Story: Whanganui tribes

Page 1. Ancestors

All images & media in this story
E rere kau mai te awa nui nei
Mai i te kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa
Ko au te awa
Ko te awa ko au.
The river flows
From the mountains to the sea
I am the river
The river is me.


Legendary Polynesian navigator Kupe’s early exploration of New Zealand is commemorated in many ancient place names. Kupe landed at Whanganui, known as Te Kaihau-o-Kupe, or ‘Kupe’s wind-eating’, because of the constant winds there. He then took his canoe upriver in search of inhabitants, paddling as far as Kauarapāoa. This was named for one of his men, Arapāoa, who drowned swimming across the river in flood.

It is told that although Kupe heard the bird calls of weka, kōkako and pīwakawaka (fantail), he did not find people. He returned to the river mouth and then made his way to Pātea in south Taranaki, where he planted karaka seed in its sweet soils.

Turi and Ngā Paerangi

On returning to Hawaiki in Polynesia, Kupe described his explorations to his people. Some time later, Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe, sailed to Pātea, where he made his home. According to tradition, his descendants who spread into the region discovered the original people of the land, Ngā Paerangi. The chief Paerangi, from whom they took their name, is said to have preceded Turi by five generations.

The collective name for the people of the river, Ngāti Hau, is in some versions said to have come from Haupipi. He sailed with Turi on the Aotea after his original canoe, the Kuruhaupō, was wrecked. In other versions the name is a contraction of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi (the people of Haunui-a-Pāpārangi). Haunui-a-Pāpārangi also arrived with Turi, and his descendants settled among the people of Ngā Paerangi.


Another significant ancestor is Tamatea-pōkai-whenua, captain of the Tākitimu canoe and explorer of the Whanganui River. When entering the river Tamatea sent his servant ashore to find flax for a topknot (pūtiki). The place where flax was found became known as Te Pūtiki-wharanui-a-Tamatea-pōkai-whenua. Turi came to visit Tamatea, and his daughter Tāneroa fell in love and married Tamatea’s brother, Uenga-ariki.

How the Whanganui River was formed

In ancient times three mountains, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Taranaki, lived together in the centre of the North Island, the fish which Māui hauled from the sea. One day Taranaki attempted to carry off Pīhanga, the wife of Tongariro. In the ensuing battle Taranaki was defeated and escaped down to Whanganui. As he fled, he carved out the deep furrow of the river. The place where he eventually stopped in loneliness is the site of Mt Taranaki today.

Tamatea then built a canoe, and left his servant at the mouth of the river, while he explored upriver. According to some, this event gave rise to its name, Whanganui (from ‘whanga nui’, meaning ‘long wait’). Others say the name came from Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, and meant ‘great harbour’.

Children of Tamakehu and Ruaka

Tamakehu, a Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi chief, and his first wife Ruaka had three children: Hinengākau of the upper river, Tama Ūpoko, who settled in the middle reaches, and Tūpoho, associated with the lower Whanganui. Their names are regularly invoked to express the basic unity of the people. This is also emphasised by certain sayings, such as ‘te taura whiri a Hinengākau’ (‘the plaited rope of Hinengākau’) which refers to the ties between the people of the river.

Other canoes

Because the river’s path from the central North Island’s volcanic plateau is gradual and navigable over about 230 km, not only were some 80 and village sites built along its banks and cliffs, it also became one of the great arterial routes through the central North Island. This has ensured that other tribes, such as those of the Tainui confederation, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto, as well as Ngāti Kahungunu of the Tākitimu canoe and Ngāti Tūwharetoa of the Arawa canoe, also contribute to the genealogical history of the river.

How to cite this page:

David Young, 'Whanganui tribes - Ancestors', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

Story by David Young, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 22 Mar 2017