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Ngāti Apa

by  Grant Huwyler

The people of Ngāti Apa live in the Rangitīkei region in the North Island. In the 19th century the tribe became known for its prophets and visionaries, who set up enduring Māori faiths, notably the Māramatanga movement and the Rātana Church.


Tribal lands

The people of Ngāti Apa live in the Rangitīkei region, towards the south-west of the North Island of New Zealand. Their traditional lands extend between the Mangawhero, Whangaehu, Turakina and Rangitīkei rivers. This area is bounded by Whanganui River in the north-west, and Manawatū River in the south-east.

The Kurahaupō canoe

Ngāti Apa trace their ancestry to Ruatea, captain of the Kurahaupō canoe. It sailed to New Zealand from the Pacific islands 22 generations ago. In one popular tribal account, the Kurahaupō was badly damaged off the Pacific island of Rangitahuahua. Many of those on board transferred to the Aotea canoe, which had set out at the same time. It is believed that Ruatea and others remained at Rangitahuahua and repaired the canoe before continuing the voyage. Where the canoe landed and what became of its people is debated by Ngāti Apa, but there is strong evidence that they lived first in the district around Pūtauaki mountain (Mt Edgecumbe) in the Bay of Plenty.

A tribal saying

Ngāti Apa ancestry is outlined in this saying:

Ko Kurahaupo te waka
Ko Ruatea te tangata
Ko Ngāti Apa te iwi.

Kurahaupō is the canoe
Ruatea is the ancestor
Ngāti Apa is the tribe.

The ancestor Apa-hāpai-taketake

Ngāti Apa take their name from the ancestor Apa-hāpai-taketake, who was the son of Ruatea. Stories of Apa’s deeds place the iwi's origins in the Bay of Plenty. To the west of Pūtauaki mountain is a place known to Māori as Te Takanga-a-Apa (the place where Apa fell), so named because, according to one account, it was where Apa was kicked to the ground by the pet moa of a man called Te Awatope. Because he limped after this incident, he was named Apa-koki (Apa with a limp). One explanation for the place name is that Apa fell to his death there. Another account says he was banished from the district after slaughtering Te Awatope’s moa.

Ancestral power

The mana (prestige, authority) of the Ngāti Apa ancestor Apa-hāpai-taketake is remembered in the following saying:

Apa-wetewete tapiki i te takiritanga o te ata!

Apa the destroyer who rises before the break of dawn!


Some descendants of Apa travelled south to Kāpiti and Porirua, and across Cook Strait, where the Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō tribe now occupy Nelson, Golden Bay and the West Coast. Another group of descendants, Ngāti Manawa, remained in the Whirinaki area. Although they are related to Ngāti Apa of Rangitīkei, these groups have separate identities and accounts of their origins.

Descendants of Apa moved south from Mt Edgecumbe into the Rangitāiki area, and down through the Taupō and Rotoaira districts, before eventually reaching Rangitīkei and Ngā Wairiki (an ancient name for the Mangawhero, Whangaehu and Turakina rivers). This migration took place over many generations. South of Rangitīkei they became associated with others whose ancestors had arrived on the Kurahaupō canoe, and who had originally lived in Nukutaurua, on the Māhia Peninsula, and in Hawke’s Bay. Eventually, from these Kurahaupō descendants emerged the Ngāti Apa, Rangitāne and Muaūpoko tribes.

North of Rangitīkei, the migrants intermarried with the Ngā Wairiki people. Most of them were descended from Paerangi, who is better known as a founding ancestor of the people of the Whanganui River and the Ngāti Rangi tribe at the base of Mt Ruapehu. Many of the Ngā Wairiki people were also descendants of Turi, the captain of the Aotea canoe, through one of his sons, Tūrangaimua.

These descendants of Apa became integrated with other peoples of Manawatū, Rangitīkei and Whanganui, and co-existed with them until the early 19th century.

Ngāti Apa identity

Until the 19th century Ngāti Apa did not really exist as a distinct tribe. Before then, descendants of Apa-hāpai-taketake lived as part of other tribes and sub-tribes in the Ngā Wairiki and Rangitīkei areas.

