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by  Rāwiri Taonui

The magical light from Te Ramaroa mountain first guided Kupe into Hokianga Harbour. Many other sacred mountains support the house of Ngāpuhi, a people who played a central role in Māori history.


Ngāpuhi is the largest tribe in New Zealand. Their heartland lies at Te Tai Tokerau (the northern tide) in the far north. The territory stretches west to east from Hokianga Harbour to the Bay of Islands, and southward to Maunganui Bluff and Whangārei. The following chant likens the lands of Ngāpuhi to a traditional house:

The house of Ngāpuhi
He mea hanga tēnei tōku whare
Ko Ranginui e titiro iho nei te tuanui
Ko Papatūānuku te paparahi
Ko ngā maunga ngā poupou
Pūhanga Tohorā titiro ki Te Ramaroa
Te Ramaroa titiro ki Whiria
Ko te paiaka o te riri, te kawa o Rāhiri
Whiria titiro ki Panguru ki Papata, te rākau e tū papata ki Te Tai Hauāuru
Panguru–Papata titiro ki Maunga Taniwha-whakarongorua
Maungataniwha titiro ki Tokerau
Tokerau titiro ki Rākaumangamanga
Rākaumangamanga titiro ki Manaia
Manaia titiro ki Tūtāmoe
Tūtāmoe titiro ki Maunganui
Maunganui titiro ki Pūhanga Tohorā
Ko tēnei te wharetapu ō Ngāpuhi-nuitonu.
A house is constructed thus
The sky father is the roof
The earth mother is the floor
The mountains are the posts
Pūhanga Tohorā faces Te Ramaroa
Te Ramaroa faces Whiria
The taproot of strife, the custom of Rāhiri
Whiria faces Panguru-Papata, the trees bent by the western wind
Panguru-Papata faces Maungataniwha that hears
both the eastern and western coasts
Maunga Taniwha faces Tokerau
Tokerau faces Rākaumangamanga
Rākaumangamanga faces Manaia
Manaia faces Tūtāmoe
Tūtāmoe faces Maunganui
Maunganui faces Pūhanga Tohorā
This is the sacred house of everlasting Ngāpuhi.


Each of the mountains that form the sacred house of Ngāpuhi has significance.

Pūhanga Tohorā (the whale), also known as Pīhanga Tohorā, has the shape of a whale. A sacred freshwater spring near the peak is the whale’s blowhole. Te Ramaroa (the eternal flame) is the mountain that guided the great navigator Kupe into Hokianga Harbour. Whiria was the home of many members of the founding family of Ngāpuhi.

Panguru and Papata, the two peaks on the northern side of the Hokianga Harbour, act like a wind tunnel. The strength of the prevailing westerly winds across the saddle joining the peaks is so strong that trees growing there are bent towards the east.

Maunga-taniwha-whakarongorua (the taniwha that hears the east and west) is the only mountain in the territory of Ngāpuhi from which both coasts can be seen. Tokerau and Rākaumangamanga are sentinels standing at the northern and southern entrances to the Bay of Islands. Manaia, the main ancestral mountain for the tribes of Whangārei, is named after one of their earliest ancestors. Tūtāmoe is a guardian of the tribes around present-day Dargaville.

Maunganui is a sacred mountain standing between the Kaipara and Hokianga harbours. Several important chiefs and priests are said to be buried there.



The arrival of the Polynesian navigator Kupe in the Matawhaorua canoe is legendary in the history of Ngāpuhi.

Guided by light reflected from the mountain Te Ramaroa, Kupe entered Hokianga Harbour. The traditions say that Kupe was so awestruck by the strength of the light that he named the harbour Te Puna-o-te-ao-mārama (spring of the world of light). The light struck the northern shore of the Hokianga, which he named Te Pouahi (the post of fire).

