Story: Tapa whenua – naming places

Page 4. Events, maps and European influences

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Many Māori place names are simply descriptive, such as Whanganui (big harbour), Pukerua (two hills), Maunganui (big mountain) and Awaiti (little river), but others are difficult to translate because they may have more than one meaning. For example, Hīmatangi is either Hīma tangi (Hīma’s weeping, referring to the weeping of Hīma when she lost a club) or Hī matangi (Matangi fishes, referring to the chief Matangi who lured a taniwha out of a lake). Motuihe could be interpreted as the motu (island) of ihe (garfish), but in fact is a short form of Te Motu-a-Īhenga (the island of Īhenga).

Common words

These Māori words are common in place names:

ao – cloud, day
kino – bad
manga, ma – stream
maunga – mountain
nui – big
papa – flat, open, level
puna – spring, water
puke – hill
wai – water
whanga, aka – bay, bight, stretch of water.

Commemorating events

Numerous place names honour events. For example, Tūpai, a priest aboard the Tākitimu canoe, placed a mauri stone on a mountain between Wairoa and Napier, which attracted large flocks of birds. The mountain (maunga) resounded (haruru) with birdsong – and became known as Maungaharuru.

These names in turn, became property markers. If a person could trace their lineage back to an ancestor, they could claim rights to the places he or she had named.

Long place names

Long Māori place names are usually those which describe events. These places are often better known by their short form:

  • Rangitoto Island is Te Rangi-i-totongia-ai-te-ihu-o-Tamatekapua (the day that Tamatekapua had a bloody nose).
  • Rotorua is Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe (named by Īhenga to honour his uncle Kahu).
  • Mana Island is Te Mana-o-Kupe-ki-Aotearoa (the ability of Kupe to cross the ocean to Aotearoa).
  • Taupō is Te Taupō-nui-a-Tia (Tia’s rain cloak).
  • Hokianga is Te Hokianga-a-Kupe (the great returning place of Kupe).

Oral maps

Many waiata (songs) or tauparapara (chants) act as oral maps of tribal districts. For example, ‘He oriori mō Wharaurangi’ (a lullaby for Wharaurangi) lists places on the lower west coast of the North Island, including Whanganui, Whangaehu, Rangitīkei, Ōtaki and Waikanae, as they were named by the ancestor Haunui-a-Nanaia.

The chant ‘Te Tau-o-Mataatua’ describes the tribal area of people of the Mataatua canoe, as well as neighbouring tribes and places. The chant ‘Te Whare-o-Ngāpuhi’ outlines the boundaries of the Ngāpuhi tribe.

Numerous stories also outline the travels of explorers and the names they gave to places.


Māori also named all the waters around New Zealand. The Pacific Ocean was Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the great sea of Kiwa), and the Tasman Sea was Te Tai-o-Rēhua. The west coast of the North Island was Te Tai Tamatāne, and the east coast was Te Tai Tamāhine. Cook Strait was Te Moana-a-Raukawa. The sea along the western coast of the South Island was Te Tai Poutini, and waters on the eastern side were, from north to south, Marokura, Mahaanui and Āraiteuru.


Many traditional Māori names became corrupted either because Māori were misheard, or the names were mispronounced. The earliest example is Tolaga Bay. In 1769 Lieutenant James Cook asked the locals of Ūawa what the place was called. They thought he was asking the name of the wind, and replied ‘Tāraki’ (north wind). Cook wrote this down as ‘Tolaga’. Another place, All Day Bay, is an altered form of Aorere (floating cloud). Te Nganaire became the Nunneries.


Many Māori-sounding place names are transliterations of English names. Some are taken from biblical names, including Hiruhārama (Jerusalem). Others are the names of other cities or states, such as Ātene (Athens) and Kareponia (California). And some are transliterations of the English-language name, including Ākarana (Auckland), Pōneke (Port Nicholson) and Hamutana (Hamilton).

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tapa whenua – naming places - Events, maps and European influences', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 Nov 2008