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Ngāti Ruanui

by  Tony Sole

Ngāti Ruanui’s early identity was forged in battle. The tribe’s ancestor, Turi, left the Pacific island of Rangiātea to escape a blood feud. With his people, he endured many trials at sea before arriving and settling in south Taranaki. Generations later, the people of Ngāti Ruanui were besieged by warring tribes, as well as by British soldiers in the wars of the 1860s.

Origins of Ngāti Ruanui

The people of Ngāti Ruanui have a traditional saying:

Ko Aotea te waka
Ko Turi te tangata ki runga
Ko Taranaki te maunga
Ko Waingongoro te awa
Ko Ngāti Ruanui te iwi.
Aotea is the canoe
Turi is the ancestor
Taranaki is the mountain
Waingongoro is the river
Ngāti Ruanui is the tribe.

From Rangiātea to New Zealand

There are many islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean like tiny emerald specks. One of these is Rangiātea, about 200 kilometres from Tahiti. Around 30 generations ago the Ngāti Ruanui ancestor Turi lived there.

How Ruanui’s parents met

A proverb of Pātea River goes: ‘Pakupaku noa koe, e Pātea, me hoki a Rau i konei’ (Shallow though you are, Pātea, you caused Rau to turn back).

Hearing of the beauty of Turi’s daughter Tāneroroa, two well-born young men, Uenuku-puanake and Rau, travelled north to seek her hand. When they came to Pātea River, Uenuku began to wade across. To his dismay he found that it was shallow. To fool his friend he dropped to his knees so that he went under water. Rau, not being a strong swimmer, lost his nerve and returned home. Faint heart never won fair lady. So it was Uenuku-puanake, rather than Rau, who would become the father of the tribal ancestor Ruanui.

Turi became embroiled in a vicious blood feud with Uenuku, a neighbouring rangatira, and had to flee Rangiātea to save his life. Fortunately for Turi his father-in-law Toto had felled a huge tree, from which were carved two great canoes: Aotea and Matahourua.

In the dead of night Turi and his companions rowed away from Rangiātea in the canoe Aotea-utanga-nui (richly laden Aotea), so named for the number of new species of plants and animals it carried. After a long and dangerous voyage they landed in Aotea Harbour at Kāwhia. Tradition says that Turi and his people then travelled overland until they reached Pātea. On the south bank of Pātea River they built Turi’s , Rangitāwhi, and his whare, Matangirei.

Turi’s daughter Tāneroroa married Uenuku-puanake of the Tākitimu canoe. The people of Ngāti Ruanui are descendants of their son Ruanui, named after his ancestor on Rangiātea.

Within a few generations Ruanui’s descendents dispersed to become the main tribe in south Taranaki, in the area between the Whenuakura River and the Ōeo Stream.

Times of unrest

Warfare and invasion

A phase of warfare swept through Taranaki in the early 1800s, when northern raiders arrived with muskets. Muskets created their own bitter logic: they were used to capture slaves, who were made to prepare flax, which was then traded for more muskets.

Ngāti Ruanui were invaded in 1816–17 by Ngāpuhi, who penetrated as far south as Waimate at the mouth of the Kapuni River. They were followed in 1818 by a war party of Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Whātua and further Ngāpuhi, led by Te Rauparaha, Murupaenga and Tūwhare. Again in 1819, another war party led by the north’s most important leaders, including Patuone, raided deep into Taranaki, where they attacked Ngāti Ruanui at Ōkahutītī pā. Having no defence against the muskets, Ngāti Ruanui were dispersed. Many lost their lives or were taken as slaves.

A bid for peace

In November 1820, Patuone told missionary Samuel Marsden that he had made peace with Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui. Marsden noted that Patuone ‘had left ten of his own men there, who had got married, and had brought a number away with him, some of whom were then present’. 1 This would explain why, when slaves from the Hokianga area were liberated in the late 1830s at the request of missionaries, many Ngāti Ruanui did not return south. It is likely that many of them were not slaves, but partners or children of the marriages that Patuone had arranged in an attempt to make peace between the tribes.

However, there would be more fighting before peace came to Ngāti Ruanui.

Further invasions

Te Rauparaha invaded again in 1820, followed by the Āmiowhenua war expedition of 1821–22, led by Āpihai Te Kawau of Ngāti Whātua.

The next major invasion came from Waikato in 1834. Te Wherowhero, Te Waharoa and Te Kanawa led 2,500 men against Te Ruaki pā on the Tangāhoe Stream, apparently in pursuit of Ngāti Ruanui leader Te Rei Hanataua.

Guide Sophia

About 1829 Kōtiro Hinerangi of Ngāti Ruanui was taken to Ngāpuhi by a raiding party as a slave for Hōne Heke. However, she soon married a Scot, Alexander Grey. Their daughter Te Paea (Mary Sophia Grey) was born about 1832. She later became famous as the main guide to the Pink and White Terraces at Lake Rotomahana before they were lost in the Tarawera eruption of 1886. A few days before the eruption Sophia had seen a phantom canoe on the lake, which she interpreted as a bad omen. After the destruction Sophia moved to Rotorua, where she was a guide at Whakarewarewa until she died in 1911.

