As soon as Polynesians arrived in New Zealand, between 1250 and 1300 AD, they started to explore the country. Pounamu (greenstone or jade) was soon discovered on the West Coast, mainly in the area around the Arahura River. Because of its hardness and durability, pounamu was prized for making tools, weapons and ornaments. By the late 1300s it was being transported around the country and traded.
Poutini and Waitaiki
In Māori tradition, Poutini was a much travelled taniwha (water monster). While visiting Tūhua (Mayor Island) he saw a beautiful woman, Waitaiki, and seized her. Pursued by her husband, Tamaāhua, Poutini fled to the South Island, but was trapped in the Arahura valley, where he cast Waitaiki into the river to form pounamu. The tributary of the Arahura River where much of the pounamu originates is called the Waitaiki (Olderog) Stream. Nearby Mt Tūhua commemorates the place from where she was abducted.
The evidence of the extent of Māori occupation of the West Coast comes from archaeological investigations. It appears that sites were occupied along the whole length of the region, mainly close to the coast, and at lagoons and river mouths where fish and shellfish were available. The written and archaeological evidence suggests that the total population at any one time was in the hundreds rather than thousands.
The tribal affiliations of the earliest settlers are uncertain, but they are generally thought to be Waitaha, the first settlers of the South Island. The West Coast was occupied by Ngāti Wairangi in the 16th or 17th centuries. By the time of first European contact in the early 19th century Ngāti Waewae, a hapū of Ngāi Tahu, claimed ownership of much of the West Coast. They also came to be known as Poutini Ngāi Tahu.
The main Māori settlements on the West Coast were probably between the Māwheranui (Grey) and Hokitika rivers – the main pounamu-gathering area. Trade routes across the Southern Alps became established, and Kaiapoi pā in north Canterbury was a major trading centre.
In 1831–32 a Ngāti Rārua group, led by Niho and Takere, invaded the West Coast from the north. They defeated Poutini Ngāi Tahu, and remained in occupation, controlling the main pounamu gathering sites. Ngāti Rārua withdrew in 1837, leaving Poutini Ngāi Tahu again in control of the whole region. Those who lived close to the Arahura River collected and traded boulders of pounamu.
In 1826 John Boultbee, a sealer, estimated the Māori population of South Westland at about 500, including an important settlement at Ōkahu (Jackson Bay). When explorers Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy travelled along the coast in 1846–48, they found thriving small Māori communities. But when James Mackay visited the region in 1857, he estimated the total population at only 100–200, presumably because of the devastating effects of infectious diseases such as influenza and measles, which had been introduced by Europeans. By this time the settlement at Ōkahu was deserted.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries the Māori population remained small. In 2013 there were around 3,000 Māori on the West Coast – only 10.5% of the region’s population. They support two rūnanga (regional collective bodies), Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae in Greymouth and Hokitika, and Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio in South Westland.