Story: Muriwhenua tribes

Muriwhenua means ‘this is the end of the land’. The Muriwhenua tribal territory forms the tail of Māui’s fabled fish, including the northernmost tip of New Zealand – Cape Rēinga. Tradition holds that this is where spirits of the dead depart. Rich in such legends, the history of these six tribes is also one of ancestral lands lost and reclaimed.

Story by Rāwiri Taonui
Main image: Cape Rēinga

Story summary

All images & media in this story


The Muriwhenua people belong to six iwi (tribes): Ngāti Kurī, Ngāi Takoto, Te Pātū, Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa.


Muriwhenua territory is in the far north of New Zealand, extending from the Maungataniwha Range up to Cape Rēinga. It forms the tail of the fish that the legendary hero Māui pulled from the ocean – Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island. Kupe, the great navigator, discovered this region after thinking he had seen a whale: in fact it was Houhora mountain, north of Kaitāia.


It is said that Ngāti Kurī, which means ‘tribe of the dog’, were named when they lured their enemy onto a beach by creating a whale out of dogskin.

Another tradition describes a clever escape from the besieged village of Murimotu. The chief Tūmatahina told his people to walk in a single line of footprints in the sand, so it looked as if only one person had left.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840, 61 Muriwhenua chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, believing that it would protect their lands. But over the years the Muriwhenua people lost huge amounts of land to settlers or to the government. From 1994, the tribes have lodged important claims with the Waitangi Tribunal, which are being settled with individual tribes. The 1988 Muriwhenua fishing report was instrumental in the 1992 settlement of Māori claims to offshore fisheries.

Muriwhenua today

In 2013, there were over 40,000 Muriwhenua people. Many moved to the cities from 1950 onwards, and less than one-third remained in the ancestral homelands. Almost 18,000 lived in the Auckland region.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Muriwhenua tribes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 February 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 22 Mar 2017