The East Coast region is home to the related tribes of Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngāi Tāmanuhiri (previously known as Ngāi Tahupō). Ngāti Porou, the largest of these tribes, inhabits the area between Pōtikirua in the north and Te Toka–a-Taiau (a rock that once stood in the mouth of the Tūranganui River, in present-day Gisborne) in the south, covering an area of about 4,000 square kilometres. The tribe derives its name from their ancestor Porourangi. Among his descendants were many great warriors who established the heart of the tribe’s territory in the Waiapu valley.
Occupying the district south of Ngāti Porou, in the area now called Poverty Bay, are Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngai Tamanuhiri.
Several waka (canoes) made landfall in the region, the best-known being Tākitimu, Horouta and Nukutaimemeha.
The most ancient waka associated with the region is Nukutaimemeha – the vessel that the demigod Māui used to fish up the North Island. Oral tradition holds that Nukutaimemeha rests petrified on Hikurangi mountain.
Tākitimu was a sacred waka captained on its journey from Hawaiki (the legendary homeland of Māori) by Tamatea Arikinui, high chief and tohunga, and carried a number of tohunga. After its arrival in Aotearoa (New Zealand) it made many trips, including along the East Coast.
The Horouta waka, captained by Pāoa, is celebrated for bringing the first kūmara (sweet potato) tubers to the region. The vessel’s haumi (wooden piece used to lengthen a waka) was damaged at Ōhiwa, in Bay of Plenty, causing the crew to explore the hinterland for a replacement. They visited various locations along the East Coast, naming features as they went, until the repaired waka beached at Tūranga (now Gisborne).
Several stories have been handed down as to why Tūranganui-a-Kiwa was so named. One has it that a canoe in which Kiwa’s son went fishing was blown out to sea. Each day Kiwa stood on the beach gazing out to sea anxiously awaiting the return of his son, and so the spot became known as Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa (the long waiting place of Kiwa). In another story, Kiwa halted at the river mouth after he had set out on foot from Māhia to explore the land to the north. Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa in that sense means the stopping place of Kiwa.
Some traditions acknowledge Kiwa as the first person to set foot on the land. Thereafter the area became known as Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (the long waiting place of Kiwa). Horouta eventually broke up near Muriwai, south of Gisborne, and was submerged in nearby Te Wherowhero Lagoon.
Pāoa is also associated with a very famous whare wānanga (school of learning) in Wairarapa, where he and Rongokako were students. Pāoa was a master navigator, while Rongokako was capable of giant strides. The two learned of beautiful Muriwhenua, who lived in Hauraki (near present-day Thames), and agreed the first to reach her would claim her for his wife. Pāoa set off in his waka while Rongokako travelled along the coastline. Rongokako stepped from bay to bay, at each place leaving his footprints, which can be seen today – one at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay, another at Whangawehi at Māhia, and another at Whāngārā. Near present-day Te Puia township Pāoa set a trap (Tāwhiti-a-Pāoa), but Rongakako strode over it to Reporua. He next stepped to Horoera and across to Matakaoa Point, then on into the Bay of Plenty and up to Hauraki, where he arrived first and claimed Muriwhenua.
Eight generations after Pāoa and Kiwa, their descendant Ruapani was the paramount chief of the Tūranga tribes. Ruapani had three wives who between them bore 25 children, including sets of twins and triplets. He had a great pā, known as Popoia, on the western bank of the Waipāoa River at Waituhi. Among those who could claim descent from him were East Coast chief Te Kani-a-Takirau, the Te Heuheu dynasty of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti leader Hēnare Tomoana, war leader and prophet Te Kooti, members of Parliament Wī Pere, Sir James Carroll, Sir Māui Pōmare and Sir Apirana Ngata, and many other prominent Māori leaders.