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Ngāi Tūhoe

by  Rangi McGarvey

Isolated high up in the rugged Urewera country, Ngāi Tūhoe developed a powerful connection with the mountains, forests and rivers. They say that their ancestors were Te Maunga (the Mountain) and Hine-pūkohu-rangi (the Mist Maiden) – personifications of the natural world, who brought forth the people known as Ngāi Tūhoe.

The first peoples

Nā Toi rāua ko Pōtiki te whenua
Nā Tūhoe te mana me te rangatiratanga.
The land comes from Toi and Pōtiki
The power and prestige comes from Tūhoe.

Ngā Pōtiki

Ngā Pōtiki are the early ancestors of the people we know today as Ngāi Tūhoe. Before the arrival in New Zealand of the migrants on the Mataatua canoe, they occupied much of what is now the Urewera region, including Maungapōhatu, Ruatāhuna and Maungataniwha. While evidence of the ancestor Pōtiki’s origins is slender, the historian Elsdon Best (Te Pēhi) maintained he was a contemporary of the ancestors Toitehuatahi (Toi) and Hape-ki-tumanui-o-te-rangi (Hape). Some of the sub-tribes of Ngā Pōtiki were Ngāti Rākei, Ngāi Tuahau, Tama-kai-moana, Ngāti Papa and Ngāi Tūmata-rākau.

Te Tini o Toi

Tūhoe also belong to Te Tini o Toi lineage, being the descendants of Toitehuatahi (Toi the Lone Born), sometimes known as Toikairākau (Toi the Wood Eater) and his ancestor Tīwakawaka.

Toi lived at his pā, Kaputerangi, situated on the bluffs above present-day Whakatāne. He was the founding ancestor of many tribes that occupied a large swathe of territory. These peoples, including Te Tini o Awa, Te Mārangaranga, Te Tini o Tuoi, Te Tini o Taunga and Ngāi Tūranga, were known collectively as Te Tini o Toi (the multitudes of Toi). The territories of Te Tini o Toi extended south from the mouth of the Ōhinemataroa River to Ngā Māhanga, and from Waimana in the east to the Rangitāiki River in the west, then inland to Kūhāwaea (Galatea) and Te Whāiti-nui-a-Toi (Te Whāiti).

Te Hapū-oneone

In addition, Tūhoe trace their descent from the confederation of Te Hapū-oneone. These people were descendants of Hape, who came from Hawaiki on the Rangimatoru canoe, landing at Ōhiwa Harbour in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. They occupied territory from Ōhiwa inland to Waimana and over the Taiarahia range to Rūātoki. Te Hapū-oneone consisted of related tribes including Ngāti Raumoa, Ngāi Te Kapo and Ngāi Tūranga.

Toroa and Tūhoe-pōtiki


An old proverb sums up the character of the Tūhoe people:

Tūhoe moumou kai
Moumou taonga
Moumou tangata ki te Pō.

Tūhoe wasteful of food
Wasteful of treasures
Wasters of men to Death.


When the Mataatua canoe arrived in New Zealand 18–20 generations ago, Toroa was the captain and his half-brother Tāneatua was the tohunga. Among the crew were Toroa’s younger brother [no-lexicon]Puhi[/no-lexicon], his sister Muriwai, son Ruaihona and daughter Wairaka.

The Mataatua landed first at Whangaparāoa (Cape Runaway) in the eastern Bay of Plenty, and then progressed to Te Mānuka Tūtahi (lone-standing mānuka) at the mouth of the Ōhinemataroa River. The new arrivals found the ancient tribe of Te Hapū-oneone occupying the district from Whakatāne to Ōpōtiki. Also established were Ngāi Tūranga in the Rūātoki and Ōpouriao districts, Ngā Pōtiki at Ruatāhuna and Mārangaranga in the upper Rangitāiki valley.