Invasion from the north

This situation changed in the 19th century when tribes armed with muskets, wanting to acquire new lands and resources, arrived from the north. From the early 1820s these tribes, which included Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, and Te Āti Awa and others from Taranaki, settled on the Kāpiti Coast. Their arrival altered the balance of power in the lower North Island and led to alliances and warfare among the tribes already living there.

The battle of Kōhurupō

An event that was instrumental in shaping Ngāti Apa as a distinct tribe was warfare between the peoples of Ngā Wairiki and Whanganui. Around 1836 Whanganui tribes attacked Kōhurupō pā. The pā was almost sacked, but fortunes changed when a Ngā Wairiki fighter killed a leading Whanganui chief, Takarangi Atua. Because he was such an important leader, members of Ngā Wairiki expected that the Whanganui people and their allies would seek vengeance on a scale that could destroy them. They formed an alliance with the people of Rangitīkei. It was agreed that all the sub-tribes would converge at Parewanui, on the north bank of the Rangitīkei River, to present a united defence against any attack. The alliance was supported by the Ngāti Raukawa tribe, who occupied Te Poutū pā on the opposite side of the river. A third settlement at Te Awahou, seaward of Te Poutū on the south bank of the river, was also fortified. This alliance of Ngā Wairiki and Rangitīkei peoples gave rise to a sense of tribal unity.

European recognition of Ngāti Apa

In May 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was brought to a settlement called Tāwhirihoe, at the mouth of the Rangitīkei River. It was signed by three Rangitīkei leaders, Te Hākeke, Mohi Mahi and Taumaru, who were described by the missionary Henry Williams as belonging to Ngāti Apa. In the 1840s the Anglican missionaries John Mason and Richard Taylor began working among the people of Whanganui and Rangitīkei; their records referred to the people at Parewanui and Te Awahou as Ngāti Apa. Later in the 1840s, when negotiating a major land purchase known as the Rangitīkei–Turakina transaction, the government agent Donald McLean referred to all the people from Ngā Wairiki and Rangitīkei as Ngāti Apa.

Within the space of about 13 years – between the battle of Kōhurupō and the Rangitīkei–Turakina transaction – Ngāti Apa had become a distinct tribe.

The impact of European settlement

The arrival of settlers

In 1849 the Crown purchased nearly a quarter of a million acres (about 100,000 hectares) of land between the Rangitīkei and Turakina rivers. This was known as the Rangitīkei–Turakina transaction. When this was being negotiated, Ngāti Apa had not understood that European settlement would eventually lead to separation from their ancestral lands and loss of their authority. Settlement of the Ngā Wairiki and Rangitīkei districts began after 1849. Europeans from Wellington moved north and established farms.

Although the people of Ngāti Apa had been guaranteed ongoing rights to snare birds and catch eels across the entire Rangitīkei–Turakina block, they were powerless to stop settlers from felling the bush and constructing drains. These activities destroyed many traditional food-gathering areas, forcing dramatic changes to the Ngāti Apa way of life.

Crown land purchasing agents took advantage of continued friction between Ngāti Apa and neighbouring sub-tribes south of Rangitīkei. Between 1864 and 1867 the government bought the Rangitīkei–Manawatū block, another large tract of Ngāti Apa land.

Diminishing lands and resources

Ngāti Apa sought a partnership with the government. During the 1860s they sent men to fight in several government campaigns against tribes in the lower North Island. However, this support went largely unrewarded.

Ngāti Apa people increasingly found themselves confined to their land reserves, economically powerless and facing poverty. Land legislation of the 1860s, especially the establishment of the Native Land Court in 1865, disadvantaged them further because it undermined and exploited the traditional communal ownership of Māori land. Tribes wishing to sell land had to obtain certificates of title naming all beneficiaries, which was an expensive, bureaucratic process. Māori had no option but to participate in the land selling process. Those who boycotted court sittings risked being excluded from land titles. Many Ngāti Apa families were left virtually landless.

