tōtara-i-kāria and Aotearoa

The Tōtara-i-kāria canoe is said to have been taken by the priest Ngātoroirangi back to Hawaiki, where he fought a battle at Ihumotomotokia and Whatatiri against the chief Manaia. After defeating Manaia, he returned to his on Mōtītī Island in Bay of Plenty. However, the survivors of Manaia's tribe soon arrived in a fleet of canoes to seek revenge. Ngātoro chanted incantations, whipping up a storm that destroyed them. Aotearoa, captained by Mokotōrea, is an early canoe said to have landed in Aotea Harbour before Tainui.

Canoes of the East Coast

Nuku-tai-memeha, Nukutere and Paikea

For Ngāti Porou, the Nuku-tai-memeha of Māui is the foundation canoe. According to tradition, it lies upturned in stone on Hikurangi mountain.

Of the major East Coast ancestors, Whironui (Whiro) and the Nukutere canoe were the first to arrive. Whiro (known as Hilo in Hawaii, Hiro in Tahiti and ‘Iro in Rarotonga), is the most widely known navigating figure in East Polynesian oral tradition. His wife was Araiara. Their daughter, Huturangi, married the ancestor Paikea, who is said to have arrived from Hawaiki on the back of a whale. The Paikea traditions say that when the Hawaiki chief Uenuku was dressing his sons’ hair in preparation for the launching of a new canoe, he used a special comb for Kahutiaterangi (Paikea), but he asked Ruatapu to provide his own comb because he was from an inferior marriage. An infuriated Ruatapu decided to get even with his half-brothers and bored a hole in their canoe, which he covered with a small plug. When he and his brothers had paddled the canoe out to sea beyond sight of land, Ruatapu pulled the plug from the hole and sank the canoe. All the brothers were drowned except Paikea (Kahutiaterangi).

Paikea chanted prayers, calling upon the guardians of the sea to assist him. A taniwha (sea god) in the form of a whale was sent to his aid and carried him to land at Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island). From here he went on to Whakatāne, and eventually to Whāngārā on the East Coast. Paikea married Huturangi, the daughter of Whironui, and their descendants became the founders of Ngāti Porou. A petrified rock that stands off the beach at Whāngārā is said to be Paikea’s whale.


The Horouta canoe belonged to Toi, the great Polynesian explorer. One day Kahukura, a visitor from Hawaiki, arrived with some dried kūmara (sweet potato), which the locals had never eaten before. Toi gave the canoe to Kahukura to go and obtain more kūmara in Hawaiki. After retrieving the vegetables, Kahukura sent them back on Horouta, which was commanded by Pāoa (or Pāwa).

The canoe made landfall at Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island), where a woman named Kanawa went ashore and brought some aruhe (fern root) aboard. Mixing the kūmara with the aruhe, a common food, was considered an offence and Kanawa was thrown overboard off the coast from Whakatāne or Ōhiwa Harbour, but not before the bow (haumi) of Horouta was damaged when the canoe struck a reef. The crew hauled it onto the shore, and Pāoa and a party went in search of suitable timber for a repair. Awapaka and another party set out to catch birds as food for the workmen repairing the vessel. Rangitūroua, the priest, and others remained with Horouta.

Pāoa found a suitable tree on a mountain that was given the name Maunga Haumi. Traditions say that because the streams were too small to float his timber to the sea, Pāoa increased their volume by urinating into them, thus forming the Waiōeka, Waikohu, Waipāoa and Mōtū rivers. The canoe was repaired and sailed around East Cape to Tūranganui (Gisborne), while Awapaka and Pāoa walked there. Another crew member, a woman named Hinekauirangi, made an even longer overland journey from Ōhiwa to the Tapuwaeroa Stream and then south to Tūranganui. The descendants from Horouta became Ngāti Ruapani, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Te Aitanga a Hauiti.


The Tākitimu canoe is known in several regions. Northern East Coast accounts say that Tākitimu left Hawaiki after a dispute between the people of the chief Uenuku and those of Ruawharo and Tūpai. It is said that Ruawharo and his younger brother Tūpai then took Tākitimu from their rivals and came to New Zealand with Ruawharo as both commander and tohunga. The canoe landed at Whanga-o-Kena, a small islet off East Cape, before going on to Nukutaurua on Māhia Peninsula, where the crew dispersed. Ruawharo stayed at Māhia, Puhiariki went to Muriwhenua, and others went to Tauranga.

