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Te Whakatōhea

by  Ranginui Walker

‘Take the rope from my throat that I may sing my song.’ These words were sung by Mokomoko, wrongly accused in 1865 of the murder of a missionary. As punishment for this killing the government took much of Te Whakatōhea’s territory. With a harbour rich in fish and shellfish, and forests offering fern grounds, eel fisheries and pigeons, that land seemed like paradise lost.


Lands and resources

Te Whakatōhea exercised mana over a 35-km stretch of coastline in the eastern Bay of Plenty, from Ōhiwa Harbour to Ōpape. The western boundary is Maraetōtara at Ōhope, and the eastern boundary is at Tarakeha, a fortified ridge between Ōpape and Awaawakino. The coastal boundaries run inland, south-east through mountainous country, and join just south of Matawai.

Te Whakatōhea’s territory contained rich sources of food. Ōhiwa Harbour, named ‘the daughter of Whakatōhea’, held plentiful supplies of shellfish, including cockles, mussels and sea snails. There were also abundant open-sea fish.

Just east of Ōhiwa is the Waiōtahe River, famous for its seemingly inexhaustible supply of shellfish. Pākōwhai and the township of Ōpōtiki are at the centre of Te Whakatōhea territory, where the Waiōweka and Ōtara rivers join. Seasonal runs of kahawai, mullet and kingfish went upstream in both rivers for several kilometres. Inside the river bar on the south bank is Pākihi, another rich source of seafood.

At the eastern end, from Ōpape round to Awaawakino, the rocks abound with mussels, pāua (a kind of shellfish), kina (sea eggs) and crayfish. Back along the beach towards Ōpōtiki is the Waiaua River, where the Te Whakatōhea ancestor Tāpuikākahu exclaimed:

Ah the food at Wai-aua!
’Twas a sleeping house for you, for all men
Where nets are hauled upon the beach. 1

All of Te Whakatōhea’s fortified villages were sited along the coastal platform to defend the marine resources. In the mountainous hinterland there were no fortifications, just encampments for the seasonal harvesting of forest produce. Toatoa, Whitikau and Waiōweka contained fern grounds, eel fisheries and places for snaring and hunting pigeons, kākā, weka and kiwi. These forested mountains were also places of refuge in times of war.

    • Ngata, A. T. Ngā mōteatea, Part III. Wellington: Polynesian Society, 1970, p. 93. › Back



Tarawa was the first ancestor to arrive from Hawaiki. According to one legend he swam to New Zealand and came ashore at Paerātā, east of the Waiōtahe River. There he released two pet fish in a spring which became known as Ōpōtiki-mai-tawhiti (the pets from afar). This name was later applied to the township of Ōpōtiki. Tarawa’s arrival is marked by two carved pillars commemorating the settlement of the land by Māori and later Pākehā ancestors.


The next ancestor of note was Tautūrangi, who arrived in the Nukutere canoe 26 generations before 1900. The canoe made landfall in an isolated rocky cove, and was moored to a flat white rock named Te Rangi. Tautūrangi and his followers then sailed round to Te Kōtukutuku and went ashore.

Tautūrangi’s first act of claiming the land was to travel up the Waiaua Valley to a high point on the skyline, named Kapuarangi. There he installed the god Tamaīwaho. Tautūrangi’s tribe was known as Te Wakanui until the time of Tūtāmure, born eight generations later.


Tūtāmure established the eastern boundary between the two tribes of Te Wakanui and Ngāi Tai at Tōrere, and inland from Te Rangi cove to Ōroi.

He led an attack on the of Ngāti Kahungunu in Maungakāhia, to avenge the murder of his sister Tāneroa by her husband. During the battle Tūtāmure broke a club, and reached for his more durable whalebone club to smash the heads of his enemies and bury them. Thereafter, the victorious Tūtāmure and his people were known as Te Panenehu (the buried heads).

Tūtāmure built Poutōtara pā inland at Waiaua to seal off retaliatory raids by Ngāti Kahungunu. He occupied several pā at Waiaua, including the iconic, pyramid-shaped Mākeo behind Ōmarumutu marae.


Acting like a man

Nine generations after the Nukutere canoe arrived from Hawaiki, the Mataatua canoe brought the Te Whakatōhea female ancestor Muriwai, landing at Whakatāne. The captain, Toroa, and his men left the canoe and went inland to survey the land, unaware of the danger of the high rise and fall of the tides in New Zealand. Muriwai, seeing that the falling tide threatened to sweep the Mataatua out to sea, cried out, ‘Ka whakatāne au i ahau!’ (I shall acquit myself like a man!). She saved the canoe and immortalised her actions in the name of Whakatāne.

