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Te Arawa

by  Paul Tapsell

Many of those who first arrived on the Te Arawa canoe became great explorers, founding tribal groups across the North Island’s dramatic geothermal zone. Although there were many conflicts, peace was often settled through marriages. One famous love story is that of the beautiful Hinemoa, who lived on the shores of Lake Rotorua, and Tūtānekai on Mokoia Island, who would play his flute to her at night.


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!

Settlement and migration

On entering the Kaituna estuary beside Ōkūrei, the bow of the Te Arawa canoe was tethered to a large rock, Tokaparore, and to an anchor rock called Tūterangiharuru, which held her fast in the current of the Kaituna River. The tohunga Ngātoroirangi was the first to step off, conducting rituals beneath a pōhutukawa tree in full bloom. Today this site is remembered as Ōngātoro, and commemorated by a monument built in 1940.

A established on the Ōkūrei headland close to the moored canoe was named Maketū, after their home village on Rangiātea, in Hawaiki. Among those on board was Whakaotirangi, the wife of Ruaeo, whom the captain Tamatekapua (Tama) had brought. Whakaotirangi immediately planted her surviving basket of kūmara (sweet potato), which would provide nourishment that coming winter. All other kūmara had been swept overboard during the encounter with Te Parata, the sea monster. The valley behind Maketū pā is still called Te Kete Rokiroki-o-Whakaotirangi (the secured food bag of Whakaotirangi). Nearby cultivations were named Parawai in memory of gardens back home.

The tribe spreads out

As Te Arawa adapted to their new surroundings they moved further afield. Some explored the coastline, while others went inland searching for new places to settle. As well as Tama himself, who travelled from Katikati to Moehau, there were many important explorers, including his uncles Tia, who travelled from Ātiamuri through to Taupō, and Hei, who went from Moehau to the Coromandel Peninsula. Tama’s cousin, the tohunga Ngātoroirangi, explored from Kawerau through to Tongariro. Among the others were:

  • Ika (Mamaku to Pātetere)
  • Oro (Kawerau)
  • Makaa (Kāingaroa)
  • Hatupatu (Tokoroa, Horohoro and Waiariki)
  • Tama’s son Tuhoromatakakā (Moehau to Hauraki)
  • Tama’s grandchildren Taramainuku (Kaipara), Warenga (Tai Tokerau), Huarere (Hauraki and Tāmaki).

Tama’s grandson Īhenga explored Waiariki and Kaipara.

When Tamatekapua died he was buried at Te Moengahau-o-Tamatekapua (the resting place of Tama), and Īhenga returned to Maketū to live with his uncle, Kahumatamomoe (Kahu). Later in life they resettled in the north – Īhenga in the Kaipara and Kahu at Te Whanga-o-Kahumatamomoe (Ōkahu Bay) on the Waitematā Harbour, where he eventually died.

Tapuika and Waitaha (sons of the explorers Tia and Hei respectively) remained close to Maketū. They occupied the eastern Bay of Plenty region from Katikati to Te Kaokaoroa, as their fathers had authorised. Ngātoroirangi explored the volcanic wonders of southern Taupō. He was to lose his companion Uruhoe on Mt Tongariro, before retiring to Mōtītī with his wife Kearoa.


After marrying Hinetekakara, Īhenga, grandson of the ancestor Tama, continued exploring. He discovered the geothermal lakes of Waiariki (‘chiefly waters’) before returning north. Many Waiariki names are attributed to Īhenga, including Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe (to honour his uncle, Kahu), Ōhau (commemorating his dog’s drowning) and Ōhinemutu (where descendants of the explorer Ika murdered his daughter).


Another adventurer was Hatupatu, who defeated the gruesome bird-woman Kurangaituku at Whakarewarewa. On returning to Maketū he led Te Arawa in battle against the chief Raumati, who had burned the Te Arawa canoe as retribution for the defeat of the tribe of Uenuku back in Rangiātea. Hatupatu’s success is immortalised in a carved gable figure. This adorns the Ngāti Whakaue meeting house at Tapiti marae, in Maketū.


Īhenga and Hatupatu’s descendants married into other major lines of the Te Arawa people. In time they were led by Rangitihi, Tama’s great-great-grandson. He chose to position the Pakatore pā inland between Waiariki and Maketū, overlooking the Kaituna River. Through strategic marriages with the children of the Bay of Plenty’s most influential leaders, Rangitihi’s seven sons and one daughter were born. They became known as Ngā Pūmanawa e Waru (the Eight Beating Hearts).

Te Arawa multiplied and spread across the geothermal zone of the central North Island, occupying lands in a continuous line from coast to volcanic mountain interior. This area became identified with Te Arawa, and is affirmed on marae with the proverb:

Mai Maketū ki Tongariro ...
Ko Te Arawa te waka
Ko Te Arawa māngai-nui ūpoko tū-takitaki.
From Maketū to Tongariro ...
Te Arawa the canoe
Te Arawa the determined people.

