Before the 1820s the principal iwi (tribes) of the region were Rangitāne, Muaūpoko and Ngāti Apa. Rangitāne were found particularly in Manawatū, Muaūpoko in Horowhenua, and Ngāti Apa along the Rangitīkei River. Their traditions looked back to the Aotea and Kurahaupō canoes.
The Aotea arrived at Pātea in Taranaki. Kurahaupō landed far away at Nukutaurua near Māhia, on the East Coast. But many traditions of the lower North Island trace back to that coast. One important route to Manawatū from Māhia followed the coast as far south as Cape Palliser, then around to Wellington, Rimurapa (Sinclair Head), Paekākāriki, and then up the west side of the North Island to Manawatū.
Tradition recalls that the explorer Whātonga travelled this route from the East Coast. He named the area now known as Wellington after his son Tara – Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He then made his way up the west coast to the Manawatū River and through the gorge, to return to his home in Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay).
Rangitāne was the grandson of Whātonga. He does not play a part in the history of Manawatū except via his descendants.
Haunui (Hau) travelled south along the west coast in search of his wife Wairaka, who had fled with a lover. He reached Rangitīkei in one day (from which comes the place name: rangi – day, tīkei – to stride out), then the Manawatū. Thinking a whistling noise in his ear came from the hōkio bird, he named a place there Hōkio, while he named Ōhau after himself.
Rangitane’s descendants included Tāwhakahiku and Māngere, and their cousins Rākaumauī, Poutoa and Tamakere. They were the first of this line to settle in Manawatū. A marriage between Whakarongotau, another cousin, and a Ngāi Tara chief cemented links with Whātonga’s descendants already in the region.
The Muaūpoko people lived in Horowhenua. One famous ancestor is the Ngāi Tara warrior chief Tūteremoana. The highest point on Kapiti Island is named after him, and he is referred to in the saying, ‘Te tama whakaete tūranga rau, i tītī te ūpoko ki te kura a rangi’ (the young man who forced his way on to a hundred standing places and whose head was adorned with the glow of heaven).
Settlements and food
Excavations of early settlements reveal that at one time, the huge flightless moa bird was hunted along the coast. But with its extinction, food came from more modest sources – fish, shellfish, eels and birds.
Songs and stories tell of journeys along the coast and rivers. With the Horowhenua and Waiwiwi lakes (the latter also known as Papaitonga after the island in it), these were the principal places of settlement.
Eels were an important part of the diet. Much later, after migrating from Waikato, the Ngāti Raukawa leader and warrior Te Whatanui gave land to those he had defeated around Lake Horowhenua. He excluded the Hōkio stream, to keep control of the supply of eels.
Away from the coast or river banks, the dense forest cover prevented permanent settlement, but did provide a ‘storehouse’ of berries, and birds such as kererū and kākā.