Peace in the lakes region did not last. Competition and jealousy among Te Arawa’s three kin groups there (Ngāti Pikiao, Tūhourangi and Ngāti Whakaue) sparked internal wars lasting generations. Only during times of crisis did these main inland tribes put aside differences to fight common enemies such as Te Rangihouhiri (from the East Coast), Hongi Hika (of Ngāpuhi in Northland) and Te Waharoa (from Waikato).
Internal battles were based on revenge or wresting control over lands or women. However, many conflicts were settled through political marriages. For instance, the marriage of Hinemoa (of the Tūhourangi people) to Tūtānekai of Ngāti Whakaue maintained peace in the Rotorua district. This union is still celebrated through oratory and songs, recounting the heroic night swim of Hinemoa to her lover on Mokoia Island, guided by the sound of his flute.
Two generations later the marriage of Taiwere (Ngāti Whakaue) and Tamiuru (Ngāti Pikiao) celebrated the expulsion of their kin group Tūhourangi from Lake Rotoiti and the eastern shores of Lake Rotorua. Wāhiao, Hinemoa’s brother, was killed and the Tūhourangi people retreated to Tarawera, Ōhinemutu and areas south of Rotorua. The Whakaue–Pikiao union produced the famous Te Arawa leader Pūkaki. He reinstated peaceful relations with the Tūhourangi group by marrying Wāhiao’s granddaughter Ngāpuia.
Ōhinemutu – the home of the Tūhourangi people – with its geothermal soils, cooking, heating, bathing and strategic lake access, had the best location in all Te Arawa. In time, tensions over its control re-erupted and there were further battles. These ended only when Ngāti Whakaue finally expelled Tūhourangi, banishing them to the Tarawera–Rotokākahi lakes district.
A new enemy, Te Rangihouhiri, had invaded Maketū, pushing Te Arawa people into the hills. Over several generations there was fighting as the tribal groups of Tapuika and Waitaha, assisted by Ngāti Whakaue, tried to win back Maketū. Many died before an uneasy peace was negotiated.
Five generations later, in 1829, muskets arrived with the trader Phillip Tapsell. The competition to trade flax for muskets re-ignited tensions between Te Arawa on the one hand, and the tribes of Ngāi Te Rangi (descendants of Rangihouhiri) and Ngāti Awa on the other. Jealousies and fighting broke out in Maketū, where flax was being prepared by all tribes, side by side, in the rush to acquire an advantage over one another through weapons. This upset the prominent Ngāti Whakaue chief Haerehuka, who set off a war between Te Arawa and Waikato as revenge against his own kin. He killed Te Hunga, the nephew of the Ngāti Hauā chief Te Waharoa. In response Te Waharoa acted swiftly, destroying the Maketū trade station.
These skirmishes culminated in the battle of Te Tūmū (20 April 1836), in which Te Arawa suffered many casualties. Nevertheless, they defeated Ngāi Te Rangi and regained control of Maketū. The territory extended from Wairaki at Pāpāmoa, to Te Kaokaoroa at Matatā. Months later, Te Waharoa attempted to avenge the defeat of Ngāi Te Rangi by attacking Te Arawa at the Te Mātaipuku–Ōhinemutu pā. The pā gateway, named Pūkaki, could be closed like a door to provide a defence for the settlement.