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Te Tau Ihu tribes

by  Hilary Mitchell and John Mitchell

Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-a-Māui is the prow of the demigod Māui’s canoe – the top of the South Island. Many different iwi (tribes) have migrated to these fertile, mineral-rich lands: the elusive ‘fairy folk’ of ancient times; the descendants of the navigator Kupe; and powerful Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, who ruled for 200 years. Today, eight tribes form the region’s tangata whenua population.

Early traditions

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.

The migration from Hawaiki and beyond

Possibly the earliest and most famous ancestor of the tribes of Te Tau Ihu was Kupe, captain of the Matahourua canoe on the migration from Hawaiki. Kupe was a contemporary of Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe, also from Hawaiki; they were married to sisters. More than 40 place names in the northern South Island stem from Kupe’s activities there.

The Kurahaupō canoe

On arrival from Hawaiki the Kurahaupō, a later canoe, visited Nelson–Marlborough in the course of its circumnavigation of the South Island. The captain, Ruatea, was the son-in-law of Te Oro, a chief of Arapāoa Island, who had been captured by Kupe and taken to Hawaiki on the Matahourua.

The crew of the Kurahaupō included others with important connections. Whātonga, the grandson of Toi, was in charge of the canoe’s forward section. He was searching for his grandfather, who had gone missing from Hawaiki. Popoto, who supervised the middle and rear sections, was the grandson of Kupe. Three crew members who disembarked from the Kurahaupō at Te Taitapu (on the west coast of Nelson) were ancestors of Ngāti Kuia, who have the longest continuous residence in the region.

Post-migration period

Through intermarriages with the descendants of Kupe (and Toikairākau), other ancestral tribes of Nelson–Marlborough developed. Ngāti Wairangi, from the Whanganui district, lived in western Mohua (Golden Bay) for a period before moving to Westland. Ngāi Tara, Rangitāne and Ngāti Apa, most of whom made their initial forays to the South Island in the 16th and 17th centuries, were of Kurahaupō stock. Factions of Rangitāne migrated to the Marlborough district under the chiefs Te Huataki, Whakamana, Te Rerewa, Tukanae and others during the 1500s.

Turbulent times

Ngāti Apa, under Tamahau, also established a number of and kāinga in the Marlborough Sounds during the 1500s. Ngāi Tahu passed through the sounds and Marlborough during the 1600s. They stayed for about a generation but were moved south of the Waiau-toa (Clarence River) after skirmishes with Ngāi Tara, Rangitāne and other resident tribes. A number of famous battles occurred during this turbulent period.

Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri

Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, another Kurahaupō canoe tribe originally from Taupō in the central North Island, arrived in the late 16th century. They eventually dominated a huge territory from Whangarae (Croisilles Harbour) in north-eastern Tasman Bay, west to Onetahua (Farewell Spit), and the West Coast hinterlands to Māwhera (Greymouth). They pushed Ngāti Wairangi to districts south of Greymouth. Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri held sway for approximately two centuries, but succumbed to combined pressures from surrounding tribes, including Ngāi Tahu from the West Coast, Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne from the eastern districts of Nelson–Marlborough, and Ngāti Apa, who were assisted by contingents from the Rangitīkei and Kāpiti districts of the North Island.

A battle in the Paparoa Ranges around 1810 led to the demise of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri. Intermarriages with the conquering tribes of Ngāti Kuia and Ngāi Tahu have preserved some Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri genealogies, but the tribe as an autonomous group has disappeared.

Coming of the Pākehā

Early European contact

The first recorded contact between Māori and Pākehā was in December 1642, when four crew members of Abel Tasman’s ships were killed by Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri near Separation Point, on the edge of Golden Bay. James Cook’s ships spent more than 200 days in Queen Charlotte Sound and environs in the 1770s. Interaction was mainly with Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne, although visits from groups from other regions were recorded. Some individuals named in Cook’s journals have been identified, and their whakapapa established. Relations between Cook’s crews and Māori from the Marlborough Sounds were generally amicable, but there was one unfortunate exchange. At Wharehunga Bay in December 1773, 10 men who were with Cook’s navigator Tobias Furneaux died at the hands of the Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne chief, Kahura, and his warriors.

In Cook’s wake

In 1820 the Russian explorer Bellingshausen retraced Cook’s journeys in Queen Charlotte Sound and Cook Strait, and in 1827 the French explorer Dumont d'Urville spent time in Tasman Bay, where he met Māori, probably Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Apa. The diaries, journals and log books of these expeditions record the way of life of the tangata whenua. The 1820s also brought an influx of sealers, whalers and associated traders to the Nelson–Marlborough region.

19th-century invasions

While modern technology (sailing ships and weaponry) assisted tribes who had access to European whalers and traders, the final assault on the northern South Island stemmed from long-standing tribal enmities.