Spiritual and political leadership

By the late 19th century the hopelessness felt by Ngāti Apa because of the effects of European settlement was being experienced by tribes throughout the country. Poverty and associated illness, and demoralisation resulted in declining fertility rates and a falling Māori population.

Te Hāhi o te Wairua Tapu

About this time a new force in Māori leadership emerged in Rangitīkei. In the early 1900s a Ngāti Apa woman, Mere Rikiriki, established a spiritual centre at Parewanui. Based on Christian scripture, Te Hāhi o te Wairua Tapu (the Church of the Holy Spirit) emphasised the unity of Māori under God and the Treaty of Waitangi. Thousands from tribes throughout New Zealand visited Parewanui to listen to Mere Rikiriki’s teachings and to receive and witness healings.


Mere Rikiriki mentored and taught several people. One was Hōri Ēnoka, also known as Māreikura, founder of the Māramatanga movement, which blended Māori custom and Catholic beliefs. The movement remains vigorous today.

Another member of Ngāti Apa, Ngāpiki Hākaraia, settled among the Ngā Rauru tribe in Kai Iwi (just north of Whanganui), where she led the movement.


The most famous spiritual leader to whom Mere Rikiriki gave guidance was her nephew, Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. Although raised in Rangitīkei, Rātana founded his religious movement at Ngā Wairiki. In 1918, at his home (where Rātana now stands) he experienced a vision in which he learned he was to become a mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. He began to show gifts of prophecy and the ability to heal through prayer. Over the next three years his reputation as a healer spread among Māori and Europeans. Thousands visited his farm, which became known as Rātana pā.

In the early 1920s Rātana travelled throughout the country spreading his teachings. The movement gained momentum, resulting in the establishment of the Rātana Church in 1925. It gradually took on a political dimension, based on upholding the Treaty of Waitangi. After the election of two Rātana independent candidates, an agreement was forged between T. W. Rātana and Labour leader Michael Joseph Savage in the early 1930s. By 1943 Rātana candidates held all four Māori seats in Parliament.

In the 21st century the Rātana Church continues to have widespread support amongst Māori, and remains a political force.

A political tradition

Tariana Turia is one of the best known and most respected Māori politicians. Although she is often associated with Whanganui tribes, Tariana’s roots are firmly in Ngāti Apa. In May 2004 she resigned as a Labour MP and minister, in support of Māori claims to ownership of New Zealand’s seabed and foreshore. In the same year she became co-leader of the Māori Party.

Political organisation

In 1989 Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Apa was established as a forum for the hapū (sub-tribes) of Ngāti Apa. One of the organisation’s major projects is health education. In addition, their research unit, Te Rōpū Rangahau o Ngāti Apa, has been responsible for preparing Treaty of Waitangi claims on behalf of the tribe.

The rūnanga produces a bi-monthly newsletter to keep Ngāti Apa people in touch with tribal events and issues. Its title, Te Tāpikitanga o Apa (the rising up of Apa) refers to the tribal saying about their ancestor Apa-hāpai-taketake, the ‘destroyer who rises before the break of dawn’. The notion of rising up is particularly appropriate for a tribe who are in the process of recovering their unity and resources.

The Ngāti Apa (North Island) Deed of Settlement of historic treaty claims was signed on 8 October 2008. With a financial value of approximately $20 million, this settlement included a right of first refusal to buy RNZAF Base Ohakea, the Bulls Police Station, Marton Police Station residence, and Turakina and Whangaehu schools, if these became surplus to Crown requirements. Twelve sites of significance to Ngāti Apa, totalling 214 hectares, were transferred to the tribe’s ownership.

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

  • 1991 census: 1,701
  • 2001 census: 1,833 (includes Ngāti Apa ki Te Rā Tō: 375)
  • 2006 census: 3,156 (includes Ngāti Apa ki Te Rā Tō: 741)
  • 2013 census: 3,813 (includes Ngāti Apa ki Te Rā Tō: 843)

Major regional locations

  • Manawatū–Wanganui: 1,587
  • Wellington: 528

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Grant Huwyler, 'Ngāti Apa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by Grant Huwyler, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 22 Mar 2017