Story: Te whānau puha – whales

Page 3. Whales and Māori society

All images & media in this story

Whale place names and imagery

The whale has often been commemorated in place names. These include:

  • Moutohorā (captured whale), an island off the coast at Whakatāne
  • Te Ara-a-Kewa (the path of the right whale), the name for Foveaux Strait
  • Te Ara-a-Paikea (the path of Paikea), a whale-shaped hill on the Māhia Peninsula
  • Whangaparāoa (bay of sperm whales) in Auckland and the East Cape
  • Te Waiū-o-Te-Tohorā (the breast milk of the whale) is the name of a spring of white water associated with hills around Welcome Bay and Pāpāmoa in the Tauranga area. The hills represent a family of whales (mother, father and baby) that lost their way. After drinking from a magical spring at Karikari, they were all transformed into the ranges in this region.

Rangatira (chiefs) and whales

Many sayings about whales allude to the aristocracy. 'Te kāhui parāoa’ – a gathering of sperm whales – indicates a group of chiefs. ‘He paenga pakake’ (beached whales) refers to fallen chiefs on a battlefield.

A whale of a Trojan Horse

The origin of the name for the Ngāti Kurī tribe of Muriwhenua is linked to the construction of a whale made of dog skins. This became a Trojan Horse, concealing 100 warriors as it appeared to lie beached on the coast, in front of an unsuspecting enemy village. The people left the safety of their to gather the valuable whale meat and were met with a major surprise.

This same ploy was used by the Ngāti Kahungunu warlord Taraia, who dressed his warriors in black cloaks and ordered them to lie on the beach in front of Heipipi pā to lure the enemy out. The people thought a pod of pilot whales had stranded, and streamed out of the pā, to their demise.

Whale resources

It is thought that Māori did not actively hunt whales, but they were known to force whales to beach themselves. Whales provided meat, which was eaten fresh, hung to dry or cooked in a hāngī (earth oven). Milk was taken from a suckling mother, oil was used for polish and scent, and teeth were made into ornaments and jewellery such as the prized rei puta (whale-tooth neck ornament).

Whalebone, in particular the jawbones from the parāoa (sperm whale), was fashioned into weapons like patu, taiaha, tewhatewha, and hoeroa, and other objects like heru (combs), tokotoko (walking sticks), and hei tiki (neck ornaments).

Disputes over resources were common. At Whangaparāoa on the East Coast, Pou-mātangatanga of the Tauira tribe sought to claim a stranded parāoa. This was challenged by Taikehu from the Tainui canoe who had already fashioned a patu from the jawbone. This led Pou to relinquish his claim and shift to Maraenui. Kauaetangohia (extracted jawbone) is the name of an ancestor, a hapū (clan or descent group), and a marae that commemorate this incident. In another dispute, when a pod of whales was stranded near Te Awanga in Hawke’s Bay, the chief Tamaariki arrived home to find that his son had not been given a share of the meat. He was offended and left the district.

How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Te whānau puha – whales - Whales and Māori society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 12 Jun 2006