Story: Te whānau puha – whales

Page 1. Whales in Māori tradition

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Tribal knowledge of whales

Māori have a long association with whales. While whales provided food and utensils, they also feature in tribal traditions and were sometimes guardians on the ancestors’ canoe journeys to Aotearoa. Oral histories recall interactions between people and whales in tribal stories, carvings, specialised language and place names. There is also a wealth of tribal knowledge about whales.

Whale names

Names for the different species of whales vary from tribe to tribe. One of the old terms for whales was 'ika moana' – fish of the sea. They were part of the family known as 'te whānau puha’ – the family of animals that expel air. While ‘tohorā’ (or tohoraha) is considered an all-embracing term for whales, it also refers to the southern right whale. Other names are:

  • hakurā or iheihe – scamperdown whale
  • miha pakake – a whale calf
  • paikea – southern humpback whale, or a whale with a white belly and deep grooves along its length
  • pakake – minke whale
  • parāoa – sperm whale
  • ūpokohue – blackfish or pilot whale.

Honorific names for whales or families of whales are Tūtarakauika, te Kauika Tangaroa, Wehengakāuki, Ruamano, Taniwha, and Tū-te-raki-hau-noa.

Whale origins

There are many tribal versions of the origin of whales. Some say Tangaroa (god of the sea) is the ancestor of sea creatures, while others name Te Pūwhakahara, Takaaho and Tinirau as progenitors of whales. Another tradition cites Te Hāpuku as the main ancestor of whales, dolphins and seals as well as tree ferns, which are often known as ‘ngā ika ō te ngahere’ – the fish of the forest.

The story of the whale and the kauri places trees and whales in their environments. The tohorā asked the kauri to return with him to the sea, but the kauri preferred the land. Tohorā then suggested they exchange skins, which they did. This is why the bark of the kauri is so thin, and as full of resin as the whale is of oil.

The pakake motif

Many carved houses and pātaka (food storehouses) feature the pakake motif on their maihi (bargeboards). Some believe this design depicts the story of the death of Tinirau’s pet whale.

In this story, the ill-favoured tohunga Kae visited the great chief Tinirau, and asked if Tinirau’s pet whale, Tutunui, would carry him home. Tinirau reluctantly agreed. Kae rode the whale to his homeland, but forced him to beach. Eventually he killed Tutunui and roasted him on a fire of koromiko shrub. On learning of the murder, Tinirau punished Kae. Some versions of the story say Kae built a house to commemorate his wretched act, showing the hauling of Tutunui ashore on one maihi and the cutting up and preparation for cooking the whale on the other. The bones of Tutunui were suspended on the rafters and framework of the interior of the house. Tinirau was also said to have built a house to honour the sad event.

How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Te whānau puha – whales - Whales in Māori tradition', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 12 Jun 2006