In the early 1820s an alliance of Tainui tribes (Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Rārua), who were forced out of the Kāwhia district on the west coast of the North Island, moved south to Taranaki. Joined by Taranaki tribes Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa, they migrated south to the Kāpiti Coast and Wellington. After many battles this alliance, led by the Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha, conquered and dominated that region.

Te Rauparaha in the south

The conquest coincided with burgeoning European interest in the Cook Strait region. The Kāwhia–Taranaki alliance gained recognition as the owners of lands and seaways; occupation rights had to be negotiated with them for whaling stations and trading posts, in return for goods and weapons.

An unsuccessful counter-attack against the Kāwhia–Taranaki tribes was mounted by South Island relatives of tribes displaced in the southern North Island, and there were threats from other South Island chiefs. Te Rauparaha then led a series of incursions into Nelson–Marlborough, which was also conquered and secured by the northern alliance. Allocations of the lands saw Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa become the dominant tribes. Agricultural and horticultural produce was traded at whaling communities, where many Māori also served as builders and whaleboat crew. Within a few years of this final conquest a new group of Europeans arrived to establish the New Zealand Company’s second settlement.

Land loss

Colonisation and settlement

In 1839 Colonel William Wakefield had to work with the conquering tribes to establish the New Zealand Company’s Wellington and Nelson settlement schemes. After three very dubious purchases (since discredited) the company acquired 1.2 million hectares on both sides of Cook Strait. Soon after, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed at three locations in the Marlborough districts, but Nelson chiefs were not given a chance to consider the matter. Wellington, the first company settlement, was established almost immediately, and the Nelson scheme was launched two years later under Captain Arthur Wakefield, William’s brother. Arthur Wakefield had to negotiate with the resident chiefs for rights to settle the Nelson districts.

Commerce and trade

Initially relationships between settlers and Māori were good, and Māori harvests and catches sustained settler families as they cleared land for their own crops. However, relations deteriorated as New Zealand Company and Crown officials reneged on terms of the ‘purchases’, and disputes over land ownership, boundaries and trespass erupted from time to time.

Despite these setbacks, Nelson Māori continued to participate in the new economy. Māori-owned ships worked the New Zealand coast, carrying Māori and European produce within Nelson–Marlborough and to North Island ports. More than 400 hectares under Māori cultivation produced hundreds of tons of potatoes and thousands of bushels of wheat for sale at Nelson markets, the whaling stations, Wellington and further afield.

The Wairau incident

The New Zealand Company’s Nelson settlement scheme called for 1,100 allotments of 201 acres each, which had to be ‘arable, cultivable land’. In total 221,100 acres (89,433 hectares) was required, of which one-tenth would become the ‘Native Tenths Reserves’.

Unfortunately, there was not enough suitable land, and in early 1843 company surveyors were sent to the unpurchased Wairau plains. Te Rauparaha and other Ngāti Toa chiefs immediately objected that these lands had not been included in the company’s 1839 ‘purchases’.

After months of fruitless protest and lobbying, in early June 1843 the Ngāti Toa chiefs evicted the surveyors and burnt their temporary shelters. Te Rauparaha reasoned that these were built from materials growing on his lands. Arthur Wakefield and Police Magistrate Henry Thompson responded by arming a settler militia and attempting to arrest the chiefs at Wairau. On June 17 the situation deteriorated into a confrontation in which 22 Europeans and at least four Māori were killed.

The effect was catastrophic: relations between Māori and Pākehā were never to be the same again.

Loss of land

In 1853 Governor George Grey took 371 hectares of Motueka Native Reserve lands for the Anglican Church’s Whakarewa School, without offering compensation. This removed the best of the Nelson tribes’ productive lands, leaving them bereft of income; they were evicted from their homes and cultivations. Land Commissioner Donald McLean’s ‘Waipounamu purchases’ of 1853–56, together with the Native Reserves Act 1856 and later amendments, set the scene for 120 years of Māori alienation from their lands.

Considerable damage was done by perpetually renewable leases (in the 1880s), the targeting of native reserves for public purposes, the Crown’s compulsory acquisition of ‘uneconomic interests’ (in the 1950s), and the freeholding of Māori reserves to lessees (in the 1960s and 1970s).

The Crown facilitated these actions by appointing trustees of native reserves, leaving Māori owners with no influence on the management of their lands. By the 1970s Nelson Māori were left with little more than 3,000 of approximately 20,000 acres (1,200 of 8,000 hectares) guaranteed by the 1840s land purchase agreements. These losses were devastating and contributed to poor health, low educational achievement and the scattering of the Māori population from the area.

Modern revival

Despite 160 years of European settlement and some discriminatory government policies, the people of Te Tau Ihu (Nelson–Marlborough) have survived. The eight tribes of the area are now increasingly significant contributors to the regional economy.

