Rongomaiwahine was the principal ancestor of the people of the Māhia Peninsula. She was ariki tapairu (a woman of very high rank), descended from both Ruawharo, the tohunga of the Tākitimu canoe, and Popoto, commander of the Kurahaupō canoe. Her father was Rapa, and her mother Moekakara.
Ruawharo gave the name Te Māhia to the peninsula because it resembled a part of his tribe’s original homeland, Te Māhia-mai-tawhiti (the sound heard from a distance). Before that the place had been known as Nukutaurua, a name that is still applied to parts of the area.
Ruawharo was tohunga and keeper of the gods that were brought on the Tākitimu canoe from Hawaiki. Rollers from the canoe were left in the Maungawhio Lagoon and in Te Papa Creek at Māhia. Ruawharo established the first house of learning, Ngāheru-mai-tawhiti, at Waikawa (Portland Island), which became the spiritual centre of the entire East Coast.
Ruawharo’s first pā was Wahatoa, above Ōraka. His second pā, Tirotiro-kauika, was on the north side of the peninsula. He married Hinewairākaia and they had three sons: Matiu, Mākaro and Moko-tū-ā-raro. They were placed as mauri to extend the fishing grounds: Matiu was placed near Waikōkopu Harbour, Mākaro at Arapāoanui and Moko-tū-ā-raro at the mouth of the Ngaruroro River.
Rongomaiwahine and her first husband Tamatakutai lived at Tawapata, on the eastern side of the Māhia Peninsula. Tamatakutai was a carver. They had two daughters, Rapuaiterangi and Hinerauiri. Rongomaiwahine was pregnant with Hinerauiri when Tamatakutai was drowned.
Kahungunu was born in Kaitāia. He had travelled southwards, marrying a number of women along the way. When he arrived at Nukutaurua, Kahungunu was determined to have Rongomaiwahine for himself although she was already married.
So he set about gaining the approval of Rongomaiwahine’s people by gathering enormous quantities of fern root. In a further attempt to impress, he climbed a hill behind the village at Tawapata, where he watched the shags diving and practised holding his breath until the birds reappeared. This hill has since been known as Puke Karoro (hill of shags). Then Kahungunu went diving for pāua (a type of shellfish). Holding his breath for long periods, he filled several containers – enough for all the occupants of the village. When he surfaced from his final dive he had covered his chest with the pāua, and everyone was very impressed.
Kahungunu then set out to create discord between Tamatakutai and Rongomaiwahine. He ate pāua roe and surreptitiously broke wind under the couple’s bed coverings. They accused one another and an argument resulted.
In the morning Kahungunu joined Tamatakutai in the sport of surfing in a canoe. Kahungunu took over the steering and capsized it on a particularly large wave. Tamatakutai, unable to swim, was drowned.
In time Rongomaiwahine took Kahungunu for her husband. Their principal pā was Maunga-a-Kāhia (Maungakāhia), built by Kahungunu. They had five children: three sons, Kahukuranui, Tamatea-kōtā and Māhakinui; and two daughters, Rongomaipapa and Tauheikurī.
Because of the mana of Rongomaiwahine, the people of Ngāti Rongomaiwahine hold strongly to their separate identity. Some identify themselves as both Ngāti Rongomaiwahine and Ngāti Kahungunu, but those who are descended from Rongomaiwahine’s first daughters identify themselves only as Ngāti Rongomaiwahine.
Ngāti Rongomaiwahine have extensive traditional fishing grounds. The reefs are abundant in seafood – including karengo (a seaweed) in season – and there are numerous beds of shellfish such as pipi, tuangi and tuatua. Whale flesh was also part of their traditional diet. Whitebait was taken from the rivers, and eels were caught in the creeks. Much of the peninsula was covered with bush, which was rich in food, fibre and timber resources. Fern root was an important part of the diet, and the climate and soils were very conducive to the cultivation of kūmara (sweet potato).
It is said that the karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) was brought to New Zealand by the people of the Kurahaupō canoe, which landed at Tawapata on Māhia Peninsula. The berry of the karaka tree was greatly valued as a food by Māori. However, its seed is poisonous and could not be safely eaten without a great deal of preparation to remove the poison.
