The Ngāti Kurī/Ngāi Tahu Relationship With Whales

Written by Raewyn Solomon on behalf of Te Runanga o Kaikoura.

Te Tai o Marokura is the realm of Tangaroa, god of the sea. Tangaroa was the first husband of Papatūānuku (Earth Mother) before she wed Ranginui (Sky Father). The fishing harbours and sheltered coastal areas of the eastern coastline of Te Waipounamu, were created by Tūterakiwhanoa, the mokopuna of Ranginui. Tūterakiwhanoa was sent by his grandfather to enable human occupation of the lands Te Waka o Aoraki – the lands of Te Waipounamu that formed when the waka navigated by Ranginui’s sons, ran aground on a hidden reef and turned to stone and earth.

The tradition of Paikea a whale, being an ancestor of both Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Porou, is a specific feature of the relationship with the Kaikōura coastal area and is depicted in our Wharenui, Maru Kaitatea at Takahanga. The geography the Hikurangi trench and the biology it supports provides the unique connection we have, with all species of whales that frequent the area.

Te Tai o Marokura is an integral part of Ngāti Kurī history and cultural identity. The immense importance of the area historically, culturally and spiritually is captured in the Statutory Acknowledgement for Te Tai o Marokura a recorded statement of the relationship between Ngāi Tahu and the Kaikōura coastal marine area.

The Kaikōura coastline took its name from Tama ki te Rangi, an early explorer in the time Tamatea Pōkai whenua, who decided to explore the South Island. On his way from the North Island, Tama ki te Rangi stopped in the area now known as Kaikōura and ate some of the crayfish that populate the area, over an open fire. From Tama ki te Rangi’s feast on crayfish, the area was named, Te Ahi Kaikōura a Tama ki te Rangi – the fires where Tama ki te Rangi ate crayfish.

Because of its attractiveness as a place to establish permanent settlements, including pā (fortified settlements), the coastal area was visited and occupied by Waitaha, Ngāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu in succession, who through conflict and alliance, have merged in the whakapapa of Ngāi Tahu whānui. Battle sites, urupā and landscape features bearing the names of tupuna, record this history. Prominent headlands in particular, were favoured for their defensive qualities and became the headquarters for a succession rangatira and their followers .


This relationship has its basis in tradition. The renowned rangatira (chief) Te Rakaitauheke , a brave warrior of the Ngāti Kurī hapū of Ngāi Tahu, was said to have a kaitiaki whale, named Matamata a sperm whale.

Matamata’s sole duty and purpose in life was to do Te Rakaitauheke’s bidding, to serve all his needs and to guard him, against harm. Everywhere the rangatira went, Matamata went too. When Te Rakaitauheke went to Takahanga, Matamata could be seen blowing outside the area, now known as the Garden of Memories, as close to shore as he could possibly get. Te Rakaitauheke’s love for Matamata was as great as the whale’s love for him.

After Te Rakaitauheke’s death, Matamata was not seen along the Kaikōura coast for some time and it was rumoured that he had gone away and died of sorrow at the loss of his master. There were those however, who remembered Te Rakaitauheke’s prediction, that after his death, Matamata would only return when one of his descendants was facing imminent danger or death. There are many stories since that time, of Matamata appearing to foretell the death of one of Te Rakaitauheke’s descendants. It is also said that many of the descendants of Te Rakaitauheke, when faced with peril on the high seas, have been saved by the timely intervention of a whale.

The Kaikōura coast was also a major highway and trade route, particularly in areas where travel by land was difficult. Travel by sea between settlements and hapu was common, with a variety of different forms of waka, including the southern waka hūnua (double-hulled canoe) and post-contact, whaleboats plying the waters continuously. Hence tauranga waka (landing places) occur up and down the coast in their hundreds and where a tauranga waka is located there is also likely to be a nohoanga (settlement), fishing ground, kaimoana resource and rimurapa (bull kelp), with the sea trail linked to the land trail or mahinga kai resource. The tupuna had a huge knowledge of the coastal environment and weather patterns, passed from generation to generation. This knowledge continues to be held by whānau and hapū today and is regarded as taonga .

Statutorily acknowledged – the sperm whale is a taonga species under the Ngāi Tahu Settlement Act .

Ngāti Kurī

The origin of Ngāti Kurī is by descent from the tupuna Maruhoua. Maruhoua was a son of Irakehu and a mokopuna of Tahitotarere descending in a direct line from Paikea. Maruhoua was an uncle of our tupuna wahine, Tūhaitara. Kāti Tūhaitara was the tribal calling of the Ngāi Tahu migration led by Moki and Tūrakautahi into Canterbury.

