Story: Waikato tribes

Page 2. Waikato landmarks

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The Waikato River

The Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest. Its headwaters arise on Mt Ruapehu, just south of Tūrangi, and merge with Lake Taupō via the Waikato Stream. At times the Waikato current can be seen making its way through the water of the lake. The river proper begins at an outlet from the lake near the town of Taupō. It flows through the northern Taupō region into Waikato, and through the city of Hamilton, before reaching the sea at Port Waikato.

There are numerous traditions concerning the river. A well-known tribal proverb about the Waikato tribes refers to the taniwha (mythical water spirit) dwelling in the river:

He piko, he taniwha
He piko, he taniwha.
Waikato of a hundred taniwha
At every bend a taniwha can be found.

These taniwha represent a chief or person of tremendous influence. The expression underlines the mana of the Waikato people.

The origin of the name

The name Waikato originated during the voyage of the Tainui canoe, which had journeyed from Polynesia. Arriving just off the mouth of the river, the crew remarked upon the kato (the pull of the river current in the sea) and thereafter the name Waikato (wai meaning water) was given to the river.


Kāwhia is the first homeland of the Waikato peoples; the Kāwhia land and seascape teems with place names denoting the long association of these peoples with the area.

Kāwhia was the final landing point of the Tainui after its long and arduous journey from Hawaiki in central Polynesia. When the canoe arrived at Kāwhia, it was tied to a pōhutukawa tree named Tangi-te-korowhiti. It was finally pulled ashore at a point called Rangiāhua, and is buried behind the present-day marae of Maketū, near Kāwhia township. Following the Tainui’s arrival the commander, Hoturoa, established a place of learning called Te Ahurei.

Early Tainui history is centred upon Kāwhia. Families grew and settled the harbour for approximately seven generations, before settling inland districts. This saying about Kāwhia is often heard on Tainui marae:

Kāwhia moana
Kāwhia kai
Kāwhia tangata.
Kāwhia the waters
Kāwhia the sustenance
Kāwhia the people.
How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Waikato tribes - Waikato landmarks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017