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Ngāti Tūwharetoa

by  Martin Wikaira

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.

Lands and people

Ko Tongariro te maunga
Ko Taupō-nui-a-Tia te moana
Ko Ngāti Tūwharetoa te iwi
Ko Te Heuheu te tangata.
Tongariro is the mountain
Taupō is the lake
Tūwharetoa are the people
Te Heuheu is the man.

Ngāti Tūwharetoa’s tribal territory is in the central North Island, around the Lake Taupō water catchment area. The boundaries are:

  • north – near Mihi’s bridge south of Reporoa
  • west – Tītīraupenga, the Hauhungaroa Ranges and south-west to Taumarunui
  • east – the Kaimanawa Ranges
  • south – Tongariro National Park.

There are also many families of Ngāti Tūwharetoa living in the Moawhango, Bulls and Tokorangi areas. There is a saying in Ngāti Tūwharetoa: ‘Ko te tomokanga o te iwi ki te tonga, ki Tokorangi’ (the gateway to Tūwharetoa in the south is at Tokorangi).

There are several sub-tribes of Ngāti Tūwharetoa which have grouped under two names:

  • Te Mātāpuna: these people live in the south of Motutaiko, the island in Lake Taupō, and on the lake’s southern shores. Their name indicates that they are the source of tribal life.
  • Te Hikuwai: these groups are north of Motutaiko. Their name means ‘the reservoir’, as they live where the waters of the lake join the Waikato River.

The journeys of Ngātoroirangi and Tia

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).

Naming Ketetahi

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.


Chief Tūwharetoa

Ngāti Tūwharetoa take their name from a powerful chief who lived near present-day Kawerau during the 16th century. Tūwharetoa was renowned as a warrior and man of wise counsel. He was tall and handsome, and his intellect was such that when he was a boy his tutors could scarcely keep pace with him. He also became an expert carver and carved many ornate buildings for his people.

Through his mother, Tūwharetoa traced descent from the early tribes of the Bay of Plenty. On his father’s side he descended from the chiefly lines of Te Arawa and Mataatua.

Tūwharetoa’s wives

When it was agreed that Tūwharetoa was ready to take responsibility for the affairs of his people, a marriage was arranged with a young woman of high rank, Paekitawhiti. She and Tūwharetoa had a daughter named Manaia-wharepū and a son, Rongomai-te-ngāngana.

As part of his duty to maintain links with neighbouring tribes, Tūwharetoa would travel to other tribal areas. It was while visiting Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāi Tai that he met the famed beauty Hinemōtū. Although she was betrothed to another man, she and Tūwharetoa eloped. When they arrived at the of Māwaketaupō, Tūwharetoa’s father, they were received as man and wife. Tūwharetoa and Hinemōtū had eight children. Even though Hinemōtū left her home in unfortunate circumstances, her tribe still held her in high regard and named a rock in the Mōtū River after her.

Several years later Tūwharetoa took another wife, Te Uiraroa, with whom he had five children.

Tūwharetoa’s renown, especially among people in the Rotorua district, meant he was always welcome in the region. He was particularly popular with the women, and on one visit he met the beautiful high-born woman chief, Rangiuru. Although she was already married to Whakaue-kaipāpā, it is said she was infatuated by Tūwharetoa and had a son, Tūtānekai, to him. When Tūtānekai grew up he himself became a famous chief whose name was linked with the beautiful Te Arawa heroine, Hinemoa.

Tūwharetoa lived to be an old man, and died at his pā at Waitahanui. After his death, his wife Te Uiraroa married a chief named Te Awanuiarangi. They had a son, Rongo-tangi-awa, who in turn had Rongomai-noho-rangi. He in turn had Te Rangihouhiri, the ancestor of the Ngāi Te Rangi tribe from the Tauranga district. This established links between Ngāti Tūwharetoa and the Whakatāne and Tauranga areas.



Around the time of Toi, who was one of the first explorers to reach New Zealand from Hawaiki, the Maruiwi people inhabited lands throughout the central North Island. Their territory stretched from the Tāmaki isthmus to the eastern Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay. They were eventually pushed out of various settlements through either local resentment of their presence or other provocations.

