Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Muriwhenua tribes

by  Rāwiri Taonui

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.


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.

Ngāti Kurī, Ngāi Takoto, Te Pātū and Ngāti Kahu

Ngāti Kurī

Ngāti Kurī descend from Pōhurihanga, the captain of the Kurahaupō canoe, which landed at Takapaukura near North Cape. On landing, Pōhurihanga declared, ‘Te muri o te whenua’ (This is the end of the land) – hence the founding tribe’s name, Muriwhenua.

Pōhurihanga married Maieke, and their children settled Kapowairua, Pārengarenga Harbour, and Murimotu. A daughter, Muriwhenua, moved to Karikari where she married Rongokako of the Tākitimu canoe.

A traditional account explains why this tribe was named Kurī, which means ‘dog’. Many generations ago these people besieged a strongly fortified . Unable to take the pā by direct assault, they constructed a whale from dog skin and hid beneath it on the beach in front of the pā. Their enemies, lured out by the sight of the ‘whale’ and its promise of bone, blubber and meat, were surprised and heavily defeated. Traditions variously place this event at Maunga Piko in Kapowairua Bay, Whangatauatea near Ahipara, or at Waitaha, between Herekino and Whāngāpē.

A different account tells of a feast of dogs on Motu Whāngaikurī Island in Pārengarenga Harbour, for the funeral of the chief Ihutara.

Ngāi Takoto and Te Pātū

The tribes Ngāi Takoto and Te Pātū also trace descent from the Kurahaupō canoe. Pōhurihanga's descendant Tūwhakatere married two women. With the first, Tūterangi-a-tōhia, he had Pōpota, who became an important ancestor of Te Pātū. With Tūpōia, the second, he had a son, Hoka.

In an account of how Ngāi Takoto got their name, it is said that when Hoka was killed in battle, Tūwhakatere was so overcome with grief that he lay down and eventually died; ‘takoto’ means to lie down.

Ngāti Kahu

The tribe takes its name from Kahutianui-o-te-rangi, the daughter of Tūmoana. Tūmoana was captain of the Tinana canoe. He returned to Hawaiki where his nephew Te Parata renamed the canoe Māmaru.

The Māmaru returned to Muriwhenua territory, first sighting land at Pūwheke mountain. Te Parata married Kahutianui-o-te-rangi, and their descendants settled the Rangaunu and Tokerau harbours. They spread south to Whangaroa Harbour, Matauri Bay and Te Tī, where they intermarried with the descendants of Puhi, the captain of the Mataatua canoe.

The Tākitimu canoe, captained by Tamatea, landed at Awanui in Rangaunu Harbour. (This connection was once very important; Ngāti Kahu were sometimes known as Ngāi Tamatea.) Other canoes significant to Ngāti Kahu include:

  • Riukakara, captained by Pāoa, which landed at Mangōnui
  • Waipapa, captained by Kaiwhetū and Wairere, which landed on the Karikari Peninsula
  • Ruakaramea, captained by Moehuri and Tukiata (another version says Te Uriparāoa and Te Papawi were the captains).

Ngāti Kahu were well known as coastal raiders and traders as far south as the Waipoua Forest, Whangārei, Mahurangi and beyond.

Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa

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

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 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).

Te Rarawa

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.

European contact

The Treaty of Waitangi

On 28 April 1840, 61 Muriwhenua chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Kaitāia. Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson assured them that the treaty would control Pākehā settlers and protect Māori lands and interests. Nōpera Pana-kareao encapsulated Māori understanding of the treaty based on these promises, saying, ‘Ko te atarau o te whenua i riro i a te kuini, ko te tinana o te whenua i waiho ki ngā Māori’ (The shadow of the land will go to the Queen [of England], but the substance of the land will remain with us). One year later he reversed his opinion, saying that the substance of the land had gone to the Queen and that Māori retained only the shadow.

Land loss

Muriwhenua suffered under government policies on Māori land. The government’s investigations into European land purchase claims before the treaty resulted in the loss of about 60,000 hectares. Further government purchases resulted in the alienation of another 113,000 hectares by 1865. By 1890 the government had acquired another 31,000 hectares, so that the Muriwhenua tribes no longer held sufficient lands to maintain their traditional way of life. Some took up kauri gum digging, but it was a short-term boom. The Waitangi Tribunal conclude that ‘with nearly all their usable land gone, Muriwhenua Māori were reduced to penury, powerlessness, and, eventually, state dependence’.