Kohukohu, Te Pouahi and Whānui were Kupe’s first settlements on the northern shores of the harbour. Koutu, Pākanae and Whirinaki were his settlements on the southern side. When he returned to Hawaiki he said, 'Ka hoki ahau? E kore ahau e hokianga mai!' (Shall I return? I shall never return!), hence the name Te Hokianga-a-Kupe (the great returning place of Kupe).

Ngātokimatawhaorua and Māmari

In Hawaiki, Kupe’s canoe was re-adzed and named Ngātokimatawhaorua (‘ngā toki’ means ‘the adzes’). Captained by Nukutawhiti, the refurbished canoe returned to Hokianga, accompanied by Ruanui and his canoe Māmari.

The captains landed and established their settlements. Nukutawhiti completed his first, but waited for Ruanui so that they could conduct their dedication rites together. However, when Ruanui finished building his houses of learning he ordered his priests to begin consecrating them without waiting for Nukutawhiti. The priests chanted incantations to compel a huge whale to enter the harbour and beach itself as a sacrifice.

When he realised this, Nukutawhiti ordered his priests to perform chants to send the whale back toward the open sea. Ruanui’s prayers finally ran out and the crew of the Māmari had to leave the Hokianga. This is remembered in the name Hokianga-whakapau-karakia (Hokianga where incantations were exhausted).


Several accounts tell how the Mataatua canoe arrived in the north. Traditions from the Bay of Plenty say that the ancestor Puhi sailed the Mataatua northward from Whakatāne to Tākou Bay after a dispute with his brother, Toroa. Some northern accounts say that the Mataatua actually rounded Cape Rēinga before sailing south along the west coast and landing in the Hokianga Harbour. From here it was said to be dragged overland to Kerikeri before sailing to Tākou Bay.

Others claim the canoe was carried across the Auckland isthmus before sailing northward along the coast to Hokianga. The earliest Ngāpuhi account says that the Mataatua actually landed in the north first and went to the Bay of Plenty some time later.

Puhi, Te Wahineiti and Miru are also said to have been leaders of the Mataatua. Miru is believed to have circumnavigated the North Island in this canoe. Both Ngāpuhi and the Bay of Plenty tribes agree that the Mataatua rests at Tākou Bay. A reunion was held by both groups at the Bay of Islands in 1986.



Rāhiri is the founding ancestor of Ngāpuhi. Born at Whiria , he was the son of Tauramoko and Te Hauangiangi. Tauramoko was a descendant of two captains – Kupe of the Matawhaorua canoe, and Nukutawhiti of the Ngātokimatawhaorua canoe. Te Hauangiangi was the daughter of Puhi, captain of the Mataatua canoe.

Rāhiri married two women. Hokianga tradition says his first wife, Āhuaiti, was from Pouērua near Kaikohe in the Taumārere district. Āhuaiti left Rāhiri at Whiria and returned to her people after a dispute between Rāhiri and her brothers over fern root cultivations. The Taumārere tribes say that Rāhiri and Āhuaiti were married at Pouērua and that it was Rāhiri who left and returned to Whiria. However, both agree that Āhuaiti gave birth to a son named Uenuku.

After Rāhiri and Āhuaiti separated, Rāhiri married Whakaruru. They lived at Whiria and had a son named Kaharau.

Uenuku and Kaharau

When Rāhiri’s first son Uenuku reached adulthood he went to Whiria to reclaim his birthright. He and his half-brother Kaharau fought, but Rāhiri made peace between them. He instructed his sons to weave a flax rope long enough to go around Whiria mountain.

The rope was attached to a kite which, after being launched, came to rest against a pūriri tree. Rāhiri named that place Whirinaki (which means ‘to lean against a support’). The kite was hoisted again and flew further eastward before landing on the banks of the Taumārere River. Blown by the easterly winds, it then landed at Tahuna, near present-day Kaikohe. Its path became the boundary that Rāhiri set between the Hokianga and Taumārere. He also decreed that the Hokianga lands would go to Kaharau’s descendants, and the eastern lands of Taumārere to Uenuku’s descendants.

