Story: Ngāi Tūhoe

Page 3. The land and environment

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Me Manaaki Tātou i tō Tātou Whāea e Takoto Iho Nei, a Papatuanuku.
The People and the Land are One.

Tribal territory

The traditional lands of Tūhoe centre on the rugged Te Urewera region, in the central eastern North Island. It stretches westward from Maungapōhatu to Ngā Māhanga on the Whakatāne River, then further west to the watershed between the Whakatāne and Rangitāiki rivers, and northwards along Te Ika-whenua-a-Tamatea range to a point just west of Tarapounamu peak. From there the boundary extended south to Maungataniwha, crossed the Wairau River and followed the Huiarau Range to Whakatakā, and then back to Maungapōhatu.

Over the centuries, mainly through conquest and intermarriage, the tribe’s influence spread to Waikaremoana and Te Pāpuni in the south-east, Te Whāitinui-a-Toi, Whirinaki and Te Houhi to the west, and Ōpouriao, Waimana and Te Hūrepo to the north. Later, Ōhiwa provided a northern access to the resources of Ōhiwa Harbour.

The land is extremely rough, broken, mountainous forest country. The rivers are fast flowing, ill suited to canoes or Pākehā craft. At Ngā Māhanga, Ruatāhuna, Ohāua, Hanga-mahihi and a few other locations there are areas suitable for cultivation, but elsewhere there is very little useable land. It was only with the occupation of Ōpouriao and Waimana to the north in the early 19th century that Tūhoe acquired large areas suitable for cultivation. The ruggedness, harsh climate and inaccessibility of Te Urewera, along with the fierce reputation of its inhabitants, deterred most Europeans until the second half of the 19th century.

Te Urewera

Te Urewera was, and still is, extremely important to Tūhoe. It provided food, clothing, medicine and shelter; in times of war it was an impenetrable fortress, difficult for an attacker to enter, and even harder to leave. Encircled by mountains, Tūhoe were for a long time cut off from direct access to the sea and marine resources. Moreover, kūmara (sweet potato) would not grow except in a few locations. Consequently Tūhoe evolved a distinctive economy based on their forest environment.

The mountains

For Tūhoe, mountains are significant places. They are the final resting place of the ancestors, and the places where lightning plays, a portent for good or evil. Mountains also define the areas of influence of the tribe, and are referred to in oratory, songs and haka as potent symbols of identity.

Each Tūhoe community has a mountain that is of special importance to its area. But the peak which sits above them all is Maungapōhatu, in the Huiarau Range at the heart of Te Urewera. When the Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana built his community, he chose Maungapōhatu as the location, for it was ‘the Mountain of the Lord and of our Forebears’. 1 Some other mountains and ranges special to Tūhoe are Huiarau, Panekire, Tāwhiuau, Te Ika-Whenua-a-Tamatea, Maungataniwha, Puke-nui-o-raho, Taiarahia, Tūwatawata and Hikurangi.

The rivers

Rangitāiki, Whirinaki, Tauranga, and Ōhinemataroa are the main rivers of the tribe. Apart from those of Waimako and Kūhā at Lake Waikaremoana, the main Tūhoe settlements are to be found in these river valleys – Ruatāhuna and Rūātoki on the Ōhinemataroa, Matahī and Waimana on the Tauranga, Te Whāiti on Whirinaki and Waiōhau on the Rangitāiki. When Tūhoe expanded from their original Ngā Pōtiki territory in the heart of Te Urewera, they followed these north-flowing rivers, cultivating crops along the small river flats as they went.


Lake Waikaremoana is in the south-east of the territory. Tūhoe and Ngāti Ruapani say the lake was formed by the thrashing of Haumapuhia, who was turned into a taniwha by her father Māhū. In her vain efforts to reach the sea, Haumapuhia formed the various branches of the lake.

In the early 19th century a state of war existed between hapū (sub-tribes) of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu around Waikaremoana. Tūhoe hapū moved from other parts of the tribal territory to the lake, to cement the Tūhoe occupation of Waikaremoana. They built and occupied , and intermarried with local hapū, to the extent that Ngāti Ruapani-ki-Waikaremoana identify strongly with Tūhoe. With the arrival of Christianity in the 19th century, peace was achieved and the boundary laid between Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu to the east, by the symbolic joining of two mountains: Kūhā Tārewa (Tūhoe) and Turi-o-Kahu (Ngāti Kahungunu).

  1. Judith Binney, Mihaia. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams, 1987, p. 45. › Back
How to cite this page:

Rangi McGarvey, 'Ngāi Tūhoe - The land and environment', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Rangi McGarvey, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017