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Ngāti Toarangatira

by  Mīria Pōmare

The Ngāti Toarangatira people, originally from Kāwhia, have survived changing fortunes. Led by the famous warrior chief Te Rauparaha, they walked south in search of a safer and more prosperous life. After facing hardships along the way, they became a rich and powerful tribe on both sides of Cook Strait (Te Moana-a-Raukawa).



The origins of the Ngāti Toarangatira people (also known as Ngāti Toa) lie with the Tainui canoe. Their traditional lands at Kāwhia, on the west coast of the North Island, are described in this saying:

Mōkau ki runga, Tāmaki ki raro
Mangatoatoa ki waenganui
Ko Pare Waikato, ko Pare Hauraki
Ko Te Kaokaoroa-o-Pātetere.
Mōkau above, Tāmaki below
Mangatoatoa in the centre
Protected by Pare Waikato, Pare Hauraki
And the extended arm of Pātetere.

The ancestors Tūpāhau and Toarangatira

The illustrious ancestor Tūpāhau was a descendant of Hoturoa, the commander of the Tainui canoe. Tūpāhau lived at Kāwhia, where the Tainui canoe finally came to rest.

Tūpāhau had a dispute with a chief named Tāmure over the correct wording of an incantation. Tāmure took great offence and although Tūpāhau attempted to settle the matter peaceably, war broke out between them. Heavily outnumbered, Tūpāhau’s force fought bravely and won. Tūpāhau pursued Tāmure but instead of killing him, allowed him to go, saying, ‘Now you have seen the bravery of a chieftain’s son.’ Peace was made, and thereafter Tūpāhau’s tribe became known as Ngāti Toarangatira, meaning the tribe of chivalrous and chiefly warriors. The name is usually shortened to Ngāti Toa.

Tūpāhau’s grandson, Toarangatira, was born 15–20 generations ago. As a child, he strove to emulate his grandfather’s example. He excelled in the arts of warfare, displaying particular skill with the taiaha (long club). As a young man, Toarangatira assumed the senior place over his older brother, who was no match for his leadership qualities, and through his military prowess he held the reins of power in Kāwhia.

The move south

Ngāti Toa remained at Kāwhia until the early 1820s when, with members of related tribes including Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Te Akamapuhia, they decided to leave their homeland permanently because of ongoing conflict there. They moved to the Cook Strait region and eventually settled mainly around the shores of the Porirua Harbour.

Tribal saying

Ko Tainui te waka
Ko Hoturoa te tangata
Ko Ngāti Toarangatira te iwi.

Tainui is the canoe
Hoturoa is the man
Ngāti Toarangatira is the tribe.

Ngāti Toa’s ancestral house, Toa Rangatira, stands at Takapūwāhia marae in Porirua. It is the focal point of tribal activities and gatherings, and an enduring symbol of the mana (prestige) of Ngāti Toa.

Migration from the north

By the early 1820s Ngāti Toa had been fighting for several years with the inland Waikato tribes for control over Kāwhia Harbour and its rich environs. Te Rauparaha, one of the leading chiefs of Ngāti Toa, urged the people to migrate to the Kāpiti region in the south, where there was an abundance of land and resources, and greater opportunity to trade with Pākehā for guns.

Leaving Kāwhia

It was not easy to move, as Kāwhia had been the tribal home since the arrival of the Tainui canoe in the 13th century. The decisive event was an overwhelming attack by a combined force of Waikato and Maniapoto tribes. Defeated, Ngāti Toa were forced to retreat to Te Arawī, a coastal stronghold south of Kāwhia. Here they remained under siege for months.

The Tahutahu Ahi migration

Had it not been for the compassion shown by a Ngāti Maniapoto chief who was a kinsman of Te Rauparaha, the tribe might well have been destroyed. Instead, safe passage was negotiated for them to leave Kāwhia. This was the first stage of their migration south. On departing, Te Rauparaha addressed his people, paying tribute to the land of his ancestors. Looking towards Kāwhia, he composed a song lamenting their losses and farewelling their homeland: ‘Tērā ia ngā tai o Honipaka, ka wehe koe i ahau.’ (O ye waters of Honipaka, from you, alas, I now depart.)

Near the Mōkau River further down the coast, Te Rauparaha, accompanied by a small group of mainly women, encountered a war party from Ngāti Maniapoto. Te Rauparaha dressed some of the women as chiefs and told them to stand by several fires, making their enemies think his party was larger than it was. This episode provided the name for this first migration – Te Heke Tahutahuahi (the fire-lighting migration). Ngāti Toa were given sanctuary in Taranaki by relatives, notably their close kin Ngāti Mutunga.

The Tātaramoa migration

Ngāti Toa remained in Taranaki for some months – long enough to cultivate food and gather allies for the next stage of the journey south. Although they were well armed with muskets and numbered a few thousand, among them were many women, children and old people. All were required to walk hundreds of kilometres. Many were too exhausted to carry on, and died along the way.

