Story: Muriwhenua tribes

Page 1. Ancestors

All images & media in this story

Muriwhenua is the collective name given to six iwi (tribes): Ngāti Kurī, Ngāi Takoto, Te Pātū, Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa.

Te Hiku-o-te-Ika: the tail of the fish

The Muriwhenua people occupy the lands between the Maungataniwha Range and Cape Rēinga. In legend, this land formed the tail of the fish that Māui hauled up from the depths of the ocean. Elders from Muriwhenua sometimes say that although the head of Māui’s fish is in Wellington, it can only go where the tail will allow.


Ngāti Kurī say that Kupe, the great navigator, discovered land when he thought he saw a whale; in fact it was Houhora mountain. His crew settled between Cape Rēinga and Pārengarenga Harbour. Kupe named places from Te Ara Wairua (the spirits’ pathway) to Cape Rēinga.

In Ngāti Kahu tradition, Kupe settled the Karikari Peninsula, Tokerau Beach, Whangaroa Harbour and Matauri Bay. One account says that Te Aukānapanapa (the flashing current) guided Kupe to land beneath Whakarārā mountain in Matauri Bay. The people of Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa say that Kupe landed in Hokianga Harbour, and that on his return to Hawaiki he threw up tides to crash onto the west coast of Northland and Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē (Ninety Mile Beach).


According to tradition, on one occasion when the Muriwhenua people were besieged and running out of food, the chief Tūmatahina told them to make dummy warriors out of bulrushes and place them around the palisades of their . He then instructed them to make a long flax rope, which was fixed to a rock on the mainland. When preparations were complete, Tūmatahina sent his people one at a time, hand-over-hand, along the rope, each stepping carefully in the footsteps of those before. Tūmatahina followed at the rear. He had especially large feet which concealed all the other footprints, leaving just his own in the sand. The enemy were fooled into thinking that only one person had left and the tribe was still in the pā.

A Muriwhenua chant commemorates this incident:

Ruia, ruia, tahia, tahia,
Kia hemo te kākoakoa,
Kia herea mai i te kawau korokī.
Kia tātaki mai i roto i te pūkorokoro, whaikoro,
Te kūaka, he kūaka mārangaranga,
Tahi manu i tau ki te tāhuna, tau atu, tau atu, tau atu!
Scatter, scatter, sweep on, sweep on,
Let us not be plundered by our foe,
The rope has been stretched out and fastened, let us rejoice.
Moving along the rope,
The godwits have risen and flown,
One has landed, to the beach, the others follow!

The godwit (kūaka) is a symbol for the Muriwhenua tribes. Godwits migrate from the northern hemisphere at the beginning of each spring and flock in the harbours of Muriwhenua territory. They leave together in autumn, just as Tūmatahina’s people moved together when escaping from the besieged pā.

Reitū and Reipae

The sisters Reitū and Reipae are renowned in Māori tradition. Ueoneone, a chief from Whāngāpē, travelled to Waikato, where he fell in love with the sisters. He proposed marriage and they accepted.

Ueoneone sent a bird to Waikato to carry the sisters northward. However, when the bird landed near present-day Whangārei, Reipae fell in love with a chief named Ōtāhuhupōtiki, and married him. Te Whanga-a-Reipae (the harbour of Reipae) is one meaning of the name Whangārei.

Reitū carried on alone and married Ueoneone at Whāngāpē. Kauae and Tawakeiti, their twin daughters, married Tūpoto, from whom every tribe north of Auckland can trace descent.


Tōhē, a chief of Ngāti Kahu, is one of Muriwhenua’s most important ancestors. He lived at Maunga Piko in Kapowairua Bay, far from his only daughter Rāninikura, who had married a man from the Kaipara near present-day Dargaville. When Tōhē was very old he announced his intention to journey south to see his daughter one last time. His people, concerned about his health, asked him not to go. Tōhē replied:

Whakarua i te hau, e taea te karo.
Whakarua i taku tamāhine, e kore e taea te karo.
Taea Hokianga, ā hea, ā hea.
Ko tā koutou mahi e kapo ake ai, ko taku wairua.
I can shelter from the wind.
But I cannot shelter from the longing for my daughter.
I shall venture as far as Hokianga, and beyond.
Your task (should I die) shall be to grasp my spirit.

The Māori name for Spirits Bay, Kapowairua, comes from this saying. Tōhē made his way south, naming over 100 places along the western coast, but he died at Whāngaiariki near Maunganui Bluff, before reaching his daughter’s home. The Tōhē place names stand as a memorial to this sad journey. The most well-known is Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē (the long beach of Tōhē), also called Ninety Mile Beach.

Cape Rēinga

Also known as Te Rerenga Wairua or Te Rēinga, this cape is one of the most sacred Māori places in New Zealand. Tradition says that the spirits of the dead travel along two pathways to Cape Rēinga, at the northernmost tip of the country. One path begins in the south and runs along Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē (Ninety Mile Beach), and the other starts at Kapowairua (Spirits Bay). The spirits congregate at Cape Rēinga before leaping into the water; they surface after crossing the ocean to Manawatāwhi (Three Kings Islands). There they sing a last lament for the loved ones they have left behind before proceeding to their spiritual home in Hawaiki.

Te Houtaewa

Te Houtaewa was a descendant of the Te Aupōuri chief Te Ikanui, and a famous athlete. He played an important role in defining the boundary between Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri at Hukatere. On one occasion he ran the length of the beach from Te Kao to Ahipara, where he took two huge baskets of sweet potatoes from Te Rarawa. Locals chased him, but Te Houtaewa was such a good athlete he easily outran them, despite his load.

Later Te Houtaewa led Te Aupōuri in a more serious battle at Hukatere. They fought against Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa, who were led by Hongi Hika and Pōroa. During this battle Ngāruhe, the last surviving son of the Te Aupōuri chief Whēru, allowed himself to be captured, tortured and killed so that his family and kin could escape. Te Houtaewa, who had been shot by Hongi Hika, was pursued, caught and killed at Pukenui, near Houhora Harbour. From then on, Hukatere was the dividing line between Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Muriwhenua tribes - Ancestors', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 11 December 2023)

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