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Ngāti Awa

by  Layne Harvey

Ngāti Awa have a motto: ‘I am like a fledgling, a newborn bird just learning to fly’. Spoken as the dying words of the chief Te Mautaranui, they bring hope for a bright future. Having lost their tribal land in the wars of the mid-1860s, Ngāti Awa are now putting grievances behind them. A trust board, a centre of higher learning and a radio station are all signs of new life in a modern context.


Ngāti Awa trace their ancestry back to people they believe were living in New Zealand before Māori arrived, and to those who arrived from Hawaiki on board the Mataatua canoe. The tribe have left their footprints in many parts of the country. Today, Ngāti Awa are based in eastern Bay of Plenty, with communities in Whakatāne, Te Teko, Edgecumbe, Matatā and Kawerau.

First ancestors

Ngāti Awa’s first ancestors were Māui-tikitiki-a-taranga, the demigod, and his descendant Te Papa-titi-rau-maewa. After them came Tīwakawaka, the first explorer to settle the land around Kākahoroa (Whakatāne). His canoe was Te Aratauwhāiti, and his descendants came to be known as Ngāti Ngāinui, the original people of Whakatāne.

Twelve generations after Tīwakawaka came Toitehuatahi (Toi), who lived at Kaputerangi, above Whakatāne. He is acknowledged as the principal ancestor of many North Island tribes, including Ngāti Awa. Toi’s firstborn was Rauru, whose mother was Huiarei; his second-born was Awanuiarangi I, whose mother was Te Kuraimōnoa. The descendants of Awanuiarangi are Ngāti Awa of Bay of Plenty, Ngāti Awa of the far north, and Te Āti Awa of Taranaki.

The Mataatua canoe

Ngāti Awa traditions record the arrival at Whakatāne of the Mataatua canoe, which had sailed from the ancestral homeland Hawaiki. Those aboard brought the kūmara (sweet potato) to Kākahoroa, and a parcel of soil from Rangiātea to place in the garden, Matirerau, in Whakatāne.

Toroa, captain of the Mataatua, is acknowledged as one of the principal ancestors of Ngāti Awa. Toroa had a son named Ruaihona, who in turn fathered Te Tahinga-o-te-rā. His son was Awanuiarangi II, whom Ngāti Awa acknowledge as their eponymous ancestor, and from whom all sub-tribes of the tribe trace descent. Ngāi Te Rangi at Tauranga also have close genealogical connections with Ngāti Awa, and both tribes have maintained strong links over many generations.

Early history

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 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.

Tribal boundaries

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.

The 19th and 20th centuries

Land confiscation

The Ngāti Awa chief Tamatearehe was speaking about his own tribe when he commented:

Kei runga te kōrero, kei raro te rahurahu.
Soothing words above, but meddling below.

He meant that pleasant talk is sometimes used to cover treacherous intentions. The saying would still be relevant 200 years later, when the Europeans arrived.

Initial interaction between Ngāti Awa and European settlers was largely successful, if limited. However, the settlers’ demand for land and the tribe’s desire to guard their sovereignty meant that Ngāti Awa and the colonial government were on a collision course. In 1866, on the pretext of punishment for ‘rebellion’ and the death of James Fulloon (a part-Ngāti Awa and Tūhoe agent of the British Crown), Ngāti Awa and their neighbouring Mataatua relations had their land confiscated. In 1999 the Waitangi Tribunal acknowledged the injustice of the loss of over 100,000 hectares of tribal lands and resources.

The effect of this confiscation was described by Hāmiora Tumutara Pio, a paramount chief and tohunga of Ngāti Awa:

Koia tēnei; ko te toroa noho au,
E tangi ana ki tōna kainga, e mihi ana.
This is a fact; I live like the albatross,
Crying out to its nesting place, and greeting you [in sorrow].

Significant figures

A number of important Ngāti Awa members made history in the 19th century. Apanui Te Hāmaiwaho was a chief and also renowned as a carver. He taught the craft to his son Wēpiha Apanui, who went on to become one of the tribe’s educated élite, playing a significant role in tribal events.

Te Rangitūkehu Hātua was the chief of Te Pāhipoto, a central tribe of the Ngāti Awa people. His daughter Maata Te Taiawatea was brought up as a puhi (ceremonial virgin) until she married Te Hāroto Whakataka Riini Mānuera, the son of a chief. Later in life she took over many of her father’s responsibilities, spending long hours in the Native Land Court as an advocate for tribal lands.

Te Hura Te Taiwhakaripi was the chief of Ngāi Te Rangihouhiri, once a powerful sub-tribe of Ngāti Awa. Hāmiora Tumutara Pio was a paramount chief, as well as a historian and expert in traditional lore.

In the early 20th century the tribe’s leading figure was Te Hurinui Apanui, the grandson of Apanui Te Hāmaiwaho. Dying in 1924, he was the last of the direct male line of the house of Apanui.

Ngāti Awa today

Apirana Ngata, Ngāti Porou leader and politician, said this of Ngāti Awa in 1899:

‘Ngāti Awa is a sick people because of the punishments of the law … and I wept for them that had been made to suffer so harshly by the government.’

Rebuilding an iwi

During the late 20th century Ngāti Awa leaders began the difficult task of reconstructing their tribe, but with little outside support. Unlike other tribes, Ngāti Awa did not have a tribal trust board, nor did they have access to government resources. However, they persevered and eventually achieved some degree of success. The results of those efforts were seen with the establishment of a tribal authority, the Ngāti Awa Trust Board and its successor, Te Rūnanga-o-Ngāti Awa. The tribe have a radio station, Te Reo Irirangi-o-Te Mānuka Tūtahi, and a centre of higher learning, Te Whare Wānanga-o-Awanuiarangi, as well as a number of related tribal development organisations. Ngāti Awa have also been rebuilding the Mātaatua wharenui, an important cultural and historical icon built in Whakatāne in 1875. Taken from them in 1878, Mātaatua was subsequently transported to Sydney, Melbourne, the Victoria & Albert and South Kensington Museums in London, and Dunedin. Returned to Whakatāne in 1996, the restored meeting house reopened as a centre of Ngāti Awa history and culture in 2011.

A positive outlook

Today, 22 sub-tribes, 19 marae and about 17,000 individuals are registered with Te Rūnanga-o-Ngāti Awa. Compensation for the unfair confiscation of land has been the aim of the tribe since 1867. During the 1990s considerable progress was made through the Waitangi Tribunal and negotiation to bring these claims to a resolution. In 1999 the tribunal’s Ngāti Awa Raupatu report was published, leading to a settlement agreement in 2003 and the Ngati Awa Claims Settlement Act 2005. That settlement, valued at about $42 million, included $1 million to help redevelop the Mātaatua meeting house complex. The Crown gave a statutory pardon to those who were arrested, tried and labelled as rebels, and in respect of all matters arising out of the land wars in 1865. When all grievances are resolved, the tribe’s motto, taken from the dying words of Ngāti Awa and Ngāi Tūhoe chief Te Mautaranui, will take on a new and more positive meaning:

He manu hou ahau, he pī ka rere.
I am like a fledgling, a newborn bird just learning to fly.

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 Awa (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: 1,701 (includes Te Āti Awa)
  • 1991 census: 9,795
  • 2001 census: 13,044
  • 2006 census: 15,258
  • 2013 census: 16,179

Major regional locations

  • Bay of Plenty: 6,966
  • Auckland: 3,801

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Layne Harvey, 'Ngāti Awa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Layne Harvey, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017