Internal migration

Rangitihi’s sons moved most of the Te Arawa tribe inland to the geothermal lakes. A place desired by all was Te Motutapu-a-Tinirau (an island – later renamed Mokoia – in Lake Rotorua) because of its strategic importance and geothermal-warmed gardens. It took a generation for Rangitihi’s grandsons Rangiteaorere and Uenukukōpako to wrestle the island from the control of the descendants of the explorer Ika.

The tribe’s settlement of the region then progressed peacefully. In time, descendants of Rangitihi aligned themselves through intermarriage into three major kin groups:

  • Ngāti Pikiao (at the eastern end of Lake Rotoiti and around lakes Rotoehu and Rotomā)
  • Tūhourangi (upper Kaituna, western Lake Rotoiti and the south-east side of Lake Rotorua including Ōhinemutu)
  • Te Uri o Uenukukōpako, later known as Ngāti Whakaue (Mokoia and north-west side of Lake Rotorua).

Warfare and marriages

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 Pūkākī. 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 . The pā gateway, named Pūkākī, could be closed like a door to provide a defence for the settlement.

European impact


European traders, whalers and other arrivals brought with them diseases to which Māori had no immunity. As a result disease spread rapidly, sometimes wiping out whole villages. One plague, known as Te Rewharewha (coughing death), killed hundreds in a matter of weeks. Many old villages were abandoned, the dead left unburied for fear of contagion. These sites remain tapu (restricted) and some, such as at Weriweri, are still used as cemeteries.


Te Arawa also faced enemy tribes, such as Ngāpuhi, armed with muskets obtained from Europeans. Te Arawa retreated to Mokoia with all the district’s canoes in tow, confident that they were safe from the muskets of the Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika. But their coastal enemies, Ngāi Te Rangi, assisted Ngāpuhi in portaging canoes from the headwaters of the Pongakawa across to Lake Rotoehu. The tables were turned and Te Arawa were taken by surprise. The resulting massacre of 1823 left all Te Arawa tribes demoralised by their inability to counter firearms. They even contemplated migrating south with Ngāti Toa to seek the protection of Te Rauparaha’s muskets on Kāpiti Island.


The impact of disease and musket raids motivated Te Arawa to reunify. The arrival in 1829 of the first European in the region, Captain Phillip Tapsell, was timely. Tapsell traded guns, which gave the tribe a new sense of security. Christian missionaries also served their purpose, introducing Western medicine, technology, education and farming methods. The integration of Christian beliefs with old world values saw a new generation of Te Arawa leaders, politically savvy in both the Māori and Pākehā worlds, bringing new wealth to the tribe. After the battle of Te Tūmū in 1836, realising the tragic consequence of European diseases and weapons, the groups banded together as Ngā Pūmanawa e Waru (the ‘eight beating hearts’ of the children of the ancestor Rangitihi). They vowed never to fight among themselves again.

By the 1860s Te Arawa were trading with markets in Auckland and Sydney. Numerous flour mills and a flax mill, orchards, farms, and fishing and sailing fleets, combined with a family-based work ethic, brought commercial success.

These enterprises stopped with the wars of the 1860s and 1870s. Te Arawa took up arms to defend their customary lands, waterways and resources. Under the leadership of Tohi Te Ururangi and Te Pōkiha at the battle of Te Kaokaoroa, Te Arawa demonstrated their allegiance to the Crown. They also extinguished any possibility that their traditional enemies (Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Awa) would try to re-assert any authority from Wairaki to Matatā.


In 1840 Te Arawa opposed the Treaty of Waitangi. They were confident their prestige and authority over lands, people, fisheries and resources did not require any additional protection. But by the 1850s colonisation was affecting their way of life. Anticipating a new wave of land-hungry settlers, Te Arawa attended the 1860 Kohimarama conference, where they aligned themselves with the Crown in exchange for protection under the treaty. Te Arawa took up arms against Waikato and East Coast tribes who were fighting the government, and in 1870–72 fought against the guerrilla leader Te Kooti.

Te Arawa felt that their alliance with the Crown placed them in a strong position compared to tribes who rebelled against it. But the introduction of land surveying and the Native Land Court system affected all tribes. By the 1880s Te Arawa became divided at the extended family level. The court pitted brother against brother, forcing families to fight for individual rights to ancestral estates. Even when undivided shares in lands were awarded, these slipped away as payment for surveys, court costs, or store credit, or were sold by relatives.

The Tarawera eruption

While ferrying tourists across Lake Tarawera to visit Rotomahana’s famous Pink and White Terraces in 1886, guide Sophia Hinerangi saw a mysterious phantom canoe. The high priest Tūhoto Ariki of the Tūhourangi tribe interpreted this as a warning. He feared the terraces were being exploited as a tourist attraction without due regard to ancestral values. In the early hours of 10 June, the domed mountains of Wāhanga, Ruawāhia and Tarawera split apart, spewing forth millions of tonnes of ash and debris. The fissure extended down the mountain and through the terraces, from Rotomahana to Waimangu, some 10 kilometres away. Earthquakes were felt throughout the North Island. Auckland residents mistook the noise for distant cannon fire.

