Story: Ngāti Tūwharetoa

Among the heroes and heroines of Ngāti Tūwharetoa legend are the beautiful mountains and lakes of the central North Island. New Zealand’s biggest lake, Taupō, lies at the heart of the tribe's homeland.

Story by Martin Wikaira
Main image: Lake Taupō and Mt Tongariro

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Lands and resources

Ngāti Tūwharetoa's traditional lands are around Lake Taupō. Crayfish, whitebait, fish and eels were once plentiful in the lakes and rivers. But in the 1900s, trout were introduced to the lake, and have almost destroyed the native species.

Ancestral explorers

Arriving in the Te Arawa canoe, the high priest Ngātoroirangi travelled south from Maketū and claimed land that became Ngāti Tūwharetoa’s ancestral home. Ngātoroirangi nearly lost his life while climbing the chilly slopes of Mt Tongariro. After warming himself with a basket of fire, he threw it onto the mountain and created the hot springs known as Ketetahi (meaning ‘one basket’). Another ancestor from the Te Arawa was the explorer, Tia. His name has been given to many landmarks, including the Aratiatia rapids (the stairway of Tia).


The tribe takes its name from Tūwharetoa, a 16th-century chief who lived near Kawerau. He was famed as a warrior, carver and scholar. This handsome leader married three times and attracted many beautiful women.

The Te Heuheu family

Tūwharetoa’s sons established the tribe’s authority in the Taupō region. At the end of the 18th century the warrior Herea became recognised as the paramount chief. His family took the name Te Heuheu from a māheuheu shrub which once hid a family burial place. Since then the Te Heuheu family has provided the tribe’s paramount chiefs.

Tongariro National Park

According to tradition, there were once four mountains in the centre of the North Island: Tongariro, Taranaki (Mt Egmont), Tauhara and Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe). They fought for the affections of the beautiful mountain Pīhanga. Tongariro won, and the others fled west, north and east, where they stand today.

In 1887 Horonuku Te Heuheu signed a deed with the government. As a result, the three volcanic peaks south of Lake Taupō became Tongariro National Park in 1894.


In the 2013 census, 35,877 people said they were descended from Ngāti Tūwharetoa.

How to cite this page:

Martin Wikaira, 'Ngāti Tūwharetoa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Martin Wikaira, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017