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Ngāi Tahu

by  Te Maire Tau

Migrating from the North Island’s East Coast, Ngāi Tahu thrived in the South Island. They intermarried with local tribes, and adopted their beliefs. Their lands cover much of Te Wai Pounamu – the South Island – and are New Zealand’s largest single tribal territory.

Early history

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.

The move south

A South Island toehold

Tahupōtiki, from whom Ngāi Tahu take their name, was descended from the legendary ancestor Paikea and Hemo ki-te-Raki. It is here that we enter the realm of human history. Largely because of internal struggles between Ngāi Tahu and their kin, Ngāi Tahu migrated further south to Wellington and settled the area with the related tribes, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Māmoe. Hostilities eventually broke out, and in the early 18th century some Ngāi Tahu, led by Pūraho and his sons Maru and Mako, left the North Island for Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island). Here they established a beachhead in the northern end of the island at Kaihinu , in Tory Channel. They had been preceded south by Ngāti Māmoe.

During this period, relations with another tribe, Ngāi Tara, had become strained. On one occasion a Ngāi Tahu party discovered the corpse of a Ngāi Tara chief inside a cave. The warriors fashioned the bones into fishhooks and invited Ngāi Tara on a fishing expedition. During the expedition, the Ngāi Tahu crew sarcastically commented, ‘The old man has them biting well.’ Ngāi Tara realised that the bones of their ancestor had been desecrated. In response, they killed the chief Pūraho, hiding under the latrine he used each morning and impaling him on a spear.

Intermarriage with Ngāti Māmoe

The murder of Pūraho led to a series of battles between Ngāi Tahu and Ngāi Tara, and their respective allies Ngāti Māmoe and Rangitāne of the Wairau valley. Traditions tell of how, in one of the more memorable battles, the leading Ngāi Tahu chief Tuteurutira and his kinsmen defeated the Rangitāne people. One captive taken was a woman chief called Hinerongo, whom Tūteurutira mistook as belonging to the Rangitāne tribe. However, as Tūteurutira’s canoes took to the sea, Hinerongo uttered a proverb that indicated she was not from the enemy tribe. She belonged to Ngāti Māmoe, who were located further to the south, and had been captured by Rangitāne some days earlier.

As Tūteurutira returned Hinerongo to her people at Matariki pā on the Clarence River, an alliance was struck, and both tribes attacked and defeated Rangitāne in the Wairau. In return, Ngāti Māmoe ceded the coastline north of the Clarence River to Ngāi Tahu. Tūteurutira and Hinerongo married and settled at Matariki pā.

This pattern of warfare, tribal alliances and strategic marriages saw Ngāi Tahu eventually establish themselves southwards. After Ngāti Kurī’s conquest of Kaikōura, Ngāi Tūhaitara, under the leadership of Moki and Tūrakautahi, conquered the Canterbury–Banks Peninsula region.

Kūmara down south

The northern part of the South Island was about as far south as kūmara (sweet potato), the staple crop of Māori horticulture, could be grown. Archaeologists have interpreted features at the mouth of the Waiautoa (Clarence) River – the location of Matariki pā – as evidence of kūmara gardens. Further south, at Taumutu on Lake Ellesmere, are depressions that may be ‘borrow pits’, from which Māori gardeners took shingle to create warmer soils for growing kūmara. The introduction of the European potato, which could be grown in colder climates, transformed the economy of the southern Ngāi Tahu.

Different sub-tribes of Ngāi Tahu pushed the tribal boundary steadily southwards. One of these, Ngāti Kurī, occupied Kaikōura in the early 18th century. Another, Ngāi Tūhaitara, settled in the Canterbury–Banks Peninsula region in the 1730s. Ngāti Irakehu, a further Ngāi Tahu sub-tribe, had already settled peaceably among Ngāti Māmoe on Horomaka (Banks Peninsula) by the time Ngāi Tūhaitara arrived. Just north of Banks Peninsula a Ngāi Tūhaitara chief, Turakautahi, built what became the largest fortified village in the South Island, Kaiapoi pā. It lay on the site of a stronghold of an earlier tribe, Waitaha, whose history and traditions Ngāi Tahu eventually adopted.

Spreading south and west

Further intermarriage

From Kaiapoi, Ngāi Tahu incorporated the southern sections of Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha, who already occupied the South Island. The process was again one of small incursions, occasional bloodshed, piecemeal occupation and intermarriage rather than steady conquest. Kinship connections were forged to legitimise residence in each region. Ngāi Tahu occupied the Otago coast and the far south.

