Story: Whangārei tribes

The ocean and coastline were central to the many tribes of Whangārei. From Muriwhenua down to Auckland, traditions and place names such as Ngunguru (rumbling tides) reflect their seafaring history. Today, through the Ngātiwai Trust Board, Māori people of the region are involved in environmental issues such as the preservation of beaches and nearshore islands.

Story by Rāwiri Taonui
Main image: Whāngārei Harbour

Story summary

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Several tribes belong to the region, including Ngare Raumati, Ngāi Tāhuhu, Ngātiwai and Te Parawhau. Ngātiwai are named after the swirling water (wai) in a cave at the Bay of Islands. Te Parawhau were said to have the largest (fortified village) in New Zealand.


The territory of the Whangārei tribes stretches down the coast from the far north of the North Island to Auckland, and includes Great Barrier and Little Barrier islands. Many tribes lived along the coast, linked by seafaring and trading networks. There are several explanations of how Whangārei was named. One tradition says that the full name means ‘the gathering place of whales’.


Among the ancestral canoes from Hawaiki were Tūnui-a-rangi, Te Arawa, Moekākara, Te Wakatūwhenua, and Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi, captained by Manaia. (Some accounts say he came on the Ruakaramea.) His people settled on the coast and the Poor Knights (Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi) and Hen and Chickens Islands (Taranga and Marotiri). Manaia is also the name given to the jagged mountain at Whangārei Harbour.

Puhi, captain of the Mataatua canoe, named many places, including Matapōuri (darkness), where he landed at night.

Land loss

From the 1840s the Whangārei tribes began to lose much of their territory to the government and to European settlers. In 1890 only 25% of Whangārei land was owned by Māori, and by 1939 this had fallen to 5%. More land was taken for nature reserves on nearshore islands such as Great Barrier and the Poor Knights.

Ngātiwai today

The Ngātiwai Trust Board assists the Whangārei tribes in making land claims. It also helps to conserve the local environment and historical sites. Over 5,000 people said they were affiliated with Ngātiwai in the 2013 census.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Whangārei tribes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017