For early Māori, rivers offered landing sites, harbours and a source of fresh water. They explored as far as possible upriver on many waterways. Tamatea’s cave on the Whanganui River, for example, marks a journeying point for Tamatea-pōkai-whenua, who circumnavigated New Zealand in the Takitimu canoe.
It was easier to get from place to place by canoeing up or down rivers than by walking over the mountains or through dense bush. Waka (canoes) made of hollowed-out logs were the main mode of travel along or across rivers. On the many challenging rivers of the South Island, mōkihi (rafts of woven reeds) were favoured. The Mōkihinui River, south of Karamea in north Westland, commemorates this craft in its name, which means ‘large raft of flax stalks’.
Māori often built settlements at the mouth of a river. Food could usually be obtained from the river itself or its estuary. Tuna (eels) and lamprey were harvested with nets or elaborate structures that straddled the flow, and to which nets were secured (pā tuna and utu piharau). The eels were either preserved or held live in baskets. A variety of native galaxiids were also taken.
Food sources found inland or at sea could be reached easily by river. In the South Island, rivers were used to transport slaughtered moa from the interior to coastal settlements. The relationship between rivers and the sea was often acknowledged in Māori traditions. Shoals of kahawai migrate annually from the sea to the lower reaches of the Mōtū River on the East Coast of the North Island. Both Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and neighbouring Ngāi Tai tribes believe that this is the fulfillment of an ancient agreement between the sea god, Tangaroa, and their people.
Often in Māori tradition taniwha (monsters) lived in rivers. They could be guardians of a place, or upholders of customs and tribal prestige. A famous Tainui proverb runs: ‘Waikato taniwha rau: he piko, he taniwha; he piko, he taniwha.’(Waikato, home of a hundred taniwha: on every bend a taniwha can be found). This refers to the powerful presence of chiefs along the Waikato River.
New Zealand nephrite (known as greenstone or pounamu) is found only on the South Island’s West Coast. Produced deep in the earth, it is brought to the surface by mountain uplift, and then cleaned by river action. Māori prized this stone, which has different shades of colouring. They used it to make tools, weapons and ornaments, and it became a valuable item of trade. Groups made expeditions to the West Coast, where they cut pounamu from boulders and carried it back over paths known as greenstone trails.
Tribal identity and rivers
These long and rich associations help explain why tribes invoke the name of a river to assert their identity. For example, the people of Tainui state as part of a formal greeting: ‘Waikato is the river, Taupiri is the mountain, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero (the first Māori King) is the man.’