The pā fell after a three-month siege. Of the battle, the Reverend William Woon later wrote that Te Ruaki ‘was never mentioned but with sorrow, on account of so many of their fathers and friends falling there’. 2 The war party moved on, taking Ōhangai pā and then assaulting Waimate-ōrangi-tuapeka pā in the battle known as Ngā Ngutu-maioro. This battle lasted nine fruitless days, during which Te Matakātea (the clear-eyed) killed many invaders with his musket. Finally, Te Wherowhero asked for peace, saying:

Kātahi anō taku rākau ka hoki mai. Ka hoki ake nei au, e kore anō e ara mai te rau o taku patu.
For the first time my weapon has returned unblooded. I am now returning, and will never again raise my weapon in your direction. 3

This was the last invasion of Ngāti Ruanui by other tribes. By then the countryside was devastated and many Taranaki Māori were absent from their lands. Some had been captured as slaves and some were refugees.

    • J. R. Elder, ed., The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden. Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie and A. H. Reed for Otago University Council, 1932, p. 326. › Back
    • William Woon, Letter, 2 May 1849. In Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, London, letters from the missionaries to the secretaries, 1817–1867, Kinder Library, Auckland. › Back
    • Pei Te Hurinui Jones, King Potatau. Wellington: Polynesian Society, 1959, pp. 150–151. › Back

A new order emerges

Economy and education

Despite early invasions Ngāti Ruanui established a profitable settlement. They adapted readily to European agriculture. By 1849 they were significantly involved with the two wheat mills that had been built in the area. As money replaced barter as the main means of exchange, Ngāti Ruanui began working in New Plymouth as paid labourers. Education was eagerly embraced. Māori-run schools flourished. This was partly because of Māori independence and mistrust of European schools. When commenting on a Māori school at Kākaramea, the Rev. Richard Taylor pointed out that its motivation was as much political as educational.

The first missionary

The first resident Wesleyan missionary, John Skevington, arrived in New Plymouth in February 1842. The Ngāti Ruanui people soon learned of his presence and were so keen to bring the missionary to Waimate that more than 100 carried his belongings down from New Plymouth. Skevington built a mission house at Heretoa on the banks of the Inaha Stream, where he served a huge parish extending from Ōeo to Waitōtara.

War over land

Ngāti Ruanui were always wary of selling land to European settlers. As early as 1851 one chief told the Rev. William Woon that they ‘had made an oath not to sell, and that the land is tapu [sacred] from Tātaraimaka to Kai iwi!’ 1 And at Ketemarae Taylor observed: ‘The natives of this place are very well off …The country we passed through is lovely … the natives are aware of it and are very jealous of Europeans obtaining a footing amongst them’. 2

Consequently, when the war broke out between Te Āti Awa and the Crown in 1860, Ngāti Ruanui sent men north to fight alongside Te Āti Awa, partly to dissuade any of their own kin from selling land.

The loyalty of Ngāti Ruanui to Te Āti Awa exacted a heavy price. In 1865, and again in 1866, the British army came through south Taranaki, destroying fortifications and villages in their path.


In 1868, Europeans suffered defeat. Fighters under the leadership of Tītokowaru (of Ngāti Manuhiakai hapū of Ngā Ruahine, a section of Ngāti Ruanui) attacked an outpost at Turuturumōkai, near Hāwera, killing 10 European soldiers. Colonial troops later ventured into the forest to attack Tītokowaru at his , Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, near Kaponga. The attack was a fiasco and 24 men, including Major Gustavus von Tempsky, were killed. Panic swept the European community and over the next few days many fled south.

Tītokowaru moved south to Moturoa, inland from present-day Waverley, where he built a pā and waited for an attack by Colonel George Whitmore, who had been campaigning against Te Kooti in Poverty Bay. Whitmore led his troops to the pā at dawn. When they were within a few metres of the palisades a hail of fire cut down 20 men, and Whitmore retreated.

Tītokowaru moved further south to Taurangaika, near Pākaraka (later known as Maxwell). But on the night before Whitmore’s planned attack the combined Taranaki tribes withdrew from the fort, retreating deep into Ngāti Maru country in central Taranaki. The settler government soon had control of the province. Within a few years Ngāti Ruanui had lost most of their land. Tītokowaru died in 1888 and was buried in a secret place after a funeral attended by over 2,000 Māori.

    • William Woon, Letter to Donald McLean, 23 July 1851. Copy-Micro-MS-0535-99, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. › Back
    • Richard Taylor, Journal entry for 26 and 28 April 1851. In Journal, vol. 7, qMS-1991, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. › Back

Ngāti Ruanui today


In 2013 there were 7,260 members of Ngāti Ruanui, most of whom live outside Taranaki. In 1996 the Waitangi Tribunal released its Taranaki report, which had found that during the 19th century the Crown had acted unfairly toward Māori tribes in Taranaki. In response to this finding the Ngāti Ruanui Muru me te Raupatu Working Party was elected to negotiate a treaty settlement with the government.


A settlement was finally signed at Pariroa in 2001. In 2003 the Ngāti Ruanui Settlement Act was passed, culminating with a reading of the Crown apology to 600 Ngāti Ruanui at Pariroa pā. The settlement included cash and Crown-owned land valued at $41 million. An advisory committee was established to assist with the management of fisheries in the Ngāti Ruanui area of interest, including the customary interest of Ngāti Ruanui in those fisheries.

Ngāti Ruanui are now represented by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Ruanui, recognised by the government as the representative body of Ngāti Ruanui, with responsibility for managing the tribe’s assets for the benefit of its members.

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 Ruanui (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: 853
  • 1991 census: 3,303
  • 2001 census: 5,286
  • 2006 census: 7,035
  • 2013 census: 7,260

Major regional locations

  • Taranaki: 1,827
  • Auckland: 1,149

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Tony Sole, 'Ngāti Ruanui', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Tony Sole, published 8 February 2005, updated 22 March 2017