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Waikato tribes

by  Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

Home of the Māori King movement, the lush Waikato region is the territory of numerous tribes descended from the people of the Tainui canoe. Key roles in their story have been played by women: the ancestor Kahu, who as a widow named many landmarks on a journey of grieving; Te Puea, founder of the Tūrangawaewae marae; and the late queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu.

The Waikato confederation

Waikato is a tribal confederation which takes its name from the Waikato River and region. The Waikato people are one of the major groups descended from the voyagers of the Tainui canoe – like Ngāti Maniapoto they are a Tainui people. They are often referred to as Pare Waikato (those within the boundaries of Waikato).

The confederation includes the tribes Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Māhanga, Ngāti Tamainupō, Ngāti Wairere, Ngāti Te Ata, Ngāti Te Wehi, Ngāti Tīpā and many more. Early Waikato history is intimately linked with the first settlements of the Tainui peoples around Kāwhia on the North Island’s west coast. It was at Kāwhia that the Tainui made its final landfall, some time in the 13th century.

The King movement

A particularly important source of unity for the Waikato people is the King movement. The movement’s formal centre is Tūrangawaewae marae at Ngāruawāhia. Since its inception in the 1850s, the King movement has always been located in Waikato. The first king was the Waikato chief, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, and all succeeding kings and the late queen are his descendants.

Traditional lands

The region of the Waikato peoples is described in the following saying:

Ko Mōkau ki runga
Ko Tāmaki ki raro
Ko Mangatoatoa ki waenganui.
Pare Hauraki, Pare Waikato
Te Kaokaoroa-o-Pātetere.
Mōkau is above
Tāmaki is below
Mangatoatoa is between.
The boundaries of Hauraki, the boundaries of Waikato
To the place called ‘the long armpit of Pātetere’.

Mōkau refers to the river in north Taranaki, and Tāmaki to the isthmus on which the city of Auckland now stands. Mangatoatoa is a small village south of Te Awamutu. Pare Hauraki is the Hauraki region including the Piako, Ōhinemuri and Coromandel districts. Pare Waikato is the region north of Kāwhia to the Manukau Harbour and across to the Hūnua and the Hapūakohe Range. Hence, the Waikato region today includes cities and towns such as Te Awamutu, Cambridge, Hamilton and Huntly.

The Tāmaki district is sometimes referred to as the kei (stern) of the Tainui canoe and the Mōkau district as the tauihu (prow). The Coromandel Peninsula is referred to as the canoe’s ama (outrigger).

Waikato landmarks

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.



The journey of the ancestress Kahu is an important settlement narrative of the Tainui and Waikato peoples. Kahu, sometimes called Kahukeke or Kahupeka, walked inland from Kāwhia while grieving for her husband Uenga, who had recently died. Her first destination was a mountain that became known as Pirongia, shortened from Te Pirongia-o-Te Aroaro-ō-Kahu (the scented pathway of Kahu). Here she named a stream Te Manga-Wāero-o-Te Aroaro-ō-Kahu (the stream in which Kahu’s dogskin cloak was washed). Nearby she named another summit Te Kakepuku-ō-Kahu (the hill over which Kahu climbed) and further south, the peak Te Kāwa-ō-Kahu (where Kahu slept in a garden). Following this she went to Hauraki and gave the name Te Aroha-ō-Kahu (the yearning of Kahu) to a mountain, in memory of her husband.

She travelled south and named a mountain range Te Whakamaru-ō-Kahu (the place where Kahu took shelter). Another locality to the south was called Te Whakakākaho-ō-Kahu, for a shelter she made out of kākaho reeds. She travelled west of Lake Taupō and named the mountain ranges Te Rangitoto-ō-Kahu (the black lava of Kahu) and Te Hurakia-ō-Kahu (the discovery of Kahu). At another peak, her food ran out and so she called it Maunga Pau-ō-Kahu (the barren mountain of Kahu). After suffering from illness and performing rites to aid her recovery, she named another mountain Te Pureora-ō-Kahu (the life-giving ritual of Kahu). Finally, Kahu arrived at Te Puke-ō-Kahu (the sacred mountain of Kahu), where she passed away.