By the late 18th century, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe had established a tribal armistice. This was cemented in two marriages. The first was between Raki-ihia of Ngāti Māmoe and Hinehākiri, the cousin of Ngāi Tahu’s leading chief, Te-hau-tapunui-o-Tū. The second union was between Honekai, the son of Te-hau-tapunui-o-Tū, and Kohuwai, the daughter of Raki-ihia. These marriages were arranged at Kaiapoi and confirmed at Taumata in Otago.

The tribes mingle

While there were skirmishes between Ngāi Tahu and the tribes of Raki-ihia, the settlement was enduring. In fact, all the southern South Island signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 were descendants of this union, and of all three tribes, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha.

The West Coast

The leading chief of Ngāi Tahu in Canterbury was Tūrākautahi, who decided that he and his kinsmen needed to learn the genealogy of the land. Consequently, an expedition was mounted to the West Coast to learn from the tribes there. Stories typically hold that only Tūrākautahi and his kinsman Te-ake survived the traditional school of learning, while their companions were slain for breaking various customs.

How pounamu formed

The term pounamu (greenstone, or New Zealand jade) includes the mineral species nephrite and bowenite. Found only in the South Island (at sites including Westland, inland Otago and Milford Sound) it was the most valuable stone used by Māori. One story of its origins concerns the taniwha (monster) Poutini, a guardian for Kahue, the god of pounamu. At Mayor Island, east of the Coromandel Peninsula, Poutini abducted the beautiful Waitaiki. Pursued to the South Island by Waitaiki’s husband, Poutini eventually hid his captive in Westland’s Arahura River. About to be discovered, Poutini transformed Waitaiki into pounamu. He then escaped to sea, where he still guards the pounamu of the West Coast. Arahura River greenstone is broken from the body of Waitaiki, in the headwaters.

The two West Coast tribes, Ngāti Wairaki and Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, were likely to have originated from the East Coast of the North Island. Ngāti Wairaki, in particular, shared tight kinship connections with Ngāi Tahu and Paikea, as their common ancestor was the famed Tura. Both tribes were eventually subsumed as sub-tribes of Ngāi Tahu.

The West Coast, with its rich supply of pounamu (greenstone), came into Ngāi Tahu’s possession, and Kaiapoi became the centre of an extensive trade in this most valued of stones.

Ngāi Tahu’s final boundaries

By this stage, Ngāi Tahu’s tribal territory covered most of the South Island, running from Te Parinui-o-whiti (White Bluffs) on the east coast to Kahurangi Point on the West Coast, and southwards to Rakiura (Stewart Island).

Ngāi Tahu and Waitaha

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 , 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.

The genealogy of the land

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.

Wars with Ngāti Toa

Ngāti Toa

Ngāi Tahu’s tribal domain was seriously threatened from the late 1820s to the mid-1830s by a relatively small tribe, Ngāti Toa, who had been cast out from their homeland of Kāwhia in the North Island. Under the courageous leadership of Te Rauparaha, Ngāti Toa armed themselves with muskets and waged war against the tribes in the lower end of the North Island. When Ngāti Toa reached the South Island, a new era of Ngāi Tahu history began as the tribes became embroiled in conflict.

The first battles

The first attack made against Ngāi Tahu was at Kaikōura during 1827–28. Ngāi Tahu records state that the Ngāti Kurī people of Kaikōura came down to the beach to welcome their kinsmen, the sub-tribe of Tū-te-pākihi-rangi of Ngāti Kahungunu, whom they were expecting as visitors. Instead, they found the fleet of canoes belonging to Ngāti Toa who, armed with muskets, attacked and killed them. Only those who fled to the hills survived. The battle was named Niho Maaka.

A battle over an insult

After the battle of Waiorua, which secured Te Rauparaha’s position on Kapiti Island, he threatened to crush all the South Island tribes. In response, one of the leading chiefs of Kaikōura, Rerewaka, said he would slit Te Rauparaha’s belly open with a shark’s tooth (niho maaka) if he came south. When Te Rauparaha heard of the insulting threat his determination to conquer Ngāi Tahu was only strengthened. After winning the battle he gave it the name Niho Maaka.