The following day it was pitch black from Rotoiti to Maketū – ash choked the skies. Lake Rotomahana, its terraces and over 150 Tūhourangi–Ngāti Rangitihi residents were buried. Protected by a valley, the village of Te Wairoa was distant enough for most residents to survive. Many sheltered in Guide Sophia’s house, which did not collapse. The priest Tūhoto Ariki also survived: he was dug from his buried house four days later.

Te Arawa kin provided shelter, clothing, lands and food for the survivors. Most found refuge at Whakarewarewa (Ngāti Wāhiao), Ngāpuna (Ngāti Hurunga), Waitangi (Tapuika), Matatā (Ngāti Rangitihi) and Coromandel (Ngāti Hei). Descendants of the tribe still live in these places today. Because the government acquired the devastated area soon after the eruption, the people of Tūhourangi could not return to their Tarawera homeland when it recovered in the early 1900s. Today Tūhourangi are seeking redress through the Waitangi Tribunal.

Economic and social change

In 1987 Te Arawa made claims to the Waitangi Tribunal concerning alleged Crown indiscretions before 1900. Two decades of war (in the 1860s and 1870s), followed by Crown-facilitated loss of lands and resources, disrupted the tribe’s ability to be economically competitive. The eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886 exacerbated this period of depression. These and other setbacks prevented commercial development and led to heavy-handed intervention, including compulsory Crown purchases and on-selling for profit to outside developers. To make matters worse, returning First World War soldiers brought tuberculosis, and hundreds died during the influenza epidemic of 1918.

The outlook for Te Arawa had never been more grim. After the Second World War, young people had had enough. Limited resources, rural impoverishment and meagre welfare subsidies saw them leave to experience the wider world. The thousands who flocked to urban centres are today raising grandchildren, many of whom no longer know their marae. The elders of the tribe regretted the Crown’s slowness to redress broken promises, despite Te Arawa’s loyalty since 1860.

Tourism and development

For generations Te Arawa have been renowned for their skills in carving and weaving, and their talent for entertaining. Combined with the natural and sometimes volatile geothermal wonders, these cultural attractions have made Rotorua a popular tourist destination. The Pink and White Terraces, geysers and medicinal hot pools also drew commercial investment.

The Crown sought to encourage investors by developing Rotorua as a spa town. In 1877 Ngāti Whakaue agreed to build a spa where the city of Rotorua stands today. In return the Crown promised to protect Te Arawa lands. Te Arawa presented to the Crown their most prized treasure, Pūkākī (the gateway from Te Mātaipuku-Ōhinemutu ), to symbolise their promise. Unfortunately the gift of Pūkākī was not officially recognised until 1997, 120 years after it was taken into ownership by Auckland Museum.

In 1881 the Fenton Agreement to develop the town was signed by the leading elders of the kin group Ngāti Whakaue. But developers became upset as the township lands remained under tribal control, stifling their investment. Letting Te Arawa control the natural attractions further heightened tensions. Events conspired against Te Arawa. The passing of the Thermal-Springs District Act 1881, loss of representation on the town board and consequent Crown interventions resulted in the tribe losing economic control over the presentation of their culture and natural treasures to the world. Geothermal sites remain legislatively controlled and outside Te Arawa’s influence. In 2006 the claim concerning the Rotorua lakes was settled with an apology from the Crown and a recognition of Te Arawa's mana (authority) over the lakes.

Treaty settlements

Te Arawa settled its treaty claim to the lakes in its region on 18 December 2004. The settlement provided for financial redress of $10 million and $400,000 for fishing licences. Title to the beds of Lakes Rotoehu, Rotomā, Rotoiti, Rotorua, Ōkataina, Ōkareka, Rerewhakaaitu, Tarawera, Rotomahana, Tikitapu, Ngāhewa, Tutaeinanga and Ngāpouri was transferred to Te Arawa.

On 11 June 2008 the affiliated Te Arawa iwi/hapū settled their historic treaty claims.  This settlement, part of a central North Island Iwi Collective settlement, was
valued at about $38.6 million. It included the return to the affiliated Te Arawa iwi/hapū of 19 areas of Crown-owned land.

Two smaller iwi closely associated with Te Arawa later settled their own historic Treaty claims. The Ngāti Rangiwewehi settlement, dated 16 December 2012, was valued at $6.2 million. Hamurana Stream was renamed Kaikaitahuna Stream. Ngāti Rangiteaorere had partially settled its treaty claims in 1993. A full and final settlement was agreed on 23 June 2013, at a cost of $750,000 and the transfer to the tribe of three sites of significance, including the 321-hectare Lake Okataina Scenic Reserve, to be known thereafter as Whakapoungakau.

Te Arawa continue to provide Rotorua visitors with their hospitality, performances of songs and dance, feasting, and display of arts and crafts as passed down by their ancestors. Young people entertain thousands of the world’s inhabitants in their own backyard. This will enable them to take over marae roles in later life, and to play a part in the wider world.

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

  • 1991 census: 33,135
  • 2001 census: 44,964
  • 2006 census: 51,048
  • 2013 census: 51,951

Major regional locations

  • Bay of Plenty: 21,846
  • Auckland: 9,975

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Tapsell, 'Te Arawa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 August 2021)

Story by Paul Tapsell, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 22 Mar 2017