Story: Nelson region

Page 4. Māori history

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Nelson’s eight tribes

Māori know the northern South Island as Te Tau Ihu (the prow) of the canoe of the demigod Māui. There are eight mutually recognised tribes in the Nelson–Marlborough region – Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Apa and Rangitāne (Kurahaupō tribes), Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Rārua (Tainui tribes), and Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa (Taranaki tribes). For Māori the region’s current boundary has little relevance – historically they traded, settled and interacted in an area that included coastal Nelson–Marlborough and across Cook Strait to the North Island.

Earlier tribes

Nelson’s Māori history is marked by a series of tribes arriving, mainly from the North Island, and ousting those already in residence (who had usually ousted someone else). Early tribes included Rapuwai, Waitaha, Ngāti Wairangi, Hāwea and Ngāti Māmoe.

Ngāi Tara occupied the Waimea area from about 1550, and spread out from there before being displaced by Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri (originally from Taupō) in the early 1600s. Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri dominated for two centuries. They, too, were ousted in the late 1790s by surrounding tribes, including Ngāi Tahu from the West Coast, Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne from eastern Nelson–Marlborough, and Ngāti Apa, who were assisted by North Island forces from the Rangitīkei and Kapiti areas (Kurahaupō tribes).

The Kurahaupō tribes were in turn overwhelmed in 1828 by paramount chief Te Rauparaha’s confederation – Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa from Taranaki, and Tainui tribes Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Rārua.

Settlements and lifestyle

Radiocarbon dating shows that Māori have been in the Nelson region since the 1300s. Early settlements along the Golden Bay shores include Tata Beach, Ligar Bay, Pōhara, Pākawau and Pūponga. Archaeologists have recorded around 300 Māori occupation sites in Golden Bay, including sites, gardens, fishing settlements, urupā (burial sites), kōiwi (human remains) and middens (rubbish dumps). People lived a mobile lifestyle, centred on seasonal fishing, gathering and horticulture. Māori had extensive kūmara (sweet potato) plantations on the Waimea Plains, where they added gravel, sand and wood ash to soils – probably to improve drainage and warm the soil.

Early contact

Golden Bay is the site of the first recorded contact between Māori and Pākehā. Four crew members from Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s ships were killed by Māori near Separation Point, at the eastern end of Golden Bay, in December 1642. In 1827 the French explorer Dumont d'Urville spent time in Tasman Bay, where he met Māori, probably Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Apa. The 1820s brought an influx of European sealers, whalers and associated traders to the shores of Cook Strait. Kūmara, potatoes and corn were traded at whaling stations, where Māori also worked as builders and crewed on whaleboats.

Solid as a rock

For Māori stone was crucial. Argillite, a hard, tough rock quarried around Motueka, Nelson and D’Urville Island, produced flakes suitable for cutting and filleting fish. Argillite adzes were used to build boats and houses. Other tools were made to pound, bore and scrape. Flint, black obsidian, quartz and pounamu (greenstone) were also important.

Land purchases and conflict

From 1839 to 1842 the New Zealand Company negotiated with some Māori for the establishment of the Nelson settlement in Whakatū (Tasman Bay) and Taitapu (Golden Bay). The lack of flat land caused Nelson settlers looking for grazing land to survey the Wairau Valley. Te Rauparaha objected. The New Zealand Company believed that they had bought the land, but Te Rauparaha considered they had merely acknowledged his mana over and ownership of it. On 17 June 1843 there was a clash at Tuamarina, Marlborough, in which 22 settlers (including Captain Arthur Wakefield) and at least four Ngāti Toa were killed. This became known as the Wairau affray. After this Church Hill, at the head of Trafalgar Street in Nelson, was fortified as a defence against possible attacks from Māori. Further land was acquired from Māori by the Crown from 1853 to 1860.

In 2008 the Waitangi Tribunal ruled that the Crown had breached the Treaty of Waitangi, including by failing to set aside ‘Native Tenths Reserves’ (which reserved one-tenth of land for Māori). In 2014 the Te Tau Ihu Treaty settlement legislation was passed.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Nelson region - Māori history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/nelson-region/page-4 (accessed 17 November 2018)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 7 Sep 2010, updated 3 Aug 2015