The Mataatua canoe, bearing the female ancestor Muriwai from Hawaiki, reached Whakatāne nine generations after the Nukutere canoe. Muriwai’s son Rēpanga went to Ōpōtiki where he married Ngāpoupereta. Rēpanga’s descendant, Ruatakena, became the ancestor of the Ngāti Ruatakena tribe (now known as Ngāti Rua). Muriwai’s daughter Hine-i-kauia followed her brother and married Tūtāmure. The descendants of this union became Te Whakatōhea, who merged with Te Panenehu.


Tūtāmure’s counterpart in the west was Kahuki, of the Whakatāne sub-tribe. Kahuki lived at Waiōtahe. He conquered the other sections of this hapū to avenge the killing of his father, Rongopopoia.

He then returned to Waiōtahe, where he built a pā close to the river. The remaining members of Whakatāne and Ngāti Raumoa, including the Te Ūpokorehe hapū, occupied lands at Waiōtahe and Ōhiwa under Kahuki’s control. Te Ūpokorehe, on the western border, were subjected to attacks from Tūhoe and Ngāti Awa. In times of danger Te Ūpokorehe sought refuge at Ōpōtiki. The final battle between Te Whakatōhea, and Ngāti Awa and their Tūhoe ally, took place at Ōhope. There Te Whakatōhea chief Te Rupe led his people to victory with the haka, ‘Te kōtiritiri te kōtaratara!’

Te Rupe’s chant

This chant was delivered by the Te Whakatōhea leader Te Rupe, before a retaliatory battle at Ōhope against a party of Tūhoe warriors.

Te kōtiritiri te kōtaratara o huki Ōhope e.
Haere tī taha ana te kaha o te kupenga ki uta rā e.
Hurahia te tangata mate.
Hurahia te tangata mate.

Houhoua e te ure.
Houhoua e te ure.
Ki roto ki te onepū.
Kei motu tī kariri i te tūpere ha!

Te Whakatōhea fought many battles against their eastern neighbour Ngāi Tai at Tōrere, to keep them out of Waiaua. The defining battle was at Awahou under the leadership of Punāhamoa, before the arrival of the missionaries. The Ngāi Tai chief Tūterangikūrei was killed, and his head preserved as a trophy of war. Ngāi Tai redeemed their chief’s head in exchange for the greenstone adze named Waiwharangi, which they gave to the Te Whakatōhea victors. Waiwharangi is now held in the Whakatāne Museum.

From European contact to today

Like many of the North Island tribes, Te Whakatōhea initially welcomed the new British laws and Christian religion as a way of stopping tribal warfare. This had been particularly intense during the first 40 years of the 19th century – the period of the musket wars.

With the arrival of the missionaries and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, a generation experienced peace.

The killing of Carl Völkner

The German missionary Carl Völkner had been warned to stay away from Te Whakatōhea territory by local Māori after they began to suspect he was a government spy. In 1865 he was murdered at Ōpōtiki during the Hauhau disturbances. As punishment for the murder and to satisfy settler demand for land, 144,000 acres (58,000 hectares) of Te Whakatōhea land was confiscated under the New Zealand Settlements Act, 1863. Te Whakatōhea lost the coastline from Maraetōtara to the Waiaua River, and the sub-tribes were jammed into the Ōpape native reservation.

This injustice was partially redressed in 1952 when a government grant established the Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board.

Te Whakatōhea today

Te Whakatōhea consists of six sub-tribes: Ngāti Ruatakena (Ngāti Rua), Ngāti Patumoana, Ngāti Ngahere, Ngāi Tamahaua, Ngāti Ira and Te Ūpokorehe.

The Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board administers assets such as buildings and dairy farms. In addition to providing preschool and health services for Te Whakatōhea, the board provides training in dairy farming, hospitality, horticulture, aquaculture and commercial fishing, business administration and computing. In 2016, the Whakatōhea Pre-Settlement Claims Trust was negotiating with the government to settle its land claim.

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

The only previous census asking Māori to indicate tribal affiliation – but not of multiple tribes – was that of 1901.

  • 1901 census: 599
  • 1991 census: 5,637
  • 2001 census: 9,948
  • 2006 census: 12,069
  • 2013 census: 12,177

Major regional locations

  • Bay of Plenty: 4,890
  • Auckland: 2,382

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ranginui Walker, 'Te Whakatōhea', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Ranginui Walker, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017