Leaving the eastern Bay of Plenty, the Maruiwi tribe stopped a while in Kawerau. Here they incurred the wrath of Tūwharetoa’s sons, who went against their father’s better judgement and pursued them. However, when the two tribes fought at Kākatarae, the Tūwharetoa forces were no match for the Maruiwi, and many important Tūwharetoa chiefs and warriors of noble rank were killed or taken prisoner. Tūwharetoa’s son Rongomai-te-ngāngana was also killed. The place where their bodies were piled against a tree was called Ōwhakatihi.

However, Rongomai-te-ngāngana’s second son escaped to Taupō. He would later take the name Whakatihi in memory of his slain father. Whakatihi is a well-known Ngāti Tūwharetoa name.

Ngāti Hotu

The Ngāti Hotu people were living in the Taupō district when the priest Ngātoroirangi and explorer Tia arrived. The tribe were referred to as ‘urukehu’ (fairy people) because of their unusual red hair and fair skin.

Threatened with invasion by Tūwharetoa groups from Kawerau, Ngāti Hotu sought to defend their rights. The chiefs of Tūwharetoa at the time were Tūrangitukua, Waikari and Ruawehea. With the support of Tūtewero from Kawerau the chiefs overwhelmed Ngāti Hotu, and the tribe of Tūwharetoa established its mana in the Taupō region.

Intertribal and inter-hapū warfare

Ngāti Tūwharetoa history tells of many battles with other tribes and among their own hapū (sub-tribes) until the 19th century. Ngāti Whiti, Ngāti Apa and Ngāti Tama played major roles in the Ngāti Tūwharetoa story.

Tribal chiefs

Te Rangiita and his son Tamamutu were prominent warrior chiefs who established important territorial connections. But it was Rangituamātotoru, the great-grandson of Tamamutu, who set a high standard of leadership as paramount chief.

Born too late

The chief Horonuku, descended from Herea, was convinced that his first child would be a boy, so he blew a trumpet heralding its arrival. In fact, the child was a girl. When a boy did arrive two years later there was no trumpet sound, and the boy was named Tūreiti – a transliteration of ‘too late’.

The Te Heuheu dynasty

The Te Heuheu paramountcy began with Herea at the end of the 18th century. He defeated renowned warrior chief Te Wakaiti in close combat at Pukawa, to become the undisputed chief of the Taupō region.

The family name, Te Heuheu, comes from an incident when Herea and others went to retrieve the body of a relative. The party had difficulty finding the body because it was hidden by an overgrown shrub known as māheuheu.

Herea became known as Te Rangimā-heu, and it was this name change that marked the beginning of the Te Heuheu reign. Herea’s wife Rangiaho also named her newborn child Te Heuheu Tūkino. Eventually Herea too adopted the Te Heuheu name.

The paramountcy is passed down through the Te Heuheu family lines to the eldest son.

Mountains and lakes

The myth of the mountains

The story goes that in the days when the earth was young there were four mountain warriors: Tongariro, Taranaki (Mt Egmont), Tauhara and Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe). Also among them was the beautiful maiden mountain, Pīhanga. The warrior mountains fought for her affections and after many days and nights Tongariro emerged victorious.

The defeated mountains decided that they should leave Tongariro’s domain. Their quest was to travel as far as they could before dawn, when they would be fixed to the spot. Pūtauaki headed east and by daybreak reached his present position at Kawerau. Tauhara was not in too much of a hurry, looking pensively back at Pīhanga; he only reached the other end of the lake. Taranaki went west and still looks back, longing for the day when he might return to avenge the defeat.

Tongariro National Park

In the 1880s land was being sought by numerous claimants around the Lake Taupō area. Because the Tūwharetoa chief Horonuku had joined both Waikato and Te Kooti in fighting against the British Crown, some claimants believed this was reason enough for the Crown to treat the Taupō blocks as rebel land. Horonuku could see that he might lose the land. So in 1887, on the advice of his son-in-law (the Tauranga politician Lawrence Marshall Grace), he signed a deed with the government which ensured that the mountain block could never be sold. The land became New Zealand’s first national park.