Some time after they reached Whakatāne a dispute arose between Toroa and [no-lexicon]Puhi[/no-lexicon] over their cultivations, which ended with [no-lexicon]Puhi[/no-lexicon] sailing northwards with the Mataatua and most of the crew. [no-lexicon]Puhi[/no-lexicon] and his descendants settled in the north, where they are known as Ngāpuhi. Only Toroa, Tāneatua, Muriwai and their immediate families remained in the Bay of Plenty. They and their descendants intermarried with the earlier peoples. These unions were to bring about new tribes, one of them being Ngāi Tūhoe. The Mataatua migrants, while extremely few in number, added vigour to the earlier peoples, to the extent that over several generations the identities of earlier tribes diminished as a Tūhoe identity emerged.


The Tūhoe tribe takes its name from Tūhoe-pōtiki, the youngest son of Tamatea-ki-te-huatahi (the grandson of Toroa) and Paewhiti, who was part Ngāi Tūranga and part Mataatua immigrant through her father Tāneatua. Tūhoe, his two elder brothers, Ue-imua and Tānemoeahi, and sister Uenuku-rauiri lived in the Rūātoki valley, 32 kilometres upstream from where the Ōhinemataroa River flows into Te Moana-a-Toitehuatahi (Bay of Plenty). The pā of Tūhoe-pōtiki were Te Mauku and Ngā Taumata; Tānemoeahi occupied Te Pūtiki pā, and Ue-imua resided at Kākā-tarahae pā.

The brothers had a fearsome reputation, and were known throughout the region as Te Tokotoru-a-Paewhiti (the three sons of Paewhiti). Because of their ferocity in battle, the following saying arose:

Kainga te kai, kei te haere te tokotoru a Paewhiti!
Eat and run, the three sons of Paewhiti are on the rampage!

A dispute arose among them over rights to cultivations near Ōwhakatoro Stream, a western tributary of the Ōhinemataroa River. Ue-imua threated to kill Tūhoe-pōtiki and eat his heart. Warfare erupted between the brothers and their people. Tānemoeahi sided with Tūhoe against Ue-imua. In the ensuing battle it was Ue-imua who was killed and his heart consumed by Tūhoe; by this act Tūhoe acquired the mana of his elder brother.

Eventually tiring of the infighting, Tūhoe-pōtiki left Rūātoki and travelled north. He lived for a time at Ngongotahā, Rotorua, near a spring, Te Puna-a-Tūhoe (known today as Fairy Springs). Later he left for Waikato, some say in search of his uncle, Māhanga. Tūhoe lived the remainder of his days at Kāwhia on the west coast of the North Island. There is a cave in the vicinity of Rangitoto called Te Ana-a-Tūhoe (Tūhoe’s cave). His descendants remained in the eastern Bay of Plenty to stake their claim to the land.

The land and environment

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 pā, 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

The impact of Europeans

Early contact

There is no record of the first Tūhoe encounter with Pākehā, but it is possible that Tūhoe were present at or heard of Captain James Cook’s landing at Tūranga (Poverty Bay) in 1769, and his subsequent voyage to the Bay of Plenty. There was little further contact for another 50 years, when traders and missionaries began to arrive.

Because of their inaccessible territory and the uneasy state of affairs between them and their neighbours on the coast, Tūhoe had fewer dealings with Pākehā than other Māori. Despite this, they encountered European goods, particularly when Ngāpuhi made their devastating musket raids throughout the North Island between 1819 and 1823. Potatoes and pigs were two of the earliest imports, and in about 1820 the tribe acquired maize.

Commerce also thrived with coastal tribes, who had easier access to such commodities. Flax fibre, potted birds and even slaves were exchanged for goods including arms, ammunition, seeds, tools, and animals. Because of the tension between Tūhoe and their Ngāti Awa kin on the coast, Tūhoe hapū (sub-tribes) travelled long distances to Tāmaki, Hauraki and other places to trade.


