Tribal beginnings in the north
In Ngāti Awa’s earliest days a large group of the tribe occupied the northern regions around Kaitāia, Ahipara and Lake Tāngonge (now drained). Several burial caves in the region also belonged to the tribe.
After a long series of battles with Ngāti Whātua and Ngāpuhi, there was a general exodus of Ngāti Awa from the north in about 1600. There were two paths of migration. Led by Tītahi, one group went down the west coast of the North Island to Waitara in Taranaki. Tītahi also established pā in Tāmaki-makau-rau (Auckland), which included Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill). The other migrating group went down the east coast, led by the ancestor Kauri, to Tauranga. Part of Kauri’s group continued on to Whakatāne and merged with Te Tini-o-Awa. Descendants of Tītahi and Kauri can be found today among the sub-tribes of Ngāti Awa.
Despite leaving the north, Ngāti Awa still have links with many northern tribes, including Ngāi Takoto, Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa and Ngātiwai.
This proverb refers to two important places within Ngāti Awa’s tribal area:
Ngā mate i Kōhī me tangi mai i Kawerau;
Ngā mate i Kawerau me tangi atu i Kōhī.
Deaths at Kōhī were mourned at Kawerau;
Deaths at Kawerau were mourned at Kōhī.
The ancestor Muriwai, the sister of the Mataatua’s captain, Toroa, placed a restriction along the Bay of Plenty coast where her two children had drowned. Tribes on either side of Whakatāne extended the restriction boundary ‘mai i Ngā Kurī-a-Whārei-ki-Tihirau’ (from the Dogs of Whārei to Tihirau). This area stretches from Bowentown in western Bay of Plenty to Whangaparāoa in the east, and is acknowledged as the traditional domain of the Mataatua confederation of tribes.
Periodically, Ngāti Awa exercised authority in the Bay of Plenty, between Pongakawa in the west and Ōhiwa in the east, and inland to Matahina, Maungawhakamana, Pōkuhu, and back to Pongakawa. This included the island network of Mōtītī, Rūrima, Moutohorā and Whakaari.
The mountains and landmarks at Te Rae-o-Kōhī, Te Tiringa, Whakapau-kōrero, Ōtipa and Pūtauaki formed a significant part of the tribal domain. The three rivers Tarawera, Rangitāiki and Whakatāne and their surrounding wetlands served as the principal means of transport, sustenance and security for the sub-tribes of Ngāti Awa who lived around their banks and tributaries.
For many centuries the tribal area of Ngāti Awa was continually challenged. There was ongoing rivalry and conflict with neighbouring tribes, even though many of them shared common historical associations and ancestors with Ngāti Awa.