Story: First peoples in Māori tradition

Page 1. Framework of the traditions

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New Zealand’s Māori tribes have a fund of narratives about people and beings who existed long before the arrival of Polynesian settlers by canoe. This collective knowledge is central to the experience and identity of the tangata whenua – the people of the land.

Canoe arrivals

Tribal traditions speak of the arrival of Polynesian ancestors on board numerous waka (canoes). These ocean-going vessels had sails and outriggers, and some had two keels. After landing at various points along the coastline, the Polynesian explorers founded the communities that gave rise to the tribes of today.

Recent work in archaeology, linguistics and anthropology has broadened understanding of Māori settlement by canoe from Polynesia, pointing to a history of about 700 years.

Pre-canoe stories

In addition to the stories about the arrival of the Polynesian canoes, there are many accounts, handed down through the generations, of peoples and identities who lived in New Zealand before the Polynesian settlers arrived. These narratives have flowed into the tribal traditions.

It is possible to show a layering of stories that deepen the connection between the various tribes and the land. The stories are organised in a genealogical framework:

  • Hineahuone – the first human, made from the soil of the earth.
  • Māui – the mythical character who ‘fished up’ the North Island, which is known as Te Ika-a-Māui (Māui’s fish). The South Island was his canoe and Stewart Island his anchor stone.
  • Ancestors from the natural world. Ngāti Whātua traditions tell of the Tuputupu-whenua, who grew from the ground. And Ngāi Tūhoe, of the Urewera mountains, trace descent from Hine-pūkohu-rangi, the ‘mist maiden’. This inspired the 19th-century ethnologist Elsdon Best to dub the Tūhoe people ‘the children of the mist’.
  • The patupaiarehe and tūrehu – living in secluded mountains, they are said to be the first tangata whenua (people of the land).
  • Kupe and Toitehuatahi – explorers who are among the important pre-canoe ancestors. It is said that Kupe was the first Polynesian to arrive in this country. Toitehuatahi is the ancestor from whom most tribes trace descent, and on whom subsequent tribal rights and interests were based.

Connection with the land

Beginning with the birth of Hineahuone from the earth, tribal narratives describe and illustrate a deep and fundamental connection with the land. They are the base upon which later tribal interests flourished. They ensure longevity of tenure and a sense of ancestral authority and history for those who follow.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'First peoples in Māori tradition - Framework of the traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 Feb 2005