Kaharau’s son, Taurapoho, and Uenuku’s daughter, Ruakiwhiria, later married, thus ensuring the alliance would endure. The tribal saying ‘Ka tū tahi te tuakana me te teina’ (the older and younger brother will stand as one) expresses this ongoing unity.

Korokoro, Kairewa and Waimirirangi

The brothers Korokoro and Kairewa are the ancestors of the early Ngāpuhi hapū Ngāti Korokoro and Ngāti Kairewa, who live in the Pākanae and Whirinaki valleys of the southern Hokianga.

Kairewa married Waimirirangi and they had 10 children. All tribes north of Auckland can trace their descent from one of these children. Waimirirangi is held in particular regard and is often referred to as ‘Te Kuini-o-Te-Tai-Tokerau’ (the queen of the northern tide).

Tribal links and movement

Rāhiri of Ngāpuhi is also connected to other North Island tribes. Rāhiri married Āhuaiti and Whakaruru of Ngāpuhi. He then married Moetonga, whose descendants live in the Waipoua Forest and south of the Hokianga. He also married Paru, whose descendants live along the coast between Whangaruru and Whangārei.

Rāhiri travelled from Whiria in the Hokianga to Auckland, Te Aroha, Whakatāne, the East Coast, Wellington and Taranaki. This journey occurs in several traditions. In Remuera, Auckland, the peak Maunga Rāhiri was named after him (it has since been quarried). The Bay of Plenty Mataatua tribes say Rāhiri lived at Kaputerangi, an ancient above present-day Whakatāne. Rāhiri is also linked to Ngāti Rāhiri-tumutumu-whenua (Te Aroha) and Ngāti Rāhiri-pakarara (Taranaki).

The Hokianga tribes first consolidated under the tribal name Ngāi Tūpoto, which they took from Rāhiri’s great-grandson Tūpoto (the son of Taurapoho and Ruakiwhiria). Tūpoto’s sons Korokoro, Kairewa, Miruiti, Tuiti and Tūteauru led sub-tribes which came to dominate the Hokianga Harbour region.


The descendants of Māhia, Tūpoto’s brother, expanded eastward from Kaikohe and Pouērua. The ancestors Auha and Whakaaria, for example, led successful campaigns into the Taiāmai, Te Waimate, Taumārere, Kerikeri and Paihia districts, overrunning and often intermarrying with Ngāi Tāhuhu, Ngāti Manaia, Te Wahineiti and Ngāti Miru. These eastern tribes were the first to begin using the tribal name Ngāpuhi. As the two groups merged, the name came to apply to all tribes in the Hokianga and Bay of Islands.


One of the titles by which Ngāpuhi is known is Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu (everlasting Ngāpuhi). This describes the multiplicity of tribes, sub-tribes and marae within the tribe. Sometimes it is also used as an inclusive reference describing how the Muriwhenua tribes of Ngāti Kurī, Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri, and the southern tribes of Ngātiwai, Te Parawhau, Te Roroa and Ngāti Whātua are closely related to Ngāpuhi. Care needs to be exercised when using this title because each of these groups is a tribe in its own right.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Ngāpuhi tribes pushed east toward Kawakawa, Te Rāwhiti and the Whangaruru coast, where they absorbed other tribes, including Ngāti Manu, Te Kapotai, Te Uri o Rata, Ngare Raumati and Ngātiwai.

Ngāpuhi also expanded southward toward Whangārei and the Kaipara, where they merged with related tribes such as Parawhau.

Early European contact

The Bay of Islands was a centre of trade and commerce with European ships. Kororāreka (present-day Russell) gained a reputation as a centre of drunkenness, prostitution and debauchery. When the Reverend Samuel Marsden landed at Rangihoua Bay in 1814, he gave the first sermon and established the first Christian mission there.

Muskets and war

Ngāpuhi played a prominent role during early contact with Europeans. Because more European ships visited the Bay of Islands than anywhere else, Ngāpuhi acquired more muskets than other tribes. The supply was increased when northern rangatira Hongi Hika returned from an overseas trip with several hundred muskets.