Some of New Zealand’s earliest whaling stations were at Māhia. In 1837 the Ward brothers established a station at Waikōkopu. Whales were especially plentiful around the peninsula – Captain Ellis’s station at Kinikini caught 26 sperm whales in 1845.
The Māhia whaling stations were almost as infamous as those at Kororāreka, in the Bay of Islands, for the lawlessness of their inhabitants.
Māori at Māhia had their own boats and continued to hunt whales long after they had become too scarce for European stations to continue operating.
In more recent times fishing either for fish or crayfish continues to be a source of livelihood for members of Ngāti Rongomaiwahine. The large sheep and cattle station at the southern end of the peninsula, ‘Onenui’, is owned by the descendants of Rongomaiwahine’s children.
Māhia is well known for its warm climate, beaches, fishing and surfing spots. Many members of Ngāti Rongomaiwahine are now engaged in businesses associated with these attractions. The tribal authority for Ngāti Rongomaiwahine is Te Whānau o Rongomaiwahine Trust, who organise health services and advocacy.
The main marae of Ngāti Rongomaiwahine are Tuahuru, Te Rakato, Ruawharo, Māhanga and Kaiuku.
This area of spiritual significance attracted whales, which would swim right up the channel until they were alongside the whale-shaped rock. On top of the rock was a spring known as Te Puna-a-Tinirau. Ruawharo scattered sand from Hawaiki here.
This sacred place, the pathway of Paikea, is a whale-shaped hill on the isthmus.
This is a prominent, sacred mountain on the western side of Māhia Peninsula. The wind whistling through a hole on the summit is said to sound like a whale’s call.
A hollow rock at this reserve was used as a baptismal font in 1842, and the Anglican archdeacon William Williams baptised 245 Māori there. Because of the influence of Christianity in the area many of the meeting houses did not have carvings, which were frowned on by the missionaries as pagan images.
The footprint of Rongokako is embedded here. Rongokako was the son of Tamatea-mai-tawhiti (Tamatea-arikinui), the chief of the Tākitimu canoe. In a contest to win the hand of Muriwhenua, Rongokako took giant strides from Kahuranaki in Hawke’s Bay to Kirihaehae at Māhia, and on to Te Tapuwae o Rongokako near Whāngārā. His footprints were seen at each place.
This pool, on the reef below Maungakāhia, has historical significance. Tūtāmure and his brother Tama Taipūnoa were from the eastern Bay of Plenty tribe, Te Whakatōhea. Seeking to avenge the murder of their sister Tāneroa, and believing the murderer had fled to Maungakāhia, they laid siege to Kahungunu’s pā there. Tauheikurī, the youngest daughter of Rongomaiwahine and Kahungunu, helped to make peace and saved the lives of her father and people by consenting to marry Tūtāmure. She was escorted to their camp and presented to both brothers. Not knowing which was which, she chose the younger and more handsome brother, Tama Taipūnoa. He tried to push her towards his brother but the girl again offered herself to Tama Taipūnoa. Tūtāmure arose and went to a pool of clear water, looked at his reflection, and conceded that indeed, his brother Tama Taipūnoa was more handsome and therefore should marry Tauheikurī.
The original name of this pā was Okurarenga. In 1832 it was besieged by a combined force of Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Waikato, Te Arawa and Tūhoe, armed with muskets. After three months the defenders had exhausted all their food and resorted to sucking on uku, a white soapy clay. Hence the place was given the name Kaiuku, ‘to eat clay’.
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 Rongomaiwahine (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 in 1901.
Halbert, R. W. Horouta: the history of the Horouta canoe, Gisborne and East Coast. Auckland: Reed, 1999.
Lambert, Thomas. The story of old Wairoa and the East Coast district, North Island New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 1998 (originally published 1925).
Mitchell, J. H. Takitimu. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997 (originally published 1944).
Phillipps, W. J. ‘Ika-Whenua: the mauri of the whales on Mahia Peninsula.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 57, no. 1 (March 1948): 41–59.
Wilson, J. G., and others. The history of Hawke’s Bay. Christchurch: Capper, 1976 (originally published 1939).