Tūheitia and his son Māhanga

Tūheitia and Māhanga are important ancestors of the Waikato people. Tūheitia was a renowned warrior whose home was never attacked by enemies. This is commemorated in the saying,

Haere mai ki ahau
Ki Te Papa-o-Rotu
Ki te au tē rena,
Ki te urunga tē taka,
Ki te moenga tē whakaarahia.
Ahakoa iti taku iti
He rei kei roto.
Come to me
To Te Papa-o-Rotu
To the unstirred current
To the pillow that falls not
And the undisturbed sleep.
Although I am small
I have teeth.

Tūheitia was eventually killed at sea, but was transformed into a taniwha , a spiritual creature who came to live in the Waipā River.

His son Māhanga travelled widely, marrying numerous women, having children and engaging in various conflicts and battles. He became the ancestor of the Ngāti Māhanga people, a major tribe within the Waikato confederation. Māhanga’s deeds are commemorated in the saying,

Māhanga whakarere kai, whakarere waka.
Māhanga who abandons food and canoes.

This refers to his constant travels to engage in warfare, and his refusal to settle permanently with a tribe or family.

Ōmaero and Te Kaharoa

Ōmaero and Te Kaharoa are two marae of the Ngāti Māhanga people. Ōmaero is near Whatawhata, and Te Kaharoa in the Aramiro valley near Raglan. The places after which these marae are named are referred to in a statement by Māhanga. Aggrieved at the death of his son Tonganui, he cried,

Kia whakatupu te tangata i tana tamaiti rangatira hei takitaki i te mate o Tonga-nui! Whakamau! whakamau ki Manuaitu, ki Puke-rengarenga! Tuutuu kau nga puuruu kahikatea e tuu ki Oomaero! Oraora kau nga kaakaho o Te Kaharoa!
Let the people raise young chiefs to avenge the death of Tonganui. Remember, remember Manuaitu and Pukerengarenga! The close-growing kahikatea stand erect at Ōmaero! The reeds of Te Kaharoa rustle and stir! 1
  1. Pei Te Hurinui Jones and Bruce Biggs, Nga iwi o Tainui. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995, pp. 130–131. › Back

The King movement


The King movement (Te Kīngitanga) began in the 1850s, some years after the arrival of Europeans, in an attempt to halt sales of land and promote Māori authority in New Zealand. A number of tribes supported the movement, but it became centred on the Waikato region and people. The desire to retain land was a central concern of the movement, repeated in sayings, songs and haka. Here is an extract from an often-performed King movement haka:

Ka ngapu te whenua
Ka haere ngā tangata ki whea?
E Ruaimoko
Kia ū!
Kia ita!
A ita!
Kia mau, kia mau.
The earthquake shakes the land
Where shall man find an abiding place?
Oh Ruaimoko [god of the lower depths]
Hold fast!
Bind, tightly bind!
Be firm, be firm!
Hold, hold!
Hold fast the land.

The kings

In the 1850s tribes from all over the country, including the South Island, debated who should be offered the kingship. They finally agreed upon Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the Waikato chief, who became first king in 1858. Pōtatau was succeeded by his son Tāwhiao in 1860. Tāwhiao’s reign coincided with the Waikato war of 1863–64, after which he led his people into exile in the lands south of Te Awamutu. This area is now known as the King Country. Tāwhiao, who was also a prophet, sustained the King movement in trying times and was succeeded by his son Mahuta in 1894.

King movement leaders

Pōtatau Te Wherowhero (1858–1860)

Tāwhiao (1860–1894)

Mahuta (1894–1912)

Te Rata (1912–1933)

Korokī (1933–1966)

Te Atairangikaahu (1966–2006)

Tūheitia Paki (2006–)

Mahuta became a member of the Legislative Council and the Executive Council of Parliament during his reign. He was succeeded by his son Te Rata in 1912. Te Rata continued the work of his father by negotiating with the New Zealand government and the British Crown, and by seeking redress for grievances. He was succeeded by his son Korokī in 1933. Korokī was a quiet man but nevertheless a leader of mana. During his time he was aided by his aunt, Te Puea Hērangi. Korokī was followed in 1966 by his daughter Te Atairangikaahu, and she was succeeded in 2006 by her son, Tūheitia Paki.