Southern East Coast traditions say that Tākitimu left Hawaiki because of a quarrel over gardens named Tawarunga and Tawararo, and that the canoe was built at a place named Whāngārā. The commander was Tamatea-arikinui and the canoe landed at Tauranga, where Tamatea disembarked. Others then took it to the East Coast and left settlers at several places, including the Waiapu River, Ūawa (Tolaga Bay), Tūranganui (Gisborne), Nukutaurua (Māhia), Te Wairoa, the Mōhaka River and Pōrangahau. Tamatea later travelled overland to Māhia and Tūranganui, naming places as he went.

Whereas Northland and Tauranga traditions hold that there was one Tamatea, traditions from Ngāti Kahungunu and the lower East Coast today say that Tamatea-arikinui had a grandson who became a famous explorer and was known by the names Tamatea-pōkai-whenua and Tamatea-pōkai-moana (Tamatea who explored the land, and Tamatea who explored the ocean). While living at Kaitāia, Tamatea-pōkai-moana had a son, Kahungunu, who became the founder of Ngāti Kahungunu.

Canoes of the west coast and lower North Island

Tokomaru and Tahatuna

The earliest Taranaki canoe tradition says that conflict arose in Hawaiki when a party of spear-makers, led by Tūpenu and employed by the chief Manaia, molested Manaia’s wife, Rongotiki. Manaia’s people attacked and killed the workmen. Retribution followed, during which several of Manaia’s people were killed. Manaia took the Tokomaru canoe, with Rākeiora as his navigator, and left. The canoe arrived off the North Island’s east coast, sailed northward past North Cape or was carried across the Te Tō Waka portage at Auckland, and then went south to Taranaki, landing at Tongapōrutu.

A second Taranaki account says that Manaia commanded a vessel named Tahatuna and that Whata was the commander or builder of Tokomaru. In this account, Rākeiora and Tama-ariki were the navigators, and the canoe landed at the Mōhakatino River. Tama-ariki is the ancestor from whom the Ngāti Tama people take their name. Rākeiora was deified after his death as a god of the kūmara (sweet potato).


The Taranaki tribes say that Te Moungaroa was the captain of Kurahaupō and that the canoe was wrecked in Hawaiki, or on Rangitāhua, an island in the middle of the sea, and that the crew were brought to Aotearoa on the Mataatua or Aotea canoes. The Rangitāne tribe of the Manawatū, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay regions say that Whātonga was the captain of this canoe and that it was wrecked at Māhia Peninsula. Ngāti Apa of the Rangitīkei River agree that the canoe was wrecked at Māhia, but say that the captain was Ruatea. Whātonga is known for a longer inland journey, exploring the region from Māhia to Wellington, across Cook Strait to the top of the South Island, and then up the west coast of the North Island as far as the Rangitīkei River. This canoe is also known in Northland.

Aotea and Te Rīrino

The Aotea left Hawaiki after a dispute between its captain, Turi, and a chief, Uenuku. Uenuku took offence at an offering from Turi and killed Turi's son Pōtikirōroa. In the reprisals which followed, Turi killed Uenuku's son Awepōtiki, cooked his heart and placed it in another offering to Uenuku, who unwittingly ate it. When he realised this, Uenuku assembled a large force against Turi. Turi procured Aotea from his father-in-law, Toto, and sailed forth accompanied by another canoe, Te Rīrino, which was lost in the Tasman Sea. Aotea landed in a small bay called Hawaiki-iti in Aotea Harbour, just north of Kāwhia.

Leaving the canoe behind, the crew journeyed south on foot, naming nearly every river and stream they crossed after some incident connected with Turi. Turi's party finally reached and settled the area around the Pātea River, so named because it was where his people threw down their burdens (pātea). Rongorongo, Turi’s wife, planted kūmara (sweet potato) there. His daughter, Tāneroroa, married Uenuki-puanaki and their descendants settled on the northern side of the Pātea River, where they became Ngāti Ruanui. The descendants of Turi’s son, Tūranga-i-mua, settled on the southern banks of the Pātea River and southward to Waitōtara and the Whanganui River, where they became part of the Ngā Rauru tribe. One famous phrase associated with this canoe is ‘E kore e ngaro te kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea’ (I will never be lost, for I am the seed that was sown at Rangiātea). Many people believe this refers to the island of Rangiātea, near Tahiti.