Te Rauparaha and his tribes then visited Ngāi Tahu of Kaiapoi to trade muskets for greenstone. The Kaiapoi people soon learned of the attacks on their kin at Kaikōura. A Ngāpuhi warrior staying with Ngāi Tahu at Kaiapoi overheard the Ngāti Toa leader planning how they would attack the following morning. The Kaiapoi Ngāi Tahu countered the Ngāti Toa attack the following day, killing the leading Ngāti Toa chiefs, including Te Pēhi Kupe. The only prominent Ngāti Toa leader not slain was Te Rauparaha.

Ngāti Toa’s revenge

The killing of Ngāti Toa’s leaders was a significant blow, but the fact that Te Rauparaha remained alive would eventually be the downfall of the Canterbury Ngāi Tahu. Te Rauparaha returned to Kapiti Island to plan his revenge. In early November 1830, he persuaded Captain John Stewart of the brig Elizabeth to hide him and his warriors on board. They then visited the Ngāi Tahu people of Akaroa under the ruse of trading for flax. Captain Stewart persuaded Ngāi Tahu’s leading chief, Te Maiharanui (Tama-i-hara-nui), to board the brig. Once Te Maiharanui was below deck, Te Rauparaha and his men took the chief, his wife and his daughter prisoner. Te Rauparaha’s men then surged ashore to sack Te Maiharanui’s settlement, Takapuneke. The brig returned to Kapiti with Te Maiharanui and his family held captive.

It is said that rather than see his daughter enslaved, Te Maiharanui strangled her and threw her overboard. Te Rauparaha then gave Te Maiharanui to the wife of the Ngāti Toa chief Te Peehi, who killed Te Maiharanui by slow torture. His wife suffered the same fate. The involvement of an English captain in this matter became a serious concern for Governor Darling of New South Wales, who was responsible for Britons in New Zealand at the time. Stewart was placed on trial in Sydney as an accomplice to murder, but because the Ngāi Tahu witnesses were considered heathens, they were not allowed to take the oath and were therefore ‘incompetent’ to act as witnesses. Stewart and his crew escaped punishment.

Capture of Kaiapoi and Ōnawe

Te Rauparaha then mounted a major expedition against Kaiapoi Ngāi Tahu in the summer of 1831–32. Ngāi Tahu, lacking muskets to repel the armed Ngāti Toa, took a defensive strategy and hoped that Ngāti Toa would not be able to penetrate the wooden palisades surrounding the pā. The ensuing siege lasted for three months. However, during a skirmish between the two tribes, a shelter caught fire. Fanned by the nor’wester, the palisades quickly ignited, allowing Ngāti Toa warriors to enter the village, capture its leaders and kill the people.

Ngāti Toa then attacked the Banks Peninsula tribes, taking the principal fort at Ōnawe, in Akaroa Harbour. It is likely that Te Rauparaha would have gone further south, but Ngāi Tahu of Te Muka had gathered with their Ōtākou kin and the survivors of Kaiapoi to meet with Te Rauparaha. Te Rauparaha and his people returned to the North Island.

The southern Ngāi Tahu response

The southern coast

Ngāi Tahu along the Foveaux Strait and Otago coastlines had been trading in Sydney to arm themselves with muskets. Kaiapoi Ngāi Tahu sought the support of their southern kin, and it was decided to attack Ngāti Toa in 1832–33.

Te Rauparaha’s escape

Under the leadership of the chiefs Tūhawaiki, Makere Te Whanawhana, Whaitiri and Paitu, the southern Ngāi Tahu departed to attack Ngāti Toa. At Ōtākou the chiefs Taiaroa, Karetai and Haereroa joined the southern flotilla, and the two groups joined forces with Kaiapoi Ngāi Tahu at Banks Peninsula. The Ngāi Tahu war party made its way up the coastline to Kāpara-te-hau (Lake Grassmere) where, as it was the moulting season, they anticipated Te Rauparaha would be capturing paradise ducks.

Ngāi Tahu hid behind the hill along the lake. In the morning, as Ngāti Toa were landing, Ngāi Tahu launched a surprise attack. The victory went to Ngāi Tahu, although Te Rauparaha managed to escape. Nevertheless, in the words of one Ngāti Toa elder, ‘One campaign by Ngāi Tahu saw Te Rauparaha defeated at Kāpara-te-hau. Te Rauparaha escaped to sea and survived. The majority of people who went ashore were killed by Ngāi Tahu.’

