Dennis Ngawhare: The first to call Aotearoa home


Dennis Ngawhare says his ‘mini-series’ of articles is a repudiation of authors and bloggers who claim Māori are not the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand.

OPINION: Who were the first people to inhabit Aotearoa New Zealand?

In my last two columns I explored some of the wilder theories of first settlement and detailed the migration of tupuna (ancestors) from Asia into the East Pacific. This column will explore the migratory era from the islands of the East Pacific to Aotearoa.

This mini-series of articles is also a repudiation of authors and bloggers who claim Maori are not the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Most iwi can associate with a waka tupuna (migration canoe) that brought their ancestors to Aotearoa from the Society Islands and the Cook Islands. Archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence can trace a pathway from Taiwan and South-east Asia through the islands of the Pacific to Rangiatea (Raiatea in the Society Islands).

* Dennis Ngawhare: What is indigenous to Aotearoa New Zealand?
* Dennis Ngawhare: The heritage of the curious explorers

Collective memory in tribal traditions can reliably trace back Rangiatea. From Rangiatea oral history, knowledge and tribal traditions were retained in the spoken word and communal memory and transported to Aotearoa. Although oral history and knowledge is susceptible to interruption (through catastrophe, war and assimilation) fortunately matauranga Maori (Maori knowledge systems) contain mnemonic tools and ways of transmitting multi-generational knowledge.

According to Sir Peter Te Rangihiroa Buck, early history can be broken into three era:


The mythical era contain the origin myths and legends of Maori and incorporate atua (gods), tipua (supernatural beings) and personifications of natural elements. Secondly the migratory/exploratory era in tribal traditions detail migration journeys from the Pacific Islands to Aotearoa. Third, the Settlement era is that period of time when these islands were inhabited and Iwi and hapu formed, spreading throughout the country naming and claiming the land and consolidating culture in what is now called the ‘Classical Maori’ phase.

One of the earliest explorers was Kupe, who along with his crew in the waka Matahourua, named these islands Aotearoa. Several versions explain why Kupe decided to travel south from his Pacific island. In one version, Kupe hunted an octopus called Te Wheke a Muturangi in revenge for it shredding his fishing nets.

Kupe eventually cornered the octopus in the Cook Strait and killed it before returning to his home on the islands.

Another version recounts how Kupe observed the southern migration flight of kuaka (godwits) every year as they passed over his island and followed them to Aotearoa.

The kuaka migrate annually between the Siberian and Alaskan tundra in the north and New Zealand’s tidal flats and marshes. This was a clear tohu (sign) to navigators that there was land to the south. Within those two versions there are a plethora of details and contradictions but he certainly left his mark on this country with the many landmarks named after him.

The legendary hero Maui and his waka Nukutaimemeha should also be considered an early explorer. After all this whole island Te Ikaroa a Māui was named after him.

Take away the many supernatural aspects of Maui (that I’m sure every Kiwi has read or heard sometime during their life) and Maui is left as a skilled navigator in his own right because Sir Peter Buck considered the allegory of fishing an island out of the sea representative of discovering land in the middle of the ocean. Maui is a tupuna and there are iwi on the East coast who claim descent from him. Furthermore In Taranaki we can trace descent from Hinauri, the sister of Māui.

Besides those two early tupuna there were a numerous other waka that landed in Aotearoa and in Taranaki. In Taranaki tradition some of the waka we can connect back to include Te Rangimarie-i-te-ao, Kahutara, Taikoria, Okoki and Hahau-tū-noa among others. Unfortunately it is very difficult to create a chronology of waka arrivals but this doesn’t diminish the mana of those ancient migration vessels and the people who sailed them.

Perhaps the most detailed information retained about migration waka are in regards to the last waka that arrived, like the Kurahaupo, Aotea, Tokomaru, Tainui, Arawa, Takitimu and Mataatua. Although the ethnologist Percy Smith poetically referred to those waka as a great fleet, his title isn’t quite correct. What can be ascertained is that those seven waka arrived in the same generation, some of those waka encountered each other on the ocean and that there were intermarriages between crew and their descendants.

It is doubtful that all the people aboard those waka came from the same island. For example the people of the Kurahaupo can be traced back to Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Mauke and Rangiatea, whereas the people of Aotea waka can trace to Rangiatea and Tahiti. Settling in Taranaki through either intermarriage with local tribes or conquest, those tupuna of Kurahaupo, Tokomaru and Aotea founded iwi and hapu still in existence today.

Therefore archaeological, linguistic, genetic and historic evidence all confirm Polynesian tupuna as the original settlers of Aotearoa New Zealand.

– Stuff

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