Kahutara, Taikōria and Ōkoki

According to one Taranaki account, some of the earliest inhabitants of New Zealand landed at Ngāmotu near New Plymouth on three canoes, KahutaraTaikōria and Ōkoki, which were commanded by Maruiwi, Ruatāmore and Taitāwaro respectively. Three other chiefs on these canoes are also remembered: Pohokura (a younger brother of Taitāwaro), Pananehu and Tāmaki. The descendants of the three crews were later known as Te Tini-o-Maruiwi, Te Tini-o-Ruatāmore, Te Tini-o-Taitāwaro, Te Tini-o-Pananehu, Koaupari and Te Wīwini.

Pangatoru, Motumotuahi, Te Rangiuamutu, Te Wakaringaringa and Te Kōhatuwhenua

The traditions of the Taranaki tribes of Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru name at least five other ancestral leaders, and the canoes they captained. They are:

  • Rakeiwānangaora of Pangatoru
  • Puatautahi of Motumotuahi
  • Tamatearokai of Te Rangiuamutu (this canoe is sometimes called Tairea)
  • Māwakeroa of Te Wakaringaringa
  • Taikehu of Te Kōhatuwhenua.

Canoes of the South Island

Mānuka and Ārai-te-uru

The Mānuka canoe set out for Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland, and successfully returned with a cargo of kūmara (sweet potato). Unfortunately, the tubers failed to germinate because of the cold in the South Island.

It is said that Roko, or Rongo-i-tua, aware of the frailties of the kūmara, then set forth from Hawaiki on the Ārai-te-uru with new varieties of the vegetable. However, this canoe was caught in a fierce storm during which several of the crew were washed overboard. The canoe was hit by four large waves which now stand as hills in the Pakihiwitahi Range in North Otago. These waves pushed some of the kūmara overboard at Kaihīnaki and Te Whatapāraerae, where they became petrified on the beach as the huge rounded rocks now known as the Moeraki Boulders. Ārai-te-uru was wrecked a little further south at Matakaea (Shag Point), where it stands as a reef.


Uruaokapuarangi (Uruao), captained by Rākaihautū, who was accompanied by his wife Waiariki-o-āio and their son Rakihouia, landed at Whakatū (Nelson). Rākaihautū and several of the crew left the canoe and journeyed south through the interior of the South Island. As he proceeded, Rākaihautū created the major South Island lakes (including Rotoiti and Rotoroa) with a kō (digging stick) named Tūwhakarōria. Other lakes he dug out were Pūkaki, Ōhau and Tekapo in South Canterbury, Wānaka and Hāwea in Otago, and Wakatipu and Te Anāu further south. After reaching the ocean at Te Ara-a-Kiwa (Foveaux Strait), Rākaihautū travelled northward along the eastern coastline, exploring the coastal plains.

Meanwhile his son Rakihouia had taken Uruao and sailed south along the east coast of the South Island, naming several places along the way. Te Whatakai-o-Rakihouia (the food storehouse of Rakihouia) was the name given to the cliffs at Kaikōura. The long stretch of the Canterbury coastline was called Kā Poupou-o-Rakihouia (the posts of Rakihouia), after the posts he put up at several river mouths, signifying ownership of the eel fisheries there. Rakihouia was then reunited with Rākaihautū and the group made its way to Horomaka (Banks Peninsula), where Rākaihautū thrust his digging stick into a hill (Pūhai), renaming it Tuhirangi. The Canterbury plains became the homeland of their descendants, the Waitaha people. The plains were named Kā Pākihiwhakatekateka-a-Waitaha (the seedbed of Waitaha).

Tākitimu and Kāraerae

The Tākitimu canoe is also known in the South Island, where Tamatea is said to have explored the West Coast. It was wrecked at Te Waewae Bay on the southernmost shores of the South Island, and today it is said to be transfixed as the Tākitimu mountain range. One account is that after Tākitimu was wrecked, Tamatea built another canoe, Kāraerae, in which he sailed back to the North Island.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 February 2005