The arrival of Te Arawa
Ngāti Tūwharetoa trace their origins to the Te Arawa canoe, although they have not been involved in the tribal affairs of Te Arawa.
When the people of the Te Arawa landed at Maketū from Hawaiki, relations were strained between the captain, Tamatekapua, and Ngātoroirangi, a powerful high priest. Ngātoroirangi, whose family had arrived on the Tainui canoe, left to claim new lands in the interior of the country. These lands are the ancestral home of Ngāti Tūwharetoa.
The high priest and his followers moved down the coast to the mouth of what is now the Tarawera River at Matatā. The original name of the Tarawera River was Te Awa-a-te-Atua (river of the god), conveying the awe in which Ngātoroirangi was held.
Tia the explorer
At the time when Ngātoroirangi left Maketū, Tia, another chief from the canoe, travelled up the Kaituna River to Rotorua. At a place further on, he unintentionally touched the dead body of an important chief. This was a forbidden act, and he needed a priest to cleanse him. This ceremony became known as Te Horohoroinga-nui-a-Tia (the great cleansing of Tia), and gave rise to the name of the area – Horohoro.
From there Tia continued west until he came to the Waikato River. He noted the murkiness of the water and reasoned that someone was ahead of him. This place was named Ātiamuri (Tia who follows behind). Determined to meet those responsible for the muddy water, Tia hurried after them. At a place near Wairākei he came to some river rapids whose tiered form fascinated him. Today they are called Aratiatia (the stairway of Tia). Journeying on to present-day Lake Taupō, he was disappointed to find a large tribe, Ngāti Hotu, already living there.
Tia continued around the eastern shores of the lake to Hamaria, where he noticed that the peculiar colouring and appearance of the cliff face resembled the rain cloak he was wearing. In response to this phenomenon he named the cliffs Taupō-nui-a-Tia (the great cloak of Tia). This name was later given to the lake by the occupying tribes that followed.
Ngātoroirangi climbs Tauhara and Tongariro
Meanwhile the high priest Ngātoroirangi travelled up the Tarawera River to Lake Tarawera. He climbed Ruawāhia peak and spied Tauhara, the mountain to the south. He was determined to climb Tauhara and erect an altar on its summit to ensure the gods would grant him safe passage.
From Tauhara he observed Tia journeying around the lake. Ngātoroirangi immediately threw his taiaha (spear) into the lake to lay claim to it and the surrounding lands. He then decided to follow Tia, continuing to build altars as statements of occupation as he went.
From Motutere, Ngātoroirangi saw Mt Tongariro in the distance and was determined to climb it. Travelling to the mountain’s base at Rangipō, he rejected the territorial claims of another inhabitant, Hape-ki-tūārangi. Ngātoroirangi chanted powerful incantations that brought snow and sleet, causing Hape-ki-tūārangi and his followers to perish.
Ironically, it was the same snow and sleet that nearly claimed Ngātoroirangi’s own life as he ascended the mountain. Struggling with fatigue and cold, he finally made it to the summit. He looked out over the plains and claimed for his descendants the land that is now Tūwharetoa territory.
Because he was weakened by the climb and the cold, he called to his sisters in Hawaiki, the distant homeland, to send fire to warm him: ‘Kuiwai e, Haungaroa e, ka riro au i te tonga, tukuna mai te ahi!’ (O Kuiwai, O Haungaroa, I am seized by the cold wind to the south, send me fire!). The name Tongariro comes from ‘tonga’ (south wind) and ‘riro’ (seized).
According to legend, Ngātoroirangi called for three baskets of fire to be sent to him, but only one arrived. The other two were intercepted, the first at White Island on the East Coast, and the second by the people of the Waiotapu region. Ngātoroirangi was disgruntled at this, and after warming his body he threw the remains of the basket into the side of the mountain. The place where the basket landed was named Ketetahi, meaning ‘one basket’.
Ngātoroirangi returns to the Bay of Plenty
As well as seeking lands for his followers, Ngātoroirangi had also intended to reunite with the Tainui peoples. However, he was told by Hoturoa, captain of the Tainui canoe, that he was now considered one of Te Arawa because he had come from Hawaiki on their canoe, and would not be welcome. Deeply saddened, Ngātoroirangi went to Mōtītī Island in the Bay of Plenty to live out his days.