Story: Ngāi Tahu

Page 5. The genealogy of the land

All images & media in this story

By the time Ngāi Tahu had arrived, the South Island’s natural phenomena had been classified and consecrated as ancestors by the Waitaha people. Through this sacred practice the landmarks ‘become’ the ancestor, so that the South Island was transformed into an ancestral church. (The custom of consecrating the land with ancestors is similar to the lan nama ritual carried out by the early Viking explorers, who in Iceland consecrated the land with the gods of their mythology.) When Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu later intermarried with Waitaha, they were themselves absorbed into the genealogy of that tribe.

Of eels and seagulls’ eggs

Several South Island names derive from the explorations of the Waitaha ancestors, Rākaihautū and his son Rokohouia. Cliffs near Kaikōura, where Rokohouia gathered seagulls’ eggs, are named Kā whatakai a Rokohouia (the food stores of Rokohouia). The original name for the vast Canterbury Plains is Kā pakihi whakatekateka a Waitaha (the seedbed of Waitaha). The two explorers took hao, a type of eel, from the river where they met up, and Waihao is still the name of the river. The southern lakes are known as Kā puna karikari a Rākaihautū (the springs of water dug by Rākaihautū).

The winds

The early Waitaha understood the wind patterns by ordering them genealogically – investing in them the spirits of gods linked by kinship. Raki was the primal god of the heavens. From his union with Pokoharua-te-pō came the child Uru Te Maha, whose name means 'the winds from the west'. From this source came Tāwhirimatea (manifestation of the wind) and eventually Te Māuru, known to Ngāi Tahu as the north-west wind.

Rakamaomao was the group of winds that blew from the south and north. Te Pūnui o te Toka was the southerly, and Pūaitaha was the south-west wind. Te Ope Ruaraki means 'the grouping of winds from the north'. Rakamaomao's child Tiu was the northern wind, and the north-easterly is known to Ngāi Tahu as Whakarua.

Uru Te Maha and Rakamaomao are then the origins of the winds from different directions. These names reveal a culture ordering its world within a framework of kinship.

How to cite this page:

Te Maire Tau, 'Ngāi Tahu - The genealogy of the land', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ngai-tahu/page-5 (accessed 21 July 2019)

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