In the early 1860s, the Tūhoe people became aware of impending war over land and mana in the Waikato, with imperial troops massing on the northern Waikato border in preparation for an invasion. Tūhoe were initially cautious about becoming involved. The prevailing feeling was expressed by one chief: ‘Kia tāwharautia a Mataatua’ (let Mataatua be sheltered). It was suggested that action should be taken only if government troops came into Tūhoe territory. Troops did eventually arrive as a consequence of two incidents: the killing of the missionary Carl Sylvius Völkner at Ōpōtiki, and the involvement of some Tūhoe in the battle for Ōrākau.


In 1863 or early 1864, Ngāti Maniapoto war leader Rewi Maniapoto visited Te Urewera seeking allies for the war in the Waikato. In his request to the chiefs of Tūhoe, Rewi recalled the close bonds between Tūhoe and Waikato. He alluded to the resting place of the ancestor Tūhoe at Kāwhia in Waikato, and the epic duel between the chiefs Te Purewa of Tūhoe and Peehi Tūkorehu of Ngāti Maniapoto at Te Whāiti 40 years earlier. This ended in stalemate, with an exchange of weapons between the two great warrior chiefs. Rewi also referred to the pledge of Tūhoe support for the Māori King at the great conference of tribes held at Pūkawa, Lake Taupō, in 1856, and to the blood ties between Ngāti Whare (a Tūhoe hapū) and Tainui.

Under the leadership of Piripi Te Heuheu and Te Whenuanui, a party of 100 Tūhoe – men, women and children – departed for Waikato, and war. On their arrival, Rewi Maniapoto tried unsuccessfully to check their desire for immediate battle. They replied that they had come too far, and their weapons and ammunition were too heavy to carry all the way for nothing. Despite his own reservations about Ōrākau in south Waikato as a site for battle, Rewi Maniapoto agreed to their request.

Between 31 March and 2 April 1864 the Tūhoe contingent took part in the battle of Ōrākau alongside Rewi Maniapoto. The defenders faced overwhelming odds and were severely defeated. Tūhoe suffered 60% casualties, including their chief Piripi Te Heuheu. On the return of Te Whenuanui and the other survivors to Ruatāhuna, they were jeered by the widows of those who fell at Ōrākau.

The killing of Völkner

In March 1865 Reverend Carl Sylvius Völkner, an Anglican priest suspected by his Te Whakatōhea parishioners of being a government spy, was killed at Ōpōtiki. At the instigation of Kereopa Te Rau (a Pai Mārire missionary sent from Taranaki to enlist followers in the Bay of Plenty–East Coast area), Völkner was hanged not far from his church; his eyes were then scooped out and eaten. Kereopa then fled into Te Urewera. Despite their vehement denials and a lack of evidence of their presence at the killing of Völkner, Tūhoe were accused of involvement.

Months later Hēmi Te Mautaranui (James Fulloon), a government interpreter and agent, was killed in Whakatāne by Ngāti Awa. Tūhoe were indignant at this, as they recognised Fulloon as their kin. Both the Völkner and Fulloon killings resulted in punitive raids by government forces into the northern Tūhoe territories.

Resistance: 1866 to 1872


In 1866, 448,000 acres (181,000 hectares) of land belonging to the ‘rebel’ tribes of the Bay of Plenty – Tūhoe, Te Whakatōhea and Ngāti Awa – were confiscated by the government. This area was subsequently reduced to 211,000 acres (85,387 hectares), of which Tūhoe lost 14,000 (5,700 hectares). Tūhoe lost Ōpouriao and Waimana, their only substantial flat lands, and their only access to the coast through Ōhiwa Harbour. This injustice fanned the flames of war.

Te Kooti

In June 1866, Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, of the Te Rongowhakaata tribe of Poverty Bay, was exiled to Wharekauri (Chatham Islands) on suspicion of being a spy for the Hauhau. Two years later in July 1868, following prophetic visions, he led a mass escape of 298 captives aboard the Rifleman, returned to the East Coast of the North Island and began a guerrilla war that set the country ablaze.