Muriwhenua today

In 2013 there were over 40,000 Muriwhenua Māori in New Zealand. As a result of huge land losses and marginalisation of Māori society, combined with the migration of Māori to the cities since 1950, less than a third of Muriwhenua people (about 12,000) lived in the Northland region in 2013. Many lived outside the tribal area, with almost 18,000 descendants in the Auckland region.

Treaty issues

Muriwhenua people have played an important role in Treaty of Waitangi politics since the 1960s. Whina Cooper led the 1975 Māori land march from Te Hāpua to Parliament.

The tribes have also played a pivotal role in claims before the Waitangi Tribunal, lodging multiple claims since 1994. The Muriwhenua fishing report (1988) was instrumental in the 1992 settlement of Māori claims to offshore fisheries. The Muriwhenua land report (1997) documented the history of land loss and its impact on the tribe. Initially, Muriwhenua land claims were to be settled under the confederation of Te Rūnanga-ō-Muriwhenua. However, after several debates within the tribes, it was decided that each tribe would negotiate separately.

Treaty settlements

Each of the Muriwhenua tribes has negotiated a separate treaty settlement which provides for collective redress where there is shared interest in land and other assets. This collective redress includes 21,000 hectares of Crown forest land on the Aupouri peninsula, creation of Te Oneroa a Tōhē Board to manage Ninety Mile Beach (Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē), establishment of Te Hiku Conservation Board to co-govern conservation land in the region, and rights of first refusal to Crown properties.

The Te Aupōuri Deed of Settlement, signed on 28 January 2012, included financial redress of about $21 million. Nineteen geographic names were altered, with dual Maori–English names for Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē/ Ninety Mile Beach), Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua, Piwhane/Spirits Bay, Wharekāpu/Paxton Point, Ōtaipango/Henderson Bay and Tohoraha/Mount Camel.

Ngāi Takoto ’s settlement, dated 27 October 2012, includes financial redress valued at $21 million. Some of this amount was used to purchase part of the Crown-owned Sweetwater Farm and other properties. Ten sites of significance were vested solely in Ngāi Takoto, and others jointly with other Muriwhenua tribes. Ngāi Takoto received a cultural redress fund of $2.4 million to help it undertake projects of cultural significance.

The total value of the Te Rarawa settlement, dated 28 October 2012, was about $34 million. Te Rarawa also received a cultural redress fund of $530,000 and made an agreement with the Department of Conservation for joint governance and management of the Warawara Forest Park public conservation lands.

Ngāti Kuri’s historic treaty claims were settled on 7 February 2014 at a value of about $25 million. This included purchase of the 3157-hectare Te Paki Station and other properties, and a cultural endowment fund of $2.23 million. Among the sites of significance vested in Ngāti Kuri were Te Rerenga Wairua and Kapowairua at the northernmost point of the country.

Facts and figures

Iwi (tribal) identification

In the New Zealand censuses since 1991, residents of Māori descent were asked to indicate the tribe to which they were affiliated.

The figures below show the number who indicated Muriwhenua tribes (including those who indicated more than one tribe), and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013.

Ngāi Takoto

  • 1991 census: 186
  • 2001 census: 489
  • 2006 census: 774
  • 2013 census: 1,113

Major regional locations

  • Northland: 495
  • Auckland: 369

Ngāti Kahu

  • 1991 census: 4,275
  • 2001 census: 6,957
  • 2006 census: 8,313
  • 2013 census: 8,580

Major regional locations

  • Auckland: 3,747
  • Northland: 2,733

Ngāti Kurī

  • 1991 census: 1,395
  • 2001 census: 4,647
  • 2006 census: 5,757
  • 2013 census: 6,492

Major regional locations

  • Auckland: 2,781
  • Northland: 2,040

Te Aupōuri

  • 1991 census: 6,720
  • 2001 census: 7,848
  • 2006 census: 9,333
  • 2013 census: 8,700

Major regional locations

  • Auckland: 3,828
  • Northland: 2,109

Te Rarawa

  • 1991 census: 5,919
  • 2001 census: 11,526
  • 2006 census: 14,895
  • 2013 census: 16,512

Major regional locations

  • Auckland: 7,224
  • Northland: 4,881

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rāwiri Taonui, 'Muriwhenua tribes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 March 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 February 2005, updated 22 March 2017