The journey was arduous. The migrants had to contend with many obstacles, including hostile tribes in southern Taranaki, Whanganui, Manawatū and Horowhenua. Ngāti Toa and their allies eventually reached the Kāpiti region, completing the second stage of the migration. This stage was named Te Heke Tātaramoa (the bramble bush migration), indicating the difficulties they encountered.

Commemorating the migrations

The whole journey was named Te Heke Mai-i-raro (the migration from the north). Many generations later, descendants of the migrating peoples named their meeting house Te Heke Mai Raro, in acknowledgement of the significance of the event in their history. The house was opened in 1997 and stands at Hongoeka marae, Plimmerton, not far from the site of Te Rauparaha’s principal residence at Taupō .

19th century: rise and fall

South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) territories

After the difficult migration from their homeland in Kāwhia to the Kāpiti region, the fortunes of Ngāti Toa rose. At Kāpiti Island in 1824, they and their allies inflicted a crushing defeat on the tribes who had previously occupied the Kāpiti district. This victory placed Ngāti Toa in a position of dominance in the Cook Strait region. They were also able to expand into the South Island, the source of highly prized greenstone. A series of Ngāti Toa-led invasions of the South Island added new territory to their domain, and resulted in the conquest of the Kurahaupō people in northern parts of the South Island.

The leadership of Te Rauparaha

When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Ngāti Toa controlled extensive lands on both sides of Cook Strait. This remarkable achievement was largely due to the skilful leadership of Te Rauparaha. He was a masterful tactician in battle, as well as being adaptable and open to new ideas; as a result, he frequently chose diplomacy over force. By fostering alliances with other tribes he ensured the successful conquest and settlement of the lands throughout the Cook Strait region. He also instigated trade with Pākehā by welcoming visiting ships to Kāpiti and encouraging whalers and traders to live among Ngāti Toa. Cook Strait became the centre of a lucrative maritime trading empire, controlled by Ngāti Toa from their island fortress of Kāpiti.

The colonial challenge

After 1840 the government undermined the political and economic power of Ngāti Toa, asserting its right to the lands, harbours and coastline of the Cook Strait region. Ngāti Toa made every attempt to protect their land. This was the motivation behind the tribe’s martial response to the surveying of land on the Wairau (Blenheim) plains for Pākehā settlement in 1843. But by 1846 their leading chiefs had been removed by the government: Te Rauparaha was kidnapped and his nephew Te Rangihaeata was forced into exile. While Ngāti Toa’s leaders were effectively held to ransom, the Crown forced the sale of most of the tribe’s lands on both sides of Cook Strait.

Ngāti Toa today

Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira

Today the Cook Strait domain of Ngāti Toa, while vast, is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Partly to prevent any further loss of land and resources that were traditionally part of the tribal estate, Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira (the tribal authority) was established in 1989. As the representative body of Ngāti Toa it consists of 13 elected members whose goal is to protect and advance the mana of Ngāti Toa.

Tribal activities

The authority employs around 70 people in activities relating to health, environmental management, local government, tourism, fisheries, Treaty of Waitangi claims, research, sports and recreation, and education. These are intended to promote the tribe’s socio-economic and cultural development, so that it can provide for present and future generations.

The Ngāti Toa treaty claim

The authority also plays an important role in leading Ngāti Toa’s quest for redress for past injustices inflicted by the government. The South Island aspect of the Ngāti Toa claim to the Waitangi Tribunal was heard in June 2003. Crown representatives sat for the first time in Ngāti Toa’s ancestral house, Toa Rangatira. They heard 150 years of grievances retold, as Ngāti Toa gave their account of past events.


This was a significant turning point in the history of Ngāti Toa. In telling their story, the people of Ngāti Toa were able to overcome much of the pain, loss and anger caused by the Crown. This represents a significant step in restoring Ngāti Toa to the dynamic tribe that it once was.

A Deed of Settlement for the tribe’s historic treaty claims was signed on 7 December 2012. Valued at approximately $75 million, this included the vesting and gifting back to the Crown of the Kāpiti Island Nature Reserve. The settlement also provided for special legislation to acknowledge the significance of the haka Ka Mate’ to Ngāti Toa history, culture and identity. The legislation requires acknowledgement of Te Rauparaha as the composer in certain circumstances.

There is no doubt that Ngāti Toa’s journey has at times been fraught with hardship and adversity, but today they are a vigorous people well poised to meet the challenges of the future. In this context, Te Rauparaha’s famous haka, ‘Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora’ – which speaks of the triumph of life over death – is as relevant and inspirational as it was in 1820.

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

  • 1991 census: 177
  • 2001 census: 2,766
  • 2006 census: 3,462
  • 2013 census: 4,458

Major regional locations

  • Wellington: 1,521
  • Waikato: 468
  • Manawatū–Wanganui: 456

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mīria Pōmare, 'Ngāti Toarangatira', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Mīria Pōmare, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017