Clashes with militia on the East Coast culminated in a bloody and unsuccessful attempt by Te Kooti to take Poverty Bay. Te Kooti and his followers turned inland to the forests of Te Urewera. He waited on the eastern Te Urewera borders for permission from Tūhoe to enter the territory. In March 1869, at a meeting at Tāwhana in the Waimana valley, Tūhoe committed themselves and their lands to Te Kooti. In return Te Kooti made a promise to Tūhoe, using the words of God to Moses:

Ka tango ahau i a koutou hei iwi mōku ā, ko ahau hei Atua mō koutou ā, ka mōhio koutou ko Īhowa ahau. Ko koe hoki te iwi o te kawenata.
I take you as my people and I will be your God; you will know that I am Jehovah. You are the people of the covenant. 1

The pursuit of Te Kooti

The government waged a bitter campaign in Te Urewera in its search for Te Kooti and his followers. Old enemies of Tūhoe fought on the side of the government; they carried out most of the raids into Te Urewera during a prolonged and destructive search between 1869 and 1872. In a policy aimed at turning the tribe away from Te Kooti, a scorched earth campaign was unleashed against Tūhoe; people were imprisoned and killed, their cultivations and homes destroyed, and stock killed or run off. Through starvation, deprivation and atrocities at the hands of the government’s Māori forces, Tūhoe submitted to the Crown. The whereabouts of Te Kooti, however, were never revealed.

In 1872 Te Kooti escaped to the King Country where he remained in exile. In 1883 he received an official pardon from the government. Although best remembered as a guerrilla fighter, he was for Tūhoe a spiritual leader in their time of need, and the founder of their pre-eminent faith, Te Hāhi Ringatū.

  1. Judith Binney, Redemption songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. Auckland, Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams, 1997, p. 154. › Back

Self-imposed isolation

Te Whitu Tekau

In 1871 Tūhoe reached an agreement with the government. They would lay down their arms and assist in capturing Te Kooti if the government forces would cease their scorched earth policy in Te Urewera country. Despite this agreement, Te Kooti escaped unharmed to the sanctuary of the King Country.

Following the cessation of hostilities in 1872, Tūhoe convened a governing council of chiefs called Te Whitu Tekau – The Seventy. They were charged with protecting the lands of the tribe and keeping out government authority. Their catchcry was ‘Kaua te rori, kaua te rūri, kaua te rīhi, kaua te hoko’ (No roads, no survey, no leasing land, no selling land).

Having seen the disastrous effects of Pākehā settlement on other tribes, their lands and resources, Tūhoe closed access to its lands.

Signposts were erected at tracks entering Te Urewera warning strangers, especially Pākehā, not to enter. Eru Tamaikōhā, fighting chief of Te Whakatāne hapū of Waimana, was even more explicit, erecting signs on his lands, warning: ‘Trespassers will be eaten’.

Rua Kēnana

In 1905 a prophet emerged from the people: Rua Kēnana. He would play a crucial role in Tūhoe political affairs until his death. Rua called himself Mihāia (Messiah) and claimed to be the successor whose coming Te Kooti had predicted. By 1907 he had established a community of around 600 people at Maungapōhatu, the sacred mountain of Tūhoe. He named it Hiruhārama Hōu, New Jerusalem.

The policies promoted by Rua were non-violent and progressive. He strove to introduce trade and agriculture and even tried banking and mining. He promised the people the return of their lands and mana. As historian Judith Binney stated, ‘To lives which were otherwise bounded by quiet despair he brought hope that might “show the Heavens more just”. Who would deny them that?’ 1

Rua’s community was seen by Pākehā as subversive, and he was accused of discouraging his followers from enlisting for the First World War and selling alcohol. In 1916 police invaded Maungapōhatu to arrest him and in the ensuing gunfight two Tūhoe men, including Rua’s son, were killed. Rua and others were arrested and transported to Auckland for trial for sedition. Rua was sentenced to one year of hard labour followed by 18 months’ imprisonment.

