Story: Te Tau Ihu tribes

Page 1. Early traditions

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Myths and legends

The districts of Te Tau Ihu (the top of the South Island) are rich in traditions. Sometimes these are local variants of generic Māori stories. For example, accounts of Tūtaeporoporo, Kaiwhakaruaki, Ngārara Huarau and other well-known monsters have local versions, and the same is true for sagas of gods and demigods such as Māui.


Te Tau Ihu sits astride the northern end of the mineral deposits which extend from South Westland. The location of such resources has been passed on in traditions. Tribes from the North Island were always attracted to this region because of minerals such as argillite, prized for tools and weapons. Through close scrutiny of the traditions and legends, greenstone has recently been rediscovered at several Nelson sites.

Earliest settlers

Accounts of the region’s earliest settler groups (such as the Tūtūmaiao, Maeroro, Tūrehu, and Patupaiarehe) have been preserved, although the whakapapa (genealogical charts) are lost. The stories describe ‘fairy folk’ living in the mountains of Nelson and Marlborough, seen only rarely and at auspicious times.

Ancient skills such as net-making derive from the Patupaiarehe, and a major horticultural undertaking, the Waimea Gardens, may have been initiated by Ngā Rapuwai, another early tribe. An ancient tribe of ogres and giants, the Kāhui Tipua, who lived at the Wairau (Marlborough), impeded the explorations of the Polynesian navigator Kupe. He eventually exterminated them by swamping their villages as he created Kāpara-te-hau, the lagoons now known as Lake Grassmere. Moriori passed through Nelson–Marlborough en route to Rēkohu (Chatham Islands). Some accounts name Arapāoa Island as their departure point.

Other early tribes

Hāwea, Waitaha and Ngāti Māmoe are three of the earliest tribal groups for whom genealogies exist. Ngāti Hāwea descendants today live mainly in South Westland, having been pushed south by later arrivals.

In many traditions the Polynesian explorer Rākaihautū is the person who discovered and shaped much of the South Island. His canoe, Te Uruao, made landfall near Whakatū. Using his magic digging stick, he dug up the northern lakes (Rotoiti, Rotoroa and Rangatahi) and sculpted the mountain ranges, then continued south, creating the lakes and modifying the southern alpine chain. His descendants became the dominant tribe, Waitaha, named after a 13th-generation descendant.

Waitaha established communities across Nelson–Marlborough and are believed to have been the first to quarry the argillite (sedimentary rock) in the eastern ranges of Nelson. They also developed much of the Waimea Gardens complex – more than 400 hectares on the Waimea Plains near Nelson. Applications of wood ash, river sand and shingle enhanced soil texture and fertility, and even today these lands are more productive than surrounding soils.

Ngāti Māmoe oust Waitaha

Gifts of preserved eels and birds from Waitaha so impressed the North Island tribe Ngāti Māmoe that they decided to cross Cook Strait to capture the rich resources for themselves. After migrating from the Ahuriri (Napier) district and down through Wairarapa and Wellington, they crossed to the South Island. Eventually they pushed Waitaha south from Marlborough.

How to cite this page:

Hilary Mitchell and John Mitchell, 'Te Tau Ihu tribes - Early traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Hilary Mitchell and John Mitchell, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017