Story: Te Arawa

Page 1. Origins

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The Te Arawa people of the Bay of Plenty are the offspring of Pūhaorangi, a celestial being who descended from the heavens to sleep with the beautiful maiden Te Kuraimonoa. From this union came the revered ancestor Ohomairangi. He was responsible for protecting Taputapuātea marae – a place of learning on the island of Raiatea or Rangiātea, in the Polynesian homeland known as Hawaiki. High priests from all over the Pacific came to Rangiātea to share their knowledge of the genealogical origins of the universe, and of deep-ocean navigation.

By the time Ohomairangi’s great-grandson Atuamatua was born, the people were known as Ngāti Ohomairangi and lived in the village of Maketū. Atuamatua married the four granddaughters of Ruatapu. A generation later, six of their sons, Tia, Hei, Rakauri, Houmaitawhiti, Oro and Makaa became the leading family group of Ngāti Ohomairangi. Then war descended on the isle of Rangiātea, contributing to the migration to Te Ika-a-Māui (New Zealand’s North Island). This occurred over 20 generations ago.

Te Ara – the journey

Houmaitawhiti, one of Atuamatua’s six sons, also had a son, Tamatekapua (also known as Tama). Tama took up the challenge laid down by his father: to seek a peaceful new home in the southern islands of New Zealand. It is said that these had earlier been discovered by Ngāhue, captain of the Tāwhirirangi canoe. Ngāhue had an axe known as Kaoreore, carved from pounamu (greenstone retrieved from the South Island). This was used to carve a 40-metre twin-hulled voyaging canoe. As the migrants departed from Rangiātea, Houmaitawhiti stood on the shore, chanting a farewell.

One reason for the journey was to find some meaning for the death of Tama’s brother, Whakatūria, killed in a battle with the rival tribe of Uenuku. This battle was the culmination of a series of acts of revenge that originated in the eating of Houmaitawhiti’s dog, Pōtaka Tawhiti.

Over 30 Ngāti Ohomairangi tribe members accompanied Tama. Among them were Tama’s uncles, Tia and Hei, the twin sons of Atuamatua. The canoe was originally named Ngā rākau rua a Atuamatua (the two trunks of Atuamatua) in memory of their father.

During the voyage they had a perilous encounter with the great ocean creature, Te Parata, who almost swallowed them. However, they were delivered from the jaws of certain death by a mythical great shark, and the people renamed the canoe and themselves Te Arawa in its honour.

At this time another canoe, the Tainui, also set out from Rangiātea, captained by Hoturoa.


When the Te Arawa arrived at Te Ika a Māui (the North Island) the crew explored the coast from Whangaparāoa (Cape Runaway) to the inner harbours of Waitematā (Hauraki Gulf). At different places the tohunga Ngātoroirangi alighted to perform rituals and conceal spiritual guardians brought from the home marae, Taputapuātea. Fresh supplies would be gathered before they set off, secure in the knowledge that the area was spiritually clear for future occupation.

At one landing at an island in the Hauraki Gulf, Tama was confronted by the Tainui’s captain Hoturoa over an alleged adultery. The resulting fight left Tama’s face bloodied. That is why the island is named Rangitoto, an abbreviation for Te Rangi-i-totongia-a-Tamatekapua (the day the blood of Tamatekapua was shed).

The western Bay of Plenty was chosen as the best place for settlement. As dawn broke, the canoe approached a prominent headland, sailing between Matarehua (on Mōtītī Island) and Wairākei (a stream that once flowed over Pāpāmoa Beach). On seeing the headland Tama rose and proclaimed, ‘Te kūrae rā, ko te kūreitanga o tōku ihu!’ (That point there [Ōkūrei] is the bridge of my nose!). His uncle Tia followed, saying, ‘Te toropuke i runga rā, ahu mai ki te maunga nei, ko te takapū o Tapuika!’ (From that hill to the south, and to the mountain here [Pāpāmoa], is the belly of [my son] Tapuika!). Not to be outdone, Tama’s other uncle, Hei, added, ‘Nō tua nei o te maunga rā ahu atu ki tērā pae maunga e rehurehu mai rā i raro, ko te takapū o taku tama o Waitaha!’ (From this mountain [Pāpāmoa], to that far mountain range to the north [Coromandel range], is the belly of my son Waitaha!).

As the canoe drew near its final resting place – a river mouth leading into a generous estuary – the weary but joyful crew composed a haka. It is still performed today to remember and honour Tama’s father Houmaitawhiti, his fallen brother Whakatūria, and the canoe that safely delivered the people to Ngāhue’s great island (the North Island).

A ha Te Arawa e!
A ha Te Arawa e!
Ko te whakaariki …
Ko te whakaariki!
Tukua mai ki a piri, tukua mai ki a tata
Kia eke mai i runga ki te paepae poto a Houmaitawhiti!
How to cite this page:

Paora Tapsell, 'Te Arawa - Origins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Paora Tapsell, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017