Rua was released from jail in April 1918 and returned to Maungapōhatu. His community had been torn apart by the police invasion, the subsequent trials, the imprisonment of community members and the crippling legal costs. There followed a long slide into irrelevance for Rua and his church. He died in 1937 and was buried at Matahī in the Waimana valley.

  1. Judith Binney, Mihaia. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams, 1987, p. 189. › Back

Future challenges

E hoki ki ō maunga
Kia purea koe e ngā hau a Tāwhiri-matea.
Return to your mountains
That you may be cleansed by the winds of Tāwhiri-matea.

Tūhoe today

In 2013 the Tūhoe population was 34,890 making it one of the larger tribes. Only about 5,000 Tūhoe reside in the tribal homelands. Most live in the larger cities, and the towns on the fringes of Te Urewera – Murupara, Rotorua, Whakatāne, Gisborne and Wairoa. This poses a challenge in upholding Tūhoetanga – Tūhoe identity. Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton have long-established Tūhoe groups where members can support each other and maintain the cultural practices and links to the homeland. Tūhoe people return regularly to the tribal homeland for tangihanga, birthdays, weddings, unveiling of memorial stones, church functions, marae gatherings, or simply ‘going to the bush’. The Māori language is strong; according to 2013 statistics, 37% of the tribe are fluent speakers of Māori, the largest proportion of any tribe.

Te Hui Ahurei a Tūhoe

Thirty years ago Tūhoe elders, seeing their young people leaving home to find work in the urban areas, became increasingly worried about the possible loss of their unique language and culture. They decided to organise a gathering to bring home members of the tribe living in the cities, to celebrate matemateāone (blood ties) – a term peculiar to Tūhoe for an overwhelming feeling of emotional, physical and spiritual attachment to your kin through whakapapa and shared feelings for the land.

Following the first gatherings in the early 1970s, the tribe has held a sports and cultural festival at one of the tribal communities every two years to celebrate Tūhoe culture and language. The people participate in kapa haka (traditional performance art), debates, sports, fashion shows, or catch up with friends and relations. Some 25,000 Tūhoe from all around New Zealand and overseas attend these three-day events.

The significance of Te Urewera

Te Urewera holds a special place in the hearts of Tūhoe. Semi-permanent encampments are still established on islands of Māori land within the area, where members carry on the activities of food-gathering practised by their ancestors for hundreds of years. Tūhoe people are involved in restoration programmes for endangered native birds – the kiwi in the southern Te Urewera around Waikaremoana, and the kōkako in the north-eastern Te Urewera around Waimana. Tourism initiatives by members of the tribe have been active for many years, providing much-needed income. With the majority of its people under the age of 25, Tūhoe looks to the future with confidence, reassured that the elders have left a rich legacy.

Treaty settlement

Ngāi Tūhoe settled its historic treaty claims with the Crown on 4 June 2013. The total financial value of the settlement was about $170 million. New legislation provided the former  Urewera National Park with its own legal entity, and included protection of biodiversity, natural and historic heritage, public input into management, and public access. Te Urewera would be managed jointly by the Department of Conservation and Tūhoe. Mana motuhake (self-determination) redress included a Service Management Plan governing the management and delivery of services by Tūhoe and the Ministries of Social Development, Education, and Business, Innovation and Employment, with District Health Boards included in the future.

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 Tūhoe (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 that of 1901.

  • 1901 census: 1,094 (indicated as Urewera in the census)
  • 1991 census: 24,522
  • 2001 census: 29,259
  • 2006 census: 32,670
  • 2013 census: 34,890

Major regional locations

  • Bay of Plenty: 11,127
  • Auckland: 6,228

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rangi McGarvey, 'Ngāi Tūhoe', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2021)

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