A landmark event in Nelson was the creation of the Wakatū Incorporation in 1977. Surviving native reserve titles of Nelson City, Motueka and some Golden Bay lands were transferred to the incorporation. The capital value of the transferred land assets was approximately $11 million. The 1,211 hectares were in 771 titles, all but one ensnared in low-yielding leases with rights of renewal in perpetuity.

The eight tribes

After nearly 1,000 years of migration, conquest, and intermarriage there are eight mutually recognised tribes in Nelson–Marlborough today.

The Kurahaupō tribes are:
Ngāti Kuia
Ngāti Apa.

The Tainui tribes are:
Ngāti Toa
Ngāti Koata
Ngāti Rārua.

The Taranaki tribes are:
Ngāti Tama
Te Āti Awa.

Through the management of its lands on behalf of the shareholders, the Wakatū Incorporation increased its capital value to more than $140 million by the early 2000s. It has now diversified into commercial land acquisition, subdivision development, orcharding, agriculture, forestry, viticulture, fishing and marine farming – encompassing growing, harvesting and international marketing. With more than 600 employees in 2003, the Wakatū Incorporation can be considered a success story.

Treaty settlements

The members of Ngati Toa, including those based in Te Tau Ihu, settled their historic treaty claims on 7 December 2012 (see the iwi entry for Ngāti Toa Rangatira).

Ngāti Koata’s  treaty settlement, valued at about $11.8 million, was signed on 21 December 2012..

Ngāti Rārua’s treaty settlement, dated 13 April 2013, was valued at about $11.8 million. It enabled Ngāti Rārua to purchase 10 Crown properties immediately and another nine within three years. The iwi gained an interest in about 12,000 hectares of former Crown forest land in Te Tai Ihu, and received about $7.75 million in accumulated rentals. Eight sites of significance were vested solely in Ngāti Rārua, and another seven jointly with other Te Tau Ihu iwi.

Ngāti Tama ki te Tau Ihu’s treaty settlement on 20 April 2013 was valued at about $12 million.. Two culturally significant sites, Kaka Point and Te Tai Tapu, were vested jointly in Ngāti Tama ki te Tau Ihu and other iwi in this region, then gifted back to the Crown. Four further sites were vested solely in Ngāti Tama ki te Tau Ihu.

Taking up the challenge

In recent years tribes of Nelson (and Marlborough) have established administrative structures to hold assets transferred from Treaty of Waitangi settlements and commercial purchases, to prepare formal submissions on local authority and state processes, and to represent the tribes in various forums.

Individual members now have access to educational scholarships, and bereaved families are assisted with funeral costs. Nelson tribes support communal activities such as restoration of marae and burial grounds, kōhanga reo (preschool language nests), health centres and training programmes, as well as many projects in the community at large.

Kurahaupō tribes of Te Tau Ihu

Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne o Wairau and Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō are the three tribes in Te Tau Ihu who trace their descent from the Kurahaupō canoe. They supplied these stories about their history and traditions.

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

Note that the figures below only refer to the number of people from the tribes listed who were resident in the Te Tau Ihu region at the time of the census.  

Ngāti Apa

  • 2001 census: 375
  • 2006 census: 741
  • 2013 census: 843

Major regional locations

  • Manawatū–Wanganui: 171
  • Canterbury: 150
  • Marlborough: 117

Ngāti Koata

  • 1991 census: 390
  • 2001 census: 765
  • 2006 census: 1,062
  • 2013 census: 1,341

Major regional locations

  • Waikato: 270
  • Wellington: 261

Ngāti Kuia

  • 1991 census: 522
  • 2001 census: 1,224
  • 2006 census: 1,551
  • 2013 census: 1,794

Major regional locations

  • Nelson: 315
  • Marlborough: 261

Ngāti Rārua

  • 1991 census: 312
  • 2001 census: 699
  • 2006 census: 954
  • 2013 census: 981

Major regional locations

  • Marlborough: 228

Ngāti Tama

  • 2001 census: 393
  • 2006 census: 381
  • 2013 census: 375

Major regional locations

  • Wellington: 93

Ngāti Toarangatira

  • 1991 census: 24
  • 2001 census: 138
  • 2006 census: 180
  • 2013 census: 321

Major regional locations

  • Wellington: 54


  • 1991 census: 54
  • 2001 census: 756
  • 2006 census: 966
  • 2013 census: 1,218

Major regional locations

  • Marlborough: 282
  • Canterbury: 219

Te Āti Awa

  • 1991 census: 9
  • 2001 census: 1,377
  • 2006 census: 2,433
  • 2013 census: 2,013

Major regional locations

  • Wellington: 408
  • Marlborough: 366

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Hilary Mitchell and John Mitchell, 'Te Tau Ihu tribes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Hilary Mitchell and John Mitchell, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017