The tribes of the Whanganui region each trace their main line of descent from one of three canoes: the Aotea, the Tākitimu or the Kurahaupō.
Ngā Rauru Kītahi take their name from the ancestor Rauru Kītahi, who lived in the Waitōtara area before the arrival of the Aotea canoe. His people, Te Kāhui Rere, intermarried with the descendants of Turi, captain of the Aotea.
The original people of the Whanganui River area, Ngā Paerangi, also intermarried with Turi’s descendants. The descendants of Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, a chief who arrived with Turi, also settled among Ngā Paerangi.
Other significant ancestors of the Whanganui people are Tamakehu and Ruaka, whose three children and their descendants became custodians of stretches of the Whanganui River: Hinengākau of the upper river, Tama Ūpoko of the middle reaches and Tūpoho of the lower river. Hapū (sub-tribes) of the Waimarino district also identify with Tama Ūpoko. The unity of the three groups is conveyed in the saying ‘te taura whiri a Hinengākau’ (the plaited rope of Hinengākau). The Whanganui River people are collectively known as Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi.
Mt Ruapehu and the Whanganui River are seen as sacred ancestors of the Whanganui people, who say, ‘Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au' (I am the river. The river is me). Hapū of Ngā Rauru regard various hills and rivers in their respective districts as sacred.
On Tamatea’s inland journey, he is said to have named places and left pets – including a lizard on Aorangi mountain in the Ruahine Range, and a crayfish beneath Tikirere waterfall on the Moawhango River. He staked his firebrands into the river bank so they would become taniwha (water spirits), and named a waterfall after this act, Te Pounga-a-ngā-Motumotu-o-te-Ahi-a-Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua.
Tribes in northern and central Rangitīkei trace their descent from the Tākitimu canoe through Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua (Tamatea the land explorer). Tamatea travelled from Ahuriri (Napier) across the Ruahine Range into northern Rangitīkei, naming many places and leaving mōkai (pets) at certain locations. The mōkai became guardians of the district that his descendants were to occupy. Tamatea also explored the Whanganui River.
Tamatea’s son, Tamakōpiri, and grandson, Tūwhakaperei, moved from Poverty Bay to the northern Rangitīkei. After about seven generations another descendant, Whitikaupeka, also arrived. Their descendants – Ngāti Tamakōpiri and Ngāti Whitikaupeka – expelled the earlier inhabitants, Ngāti Hotu, from inland Pātea. Ngāti Tamakōpiri occupy the lands west and Ngāti Whitikaupeka the lands east of the Moawhango River. The far north-east became the home of Ngāti Hinemanu and Ngāti Paki. These tribes are descended from Tamatea through Hinemanu, a high-born Ngāti Kahungunu woman, and her husband, Tautahi.
Ngāti Hauiti take their name from Hauiti, a descendant of Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua. They moved into the central Rangitīkei valley, where they built several pā and settlements, mostly around Ōhingaiti. Conflict with Ngāti Apa was commonplace, but hostilities ceased in the early 1800s when a marriage was arranged between Rua Kau of Ngāti Hauiti and Kāwana Hunia of Ngāti Apa. In the mid-1800s the main body of Ngāti Hauiti migrated to Te Hou Hou kāinga (settlement) at Rātā, which became their stronghold.
Ngāti Apa trace their descent from Ruatea, captain of the Kurahaupō canoe. They are named after Ruatea’s son, Apa-hāpai-taketake, who lived in the Bay of Plenty. His descendants moved south over many generations, spending time in the Taupō, Rotoaira and Waimarino districts before reaching lower Rangitīkei. During their migrations they intermarried with people from the Whanganui hapū of Ngā Wairiki. In the 19th century Ngāti Apa emerged as a distinct tribe. Their traditional lands lie between the Mangawhero, Whangaehu, Turakina and Rangitīkei rivers.
In the 1820s tribal life in the region was disturbed by raids and migrations from further north, from Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Toarangatira and Taranaki tribes. Most of these groups only passed through the coastal areas on their way to the Cook Strait area, but in one bloody encounter in about 1829, Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa killed 400 locals at Pūtiki. Groups of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Raukawa remained in the region, in the tribal area of Ngāti Apa.