Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa descend from several canoes, including:
- Matawhaorua, captained by Kupe
- Kurahaupō, captained by Pōhurihanga
- Ngātokimatawhaorua, captained by Nukutawhiti
- Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi, captained by Rongomai and Whakatau.
The main canoe for Te Aupōuri is Māmari, captained by Ruanui, whose descendants dominated much of the west coast of the Tai Tokerau.
Te Rarawa emphasise descent from the Tinana canoe, captained by Tūmoana. Tūmoana's descendants spread throughout the northern Hokianga and eastward to Maunga Taniwha. Tūmoana later returned to Hawaiki, leaving his son Tamahotu and daughter Kahutianui-o-te-rangi at Tauroa.
Mirupōkai, an ancestor of both Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa, is said to have circumnavigated the North Island in the Mataatua canoe.
Te Aupōuri were originally known as Ngāti Ruānui. They were closely related to Te Rarawa, particularly through the marriage of Waimirirangi to Kairewa. Their daughter, Haere-ki-te-rā, was the ancestor of the Ngāti Ruānui chiefs, Whēru and Te Ikanui. Another daughter, Pare, along with her husband Te Rēinga and brother Tamatea, were important early leaders for the predecessors of Te Rarawa.
Ngāti Ruānui dominated the Whāngāpē and Herekino harbours. Over time they came into conflict with their relations Ngāti Te Rēinga, Ngāti Kairewa, Ngāti Manawa and Ngāti Te Aewa. These four tribes were emerging as a strong unified group out of settlements at Motutī, Whakarapa and Motukauri on the northern shores of Hokianga Harbour.
The two groups fought several battles in the Whāngāpē and Herekino harbours, and at Ahipara and Hukatere along Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē. During one of these battles, Te Ikanui and Whēru were besieged in their pā at Pawarenga on the Whāngāpē Harbour. One night they burned their possessions in order to create a screen of smoke, and then escaped unseen across the harbour. From then on Ngāti Ruānui were known as Te Aupōuri, from ‘au’ (current) and ‘pōuri’ (smoke or ash).
The name Te Rarawa comes from an incident on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour. Te Ripo, a high-born woman, was killed by a war party from the Kaipara. An avenging party led by Ngāmotu pursued the warriors south to Kaipara Harbour. However, the fleeing party crossed the harbour to their pā at Okika. They performed incantations, making the waters of the harbour too rough to cross.
Frustrated, Ngāmotu’s people raided a cemetery on the shores of the harbour, removing the remains of a deceased priest. They burnt the remains and threw the ashes into the harbour to calm the waters. They also ate part of the body. Toko, an old woman who witnessed these events, exclaimed, ‘Kātahi anō te iwi kai rarawa!’ (Who would have heard of such cannibalism?), and ‘Te rarawakaiwhare!’ (The people consume all!). Te Rarawa then became the tribal name.