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 pā (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 and Hen and Chickens Islands. 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.
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.
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.