Between 1818 and 1823, Ngāpuhi and other northern iwi launched a series of expeditions across a wide area of the North Island. The Āmiowhenua expedition of 1821 was the largest, going southward from the Kaipara, through Auckland and the Waikato River area to Hawke’s Bay and Wellington. They returned northward along the west coast. Because they had muskets, Ngāpuhi were able to inflict devastating defeats on other iwi. These included:

  • Ngāti Porou at Whetūmatarau near East Cape in 1820
  • Ngāti Whātua at Te Ika-a-Ranganui near Whangārei
  • Ngāti Pāoa at Mauinaina in Auckland in 1821
  • the Marutūahu iwi at Te Tōtara in the Coromandel
  • the Waikato iwi at Mātakitaki in 1822
  • Te Arawa at Mokoia Island on Lake Rotorua in 1823.

The Treaty of Waitangi

Ngāpuhi were also at the forefront of political developments with Europeans. In 1835, 35 Northern chiefs signed the Declaration of Independence, which asserted Māori sovereignty over New Zealand. In February 1840, the rangatira of Ngāpuhi met with Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson, official British Resident James Busby and the missionary Henry Williams to consider signing what would become known as the Treaty of Waitangi.

Led by the Bay of Islands rangatira, the group initially rejected the treaty, although a minority spoke in favour of signing. Eventually Hōne Heke Pōkai and Tāmati Wāka Nene, from the Hokianga, persuaded the remaining chiefs to sign, drawing on assurances from Hobson and Williams that the treaty was intended primarily to protect Māori land and interests from the French and unscrupulous settlers. On 6 February 1840, 43 Ngāpuhi rangatira, led by Heke, signed the treaty. Over the following months a further 100 or more Ngāpuhi rangatira signed.

The northern war

In 1845 and 1846 many Ngāpuhi fought against the British Crown after dissatisfaction about the Treaty of Waitangi, the encroachment of European settlers, and increasing British control over their affairs.

Hōne Heke, who had been the first rangatira to sign the treaty in 1840, expressed his discontent by chopping down the flagstaff at Kororāreka three times in 1844 and 1845. Open warfare broke out when Heke, Pūmuka and Kawiti led three columns of Māori into Kororāreka on 11 March 1845, sacking and taking possession of the town.

More battles were fought at Puketutu, Ahuahu, Ōhaeawai and Te Ruapekapeka. At Puketutu, 200 Māori defeated a force of 400 British army regulars, seamen, marines and European volunteers, when Heke and Kawiti out-manoeuvred a British storming party.

Heke, in turn, was defeated at Ahuahu by pro-government Hokianga Māori led by Taonui and Tāmati Wāka Nene. This battle was fought exclusively between Māori. Hokianga Māori probably chose to fight Heke and Kawiti because they had not experienced the negative impacts of colonisation to the same degree as those in the Bay of Islands. Hokianga was just beginning to open up and reap the initial benefits of trade.

Despite being outnumbered six to one, Bay of Islands Māori defeated the British for a second time at Ōhaeawai. Safe in underground bunkers, they survived a heavy bombardment before emerging to repel  a British storming party on which they inflicted heavy casualties.

The last battle at Te Ruapekapeka in January 1846 was something of an anti-climax. A British force of 1,300 men laid siege to 600–800 Māori, only for the Māori to abandon the without a serious fight.

The northern war set a pattern for other wars around the North Island. Despite the success of their fortifications and battle strategies, Māori were unable to sustain long campaigns against the British, who had superior numbers and armaments. The British were also able to keep their armies in the field for long periods, while Māori fighters often had to return to their homes to tend cultivations and look after their families.

Land loss

The promises of the treaty were one thing; the reality of colonisation was quite another, especially when it came to land. By 1865 Ngāpuhi had lost in excess of 72,000 hectares of land in Hokianga and the Bay of Islands through pre-treaty claims by Europeans, so-called surplus land passed to the Crown, and other dubious Crown purchases.