The northern battles

Ngāi Tahu then followed Ngāti Toa to Karauri Bay. They stayed in the Oraumoa Valley and fought a series of running battles. Ngāti Toa departed, but returned in two days with reinforcements. The next day, there was heavy musket fighting and both sides retreated at night to take care of their dead and wounded. On the Ngāi Tahu side, Tūhawaiki’s cousin Karetai was wounded and fearing for his life. Because Ngāi Tahu were low on ammunition, it was decided to retreat under the cloak of darkness.

In the morning, Ngāti Toa set off in pursuit of Ngāi Tahu. Ngāi Tahu turned their flotilla and prepared for a marine battle, but Ngāti Toa declined the invitation to battle and retreated. After this, Ngāti Toa did not penetrate south of Ngāi Tahu’s northernmost boundary, Te Parinui-o-whiti (White Bluffs) again. Nevertheless, Ngāi Tahu mounted a larger campaign during the fighting period of 1833–34. This time their army was larger and better armed. During this campaign, they occupied the Cloudy Bay region in the north of the South Island, but Ngāti Toa failed to engage with them, largely because they were facing problems in the North Island with their allies. Ngāi Tahu returned home after attacking the allied tribes of Ngāti Toa.

Te Pūoho’s raid

Before peace was established between Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Toa at the end of the 1830s, there was one last incident. In 1836 Te Pūoho, a chief of Ngāti Tama (allied to Ngāti Toa), undertook a long journey in an attempt to surprise Ngāi Tahu from the rear. Te Pūoho led his party down the West Coast, from the Whanganui Inlet to the Haast River. He then crossed the Haast Pass and travelled through Central Otago into Southland. However, the Ngāi Tahu chief Tūhawaiki, learning of Te Pūoho’s arrival, led a party from Ruapuke Island and took Te Pūoho by surprise at Tuturau. Te Pūoho was killed and his party captured.

Establishing peace

By 1839 both Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Toa had come to realise that any further fighting would achieve little. As a result, a peace was established and the Ngāi Tahu people held captive by Te Rauparaha on his stronghold, Kapiti Island, were released. At the end of the wars, Ngāi Tahu’s boundaries remained intact. Subsequent Ngāi Tahu–Ngāti Toa marriages, including one in the 20th century between descendants of Te Rauparaha and the Ngāi Tahu chief Taiaroa, reinforced the peace.

The Ngāi Tahu claim

The land purchases

Within a year of the peace settlement with Ngāti Toa, Ngāi Tahu also committed themselves to the Treaty of Waitangi, with its leading chiefs signing at Akaroa, Ruapuke and Ōtākou during 1840. Ngāi Tahu believed that with the treaty would come material benefits. However, one purpose of the treaty was to facilitate the Crown’s purchase of land from Māori, to sell to settlers or commercial interests. From 1844 to 1863 Ngāi Tahu sold their lands to the Crown in a series of nine purchases. The largest of these was the Canterbury purchase of 1848, negotiated by Henry Tacy Kemp, which saw 20 million acres (about 8 million hectares) sold for £2,000. The other principal transaction was the Otago purchase of 1844: 400,000 acres (about 162,000 hectares)sold for £2,400.

Ngāi Tahu dissatisfaction

It soon became apparent to Ngāi Tahu that the Crown would not honour the transactions, as they understood them. The tribe believed larger reserves should have been surveyed, their food-gathering places set aside, and schools and hospitals located within the villages.

The first formal statement of Ngāi Tahu grievances about the land purchases was made as early as 1849 by Matiaha Tiramōrehu. In the 1870s, Hōri Kerei Taiaroa began the pursuit of the Ngāi Tahu claim in Parliament. Subsequently almost every Ngāi Tahu leader until the 1990s was active in the cause.

Canterbury Ngāi Tahu understood that the hinterland had not been sold. It was this belief which inspired the prophet Te Maihāroa in 1877 to lead a party to Te Ao Mārama (Ōmārama) in the upper Waitaki basin, asserting a claim on the summer fowling grounds. Local sheep-run holders put pressure on the government, and in 1879 Te Maihāroa was forced from the interior of the South Island down to the coast.