The seat of the King movement is Tūrangawaewae, a marae located at Ngāruawāhia. The name comes from a saying by King Tāwhiao:

Ko Arekahānara tōku haona kaha
Ko Kemureti tōku oko horoi
Ko Ngāruawāhia tōku tūrangawaewae
Alexandra [present day Pirongia] will ever be a symbol of my strength of character
Cambridge a symbol of my wash bowl of sorrow
And Ngāruawāhia my footstool. 1

Te Puea

The establishment of Tūrangawaewae marae during the 1920s and 1930s was guided by the influential Waikato – and indeed New Zealand – leader, Te Puea Hērangi, a granddaughter of King Tāwhiao. Te Puea succeeded in renewing the King movement as a vehicle to empower her people. That she was able to do this during a time of economic depression is a testimony to her considerable leadership skills.

    • Carmen Kirkwood, Tawhiao: king or prophet. Huntly: MAI Systems, 2000, p. 138. › Back

War and its aftermath

The confiscation of Waikato land

The great calamity that befell the Waikato people in the 19th century was the confiscation of millions of acres of tribal territory after the Waikato war of the 1860s. The government wanted to obtain the fertile Waikato lands for Pākehā settlement, but the King movement, which was centred in Waikato, resisted the loss of land and control.

British and colonial forces crossed the Mangatāwhiri Stream on 12 July 1863. The stream, just north of Meremere, was established by King Tāwhiao as a boundary line (aukati) between land to the south controlled by the king, and land to north under government control. Tāwhiao had warned that should the British forces cross that boundary, war would ensue.

Troops pushed south into the Waikato region, engaging King movement forces in a series of battles at Koheroa, Rangiriri, Rangiaowhia and finally at Ōrākau, a just outside Kihikihi. Following that battle, the Waikato people were forced into exile in what became known as the King Country, and the Waikato lands were confiscated by the government.


It was at the battle of Ōrākau (31 March–2 April 1864) that the famous declaration of defiance was uttered:

Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke!
We shall fight on forever!

Some attribute this cry to the great Ngāti Maniapoto leader Rewi Maniapoto, but there are different versions of what happened. In 1888 one of the veterans of the Ōrākau battle, Hitiri Te Paerata of Ngāti Te Kohera, was invited to give an account of the conflict at Parliament buildings. This was recorded and published. He said,

The General decided to send a summons calling upon us to surrender. … Then up rose my sister, Ahumai, amongst the women, and said, ‘If our husbands and brothers are to die of what profit is it to us that we should live? Let us die with the men.’ Seeing that the women were all of one mind, then Hapurona, Rewi, and my father said, ‘Ake, ake, ake [We will fight on for ever].’ 1

20th-century resurgence

The revival of the Waikato people and the King movement began with the construction of Tūrangawaewae marae during the 1920s and 1930s. Attempts to secure proper compensation for the loss of land which had begun in the 19th century gained momentum from this time. Along with her brother, Sir Robert Mahuta, the late queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, brought to conclusion the Waikato raupatu (confiscation) claim in May 1995. A settlement delivered compensation for the 1860s confiscation of lands and an apology from the Crown. This was the first major settlement with iwi in modern times. Valued at $170 million, the settlement included a relativity clause enabling supplementary payments if future settlements with other tribes were large in comparison to the Tainui settlement.

The settlement of the claim in 1995 was a particularly significant event for Waikato people, as they secured a range of resources and economic assets. Older structures of the King movement remain in place, supplemented by initiatives such as Tainui Endowed College, a university graduate facility, and Raukura Hauora o Tainui, a major provider of health services.

Today, the Waikato people are vibrant and active, maintaining numerous marae throughout their region. A range of businesses and trusts oversee the tribes’ assets.

Waikato River settlement, 2009

Following the 1995 settlement of Waikato-Tainui’s historic raupatu (land confiscation) claims, a further settlement signed on 17 December 2009 resolved remaining claims concerning the Waikato River. It established the Waikato River Authority to oversee joint management of the river by Waikato-Tainui and the Crown. The settlement also guaranteed certain customary uses of the river, such as for tribally significant tangihanga (funeral ceremonies) or hari tūpāpaku (transportation of human remains), and the cultural harvest of plant materials.

    • Hiriti Te Paerata, Description of the battle of Orakau. New ed. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1999, pp. 8–9 (originally published 1888). › Back

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 Waikato (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: 4,542
  • 1991 census: 22,227
  • 2001 census: 35,781
  • 2006 census: 33,429
  • 2013 census: 40,083

Major regional locations

  • Waikato: 13,971
  • Auckland: 13,011

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Waikato tribes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 November 2023)

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