After 1865 over 201,000 hectares of Ngāpuhi land went through the Native Land Court. Land that was traditionally owned by the community was awarded to individuals. This made it easier for the Crown and European settlers to buy Māori land. By 1908, just 61,000 hectares remained in Māori hands.

In 1975 Whina Cooper, a descendant of Waimirirangi, brought the issue to prominence when she led a march from Te Tai Tokerau to Parliament to protest against the loss of Māori land. In later life, she was often called ‘Te Whāea-o-te-motu’ (the mother of the nation) for her contribution to Māori land rights.

Ngāpuhi today

In 2013, 125,000 people identified as Ngāpuhi. There are 55 marae in the Hokianga, the Bay of Islands and Whangārei (not including those of related tribes in Whangārei, the Kaipara and Muriwhenua), and 150 sub-tribes.

Flowing together

Drawing on imagery of the Hokianga Harbour in the west and the Taumārere River in the east, this tribal saying describes how the destinies of all Ngāpuhi sub-tribes are irrevocably intertwined. The ‘puna’ represent springs of people flowing to support each other in times of need:

Ka mimiti ngā puna o Hokianga
Ka totō ngā puna o Taumārere.
Ka mimiti ngā puna o Taumārere,
Ka totō ngā puna o Hokianga.

Should the springs of Hokianga run dry,
The springs of Taumārere will flow.
Should the springs of Taumārere run dry,
The springs of Hokianga will flow.

Because of huge land losses, the social, cultural, economic and political marginalisation of Māori society, and mass migration to the cities from 1950 onwards, only 25,000 Ngāpuhi remained in Northland in 2013. Over 50,000 people of Ngāpuhi descent lived in the Auckland region. A further 21,000 lived in Waikato and Bay of Plenty.

Led by the Kaikohe-based organisation Te Rūnanga ā-Iwi o Ngāpuhi, the tribe is now organised into large geographic divisions:

  • Ngāpuhi ki te Hauāuru (South of Kaikohe)
  • Taiāmai ki te marangai (Te Waimate, Waitangi, Northern Bay of Islands)
  • Ngāpuhi Hokianga ki te raki (Upper Hokianga Harbour)
  • Ngā Ngaru o Hokianga (Lower Hokianga Harbour)
  • Te Rūnanga o Taumārere ki Rākaumangamanga (Kawakawa, Southern Bay of Islands)
  • Te Rōpū takiwā o Mangakāhia (Mangakāhia, Whangārei)
  • Te Takiwā ō Ngāpuhi ki Whangārei (Whangārei)

In recognition of the large numbers of Ngāpuhi now living in urban centres, Te Rūnanga ā-Iwi o Ngāpuhi also includes two urban groupings: Te Taura here ki Manurewa (South Auckland) and Te Taura here o Ngāpuhi ki Waitākere (North and West Auckland).

The goal of the rūnanga is ‘Kia tū tika ai te whare tapu o Ngāpuhi’ – to ensure ‘the sacred house of Ngāpuhi will always stand firm’. The rūnanga works to integrate Ngāpuhi hapū, marae and communities so that all descendants will benefit.

In 1992 the Treaty of Waitangi (Fisheries Claims) Settlement Act addressed the right of Māori to have a stake in the commercial fishing industry under the Treaty of Waitangi. It also acknowledged customary non-commercial fishing rights in individual tribal areas.

Of central importance to the rūnanga is ensuring the equitable distribution of benefits from the 1992 settlement, preserving Ngāpuhi history, and undertaking initiatives in resource management and education.

In 2016 a Ngāpuhi Engagement Group comprising representatives of iwi and Crown was working towards the settlement of Ngāpuhi’s historic treaty claims.


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 Ngāpuhi (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: 6,361
  • 1991 census: 92,973
  • 2001 census: 102,981
  • 2006 census: 122,214
  • 2013 census: 125,601

Major regional locations

  • Auckland: 50,580
  • Northland: 25,026

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rāwiri Taonui, 'Ngāpuhi', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017