The claim to the land
For Ngāi Tahu, conquest had never been a preferred means of claiming territory. During the early period of occupying and settling the South Island, besides deliberately marrying into the earliest resident tribes such as Waitaha, Ngāi Tahu also learned the traditions and customs of these tribes. Among Māori the real basis to any claim on the land was genealogy – the blood ties that go back through the generations. It had been Waitaha who, in tribal traditions, imposed their genealogy on the land.
Having secured Kaiapoi pā, settled the Canterbury–Banks Peninsula region, and begun to extend to the south and west, Ngāi Tahu acquired the tribal belief system of Waitaha.
Rākaihautū: Waitaha’s founding ancestor
Tribal traditions tell us that Waitaha’s founding ancestor, Rākaihautū, departed with his people from their ancient homeland Te-patunui-o-āio (also known as Hawaiki). It is said that on the journey to New Zealand the heavens and the ocean met, blocking his path. To steer a safe passage, Rākaihautū took his giant adze and chanted an incantation allowing him to slash a passage across the seas. His canoe Uruao eventually beached at Whakatū (Nelson), at the top of the South Island.
Once landed, Rākaihautū and his people set about consecrating the land with the mauri or spiritual essence of their ancestors. They also imposed their whakapapa (genealogy) on the plants, animals and natural features of the land. Rākaihautū is credited with carving out the string of lakes down the interior of the South Island with his digging stick. His son Rokohouia sailed Uruao down the east coast to rendezvous with him at Waihao. Rākaihautū eventually settled on Banks Peninsula, where his digging stick forms Tuhiraki, a prominent peak above Akaroa Harbour.
Other canoe traditions of the South Island – such as the story of the Ārai-te-uru which was said to have been wrecked at Shag Point, and of the Tākitimu canoe, wrecked at the Waiau River mouth – were taken south by Ngāi Tahu and by earlier East Coast tribes closely related to Ngāi Tahu.