Pursuing the claim

Besides the ongoing petitions to Parliament and Queen Victoria, Ngāi Tahu sought redress in the Native Land Court in 1868, and before a series of royal commissions, in particular the 1879 Royal Commission headed by Francis Nairn and Thomas Smith. The interim report of this commission found that larger reserves should have been set aside. However, no action was taken and the commission’s funds were cut.

Broken promises

In 1879 a Ngāi Tahu leader, who had been at the signing of the deed of sale drawn up by Henry Tacy Kemp in 1848, had this to say to the royal commission into their land claims:

‘Kemp promised us reserves, we were to have our fisheries, our burial places, mahinga kai [food-gathering places], eel weirs, anywhere, everywhere. The promises were made 30 years ago! Where is the fulfilment of them? Our mahinga kai were places where we used to get food, the natural products of the soil … We used to get food from all over our island.’ 1

The first settlements

Other inquiries and commissions followed. All commented on the misery and poverty that Ngāi Tahu endured after the land sales of the mid-19th century. A 1920–21 commission of inquiry suggested they should be paid compensation of £354,000, but no immediate action was taken. In 1928 the first Ngāi Tahu Trust Board was set up, with a meeting the following year to help identify the beneficiaries of the proposed compensation.

It was not until 1944 that the first Labour government passed the Ngāi Tahu Claim Settlement Act. This awarded Ngāi Tahu £300,000, payable at a rate of £10,000 a year for 30 years. This was less than the recommended £354,000 of the royal commission, whose findings had always been contested by Ngāi Tahu. Nevertheless, the act was passed with the intention of making £300,000 a full and final settlement of the Ngāi Tahu claim. In 1946, legislation reconstituted the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board, which enabled the funds to be administered.

  1. Quoted in Harry C. Evison, Te Wai Pounamu, the greenstone island: a history of the southern Maori during the European colonization of New Zealand. Christchurch: Aoraki, 1993, p. 444. › Back

The Ngāi Tahu settlement

The Waitangi Tribunal claim

In 1986 Hēnare Rakiihia Tau filed a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board. The claim identified Ngāi Tahu’s grievances about the land purchases. In 1991 the Waitangi Tribunal published its report, and followed up in 1992 with findings on the tribal claim to the fisheries. In 1993 the Waitangi Tribunal published the final report on the smaller claims to reserves.

The settlement

The three reports became the basis of a negotiated settlement between Ngāi Tahu and the Crown. Sir Tīpene O’Regan led the negotiation process for Ngāi Tahu. To facilitate the expected settlement, the Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu Act was passed in 1996. This was the first New Zealand legislation to recognise a tribal group as a political entity. Two years later, the Ngaitahu Claims Settlement Act saw the matter resolved.

The Deed of Settlement signed with the Crown on 21 November 1997 included Ngāi Tahu’s right and opportunity to buy certain Crown assets, enabling the tribe to fund its social and cultural development. The financial value of the settlement was $170 million. Like the Tainui settlement signed two years earlier, it included a relativity clause enabling supplementary payments if future settlements with other tribes were large in comparison. The Ngāi Tahu settlement also included an apology from the Crown and opportunities for cultural redress.

In 2013 almost 55,000 people identified themselves as Ngāi Tahu. It was the fourth largest tribe in New Zealand, and had the largest territory of any tribe.

Ngāi Tahu marae today

One aspect of the cultural resurgence of Ngāi Tahu was the revival of the traditional marae. At Takahanga in Kaikōura and at Bluff new buildings have been constructed. Ōnuku, near Akaroa, acquired a new carved house. In Christchurch, the sub-tribe Ngāi Tūahuriri of Tuahiwi have assumed the mana of an urban marae, Rēhua. At Waihao, Arowhenua, Taumutu, Koukourarata, Tuahiwi and Mangamaunu existing buildings have been improved or extended. The Puketeraki people of Otago have replaced their original meeting house.

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 Ngāi Tahu (including those who indicated more than one tribe), and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013.

The only previous census asking Māori to indicate tribal affiliation – but not of multiple tribes – was in 1901.

  • 1901 census: 1,549 (indicated as Ngatikahungunu in the census)
  • 1991 census: 20,304
  • 2001 census: 39,180
  • 2006 census: 49,185
  • 2013 census: 54,819

Major regional locations

  • Canterbury: 15,375
  • Auckland, 6,600
  • Wellington: 5,565
  • Otago: 5,328
  • Southland: 5,028

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Maire Tau, 'Ngāi Tahu', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 January 2021)

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