The Taupō lake bed

In 1926 the Coates government concluded an agreement with Ngāti Tūwharetoa that ceded the Taupō lake bed and all its tributaries to the Crown. In return, a consolidated fund from fishing licences would be gathered and a portion paid to Ngāti Tūwharetoa. The tribe were also to establish a trust, which was called the Ngāti Tūwharetoa Trust Board, to administer tribal affairs.

Their day in court

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Māori Land Court sat in Taupō, Tokaanu and Taumarunui, with the main base located in Whanganui. The district judge would arrive at the venues and set up court. In Tokaanu, families would often gather at the court house and wait all day for their turn; some would set up family picnics. Court day was a community affair.

However, after years of negotiation with the Crown, the lake bed and its tributaries were returned to Ngāti Tūwharetoa in the 1990s.

Native fish

Native fish once abounded in Lake Taupō and its tributaries. Five main species formed part of the traditional diet of settlers in Ngāti Tūwharetoa lands:

  • kōkopu, the largest and most important
  • īnanga, the freshwater whitebait
  • kākahi, a mollusc
  • koura, a freshwater crayfish
  • kōaro, a small freshwater fish.

The rivers of the area also had native eels. Rainbow and brown trout were introduced to Lake Taupō in the early 1900s. They soon ousted the native species, so that today there are few, if any, left in the lakes or rivers of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa district.

Ngāti Tūwharetoa today

Ngāti Tūwharetoa Trust Board

On 15 November 1926, the first members of the board were appointed. They were:

  • Hoani Te Heuheu (chair, Waihī)
  • Pau Mariu (Waihī)
  • Kahu Te Kuru (Kākahi)
  • Paora Rokino (Taupō)
  • Pitiroi Mohi (Taupō)
  • Tāite Te Tomo (Halcombe)
  • Takinga Arthur Grace (Taupō)
  • Werihe Te Tuiri (Waihī)
  • Pūataata Alfred Grace (secretary, Waihī).

The first meeting was held at Tokaanu on 24 November 1926. These men were visionaries who set the guidelines for future trust boards to invest wisely for the tribe. In the 2000s, board members were descendants of those early representatives.

The board advised Ngāti Tūwharetoa on taking stock of its resources, both land and people, and planning a future based on economic and social principles. This was not easy, given their relative isolation and distance from markets. As part of its long-term strategy, the board set up trusts to support forestry investments, and continues to support the people through education grants.

Ngāti Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau (Bay of Plenty)

When the sons of the ancestor Tūwharetoa moved from Kawerau to the Lake Taupō region, those who remained behind held fast to their ancestral name, which the two groups now shared. Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau and Tūwharetoa ki te Maunga (Tongariro mountain) have, for geographic and other reasons, developed separately as important tribal entities.

Paramount chief

In 2003 the paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa was Tumu Te Heuheu. He is the eldest son of Sir Hepi Te Heuheu, who advocated that Māori control their own issues. Because of the respect in which he was held, Sir Hepi was able to call national meetings of Māori people.

As one of the more prominent Māori leaders, Tumu Te Heuheu continues the work of his father with his people and at a national level, and is embarking on new challenges in the field of world heritage.

On 6 June 2003 Ngāti Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau (Bay of Plenty) signed a Deed of Settlement of its historic treaty claims. Valued at $10.5 million, the settlement included the right to purchase 844 hectares of Rotoehu Crown forest land, and a right of first refusal over geothermal assets. The iwi’s right to access traditional food sources within part of the Matatā Wildlife Refuge Reserve was restored.

In 2016, Ngāti Tūwharetoa was preparing to settle the historic treaty claims of the rest of the iwi.

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

  • 1991 census: 24,066
  • 2001 census: 29,301
  • 2006 census: 34,674
  • 2013 census: 35,877

Major regional locations

  • Waikato: 8,043
  • Auckland: 5,991
  • Bay of Plenty: 5,475
  • Manawatū–Whanganui: 4,965

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Martin Wikaira, 'Ngāti Tūwharetoa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

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