Story: Ngāi Tahu

Page 1. Early history

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Uenuku, Ruatapu and Paikea

Ngāi Tahu origins lie in Hawaiki, which is considered by Māori to be their homeland in the Pacific. The story begins there with Uenuku. He owned a hairpiece that was sacred to him, and used it in important tribal rituals. Everyone in the village was aware that to use it would cause offence. However, Uenuku’s oldest son Ruatapu, believing himself senior enough to wear the ornament, displayed it before his people. His father saw the actions of his son and humiliated him in public with the words, ‘Kāore e tike māhau ma te tama memehea moenga hau moenga rau-kawakawa nei.’ (‘It is not appropriate for him, a base-born son, to carry out that ceremonial function.’) This insult implied that although Ruatapu was the oldest son, he was not from a union approved by the people; and that his younger brother, Paikea, was senior because of his mother’s descent lines.

Paikea escapes

Shamed in public, Ruatapu planned the deaths of all his siblings. We are told that he prepared a large canoe that would hold 140 of the prominent sons of the village. Ruatapu announced the launch of his canoe, and all the leading aristocrats set off with him. Once out to sea, Ruatapu slew each man with a spear. The only one to escape was Paikea, who took to the sea.

After calling incantations to the gods, Paikea was saved by a whale, which brought the young chief to New Zealand on its back. Paikea settled with the people at Whāngārā on the East Coast of the North Island. From this ancestor stem the two tribes of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Porou.

How to cite this page:

Te Maire Tau, 'Ngāi Tahu - Early history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Te Maire Tau, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017