These people later became known as Ngāi Tūāhuriri. Maruhoua married twice and it is from his second marriage to Hinetautope that he had a son, Kurī, who is the naming ancestor of Ngāi Kurī.

Kurī too, married twice and it is the descendants of the first marriage to Tanemoehau who are •the people most commonly known as Kāti Kurī today. Their children, Rākaitekura, Rakitawhaio and Tauamotu, were known as Kā-takurikuria-karaka-ā-Tanemoehau (“the barking pups of Tanemoehau), a play on their father’s name.

From Kuri’s second marriage to Tūtearitoka, there are a number of noted descendants such as Te Rakiwhakaputa of Rāpaki and his daughter Hinekakai. Hinekakai was the first wife of Tūrakautahi of .Ngāi Tūāhuriri. TūRakautahi’s second wife,’Te Aowharepapa, descends directly from Kuri’s first marriage to Tanemoehau and she is therefore the parent of both Waewae and Te Rakiamoa, the naming ancestors of Kāti Waewae of Tai Poutini and Kāti Te Rakiamoa of Canterbury. .

One of the leading sites in Kaikōura in pre-contact times was Takahanga Marae, which is still occupied by Ngāi Tahu. From the time the Ngāi Tahu leader, Maru Kaitatea took Takahanga Pā for Ngāi Tahu occupation, the site acted as a staging site for Ngāi Tahu migrations further south. Other pā in the area included Pariwhakatau, Mikonui, Oaro and Kahutara. Place names along the coast, such as the gardens of Tamanuhiri and the Waikawau River, record Ngāi Tahu history and point to the landscape features that were significant to people for a range of reasons .

The Kaikōura Colony

By 1859, the demand for land by European settlers resulted in a government purchase of the Kaikōura District. Mackay Jr. was sent to secure both the West Coast and the Kaikōura blocks from Ngāi Tahu. Mackay wrote to Kaikōura Whakatau at Mikonui, inviting him to discuss the purchase of the land.

“…Mackay found that under the seasoned and capable Kaikōura Whakatau they, Kāti Kurī, were far from passive towards European encroachment on their lands. Maintaining their rights in their rugged country, with its towering mountains, fertile coastlands and rich sea fisheries and shellfish beds, was a matter of mana – a combination of duty and pride.”

Most of the land that Ngāti Kurī claimed customary title over (from Te Parinui o Whiti to the Hurunui) had already been sold or leased to settlers by the Nelson Land Office. For example, Kāti Kurī had requested a large pastoral reserve between the rivers Kahutara and Tūtaeputaputa, which was refused because the land in question had already been leased to three run holder.

Early resistance by Ngāi Tahu to the sale of their lands was met with steady pressure until an agreement was finally signed between Ngāi Tahu and Commissioner MacKay. Mackay finally got Kaikoōura Whakatau and others to sign the Kaikōura Deed at Fyffe’s house on 29 March 1859. The deed conveyed the Māori title in the million hectare block to the Crown, in return for a payment of 300 pounds and the provision of some coastal reserves.

The largest reserve, at Waipapa and Mangamaunu, was a long coastal strip of about 4,795 acres that Ngāti Kurī wanted to maintain access to seafood and fishing grounds, and because of the karaka groves there .

Negotiations to set up whaling stations for the colonists occurred during this time also, with Kaikōura Whakatau and other whanau being forced into negotiations for coastal access within the whānau fishing reserves.

Photographs depicted at Takahanga show in later years, local whānau working at the whaling station at South Bay.

Contemporary Relationship

In the mid 1900’s, Rangi Wawahia Solomon lived with his wife Miriama (great, great granddaughter of Kaikōura Whakatau) and fished with his son John, in the Oaro coastal area. They practised the principle of kaitiakitanga and their approach was intergenerational, recognising the importance of passing on mātauranga mana moana, to the next generation.

Within this kete of knowledge the sperm whale featured significantly, recognised as a tohu for the return of hapuka in the winter months, which frequented the continental shelf of Te Tai o Marokura. The importance of this food source to Ngāti Kurī was of the highest significance because it could be preserved in times when food was scarce, the mana of the sperm whale as kaitiaki was noted, as it sustained the puku of Ngāti Kurī.

It was regarded by whānau, that the whale was kaitiaki at sea, and when it stranded, it was a great symbol of abundance, for its flesh, meat and bone. It looked after us on both sea and land.

At this time also, Rangi was a member of the Ngāi Tahu Trust Board preparing and working towards the Ngāi Tahu Claim, he was also chairperson of the local Tribal Committee. It was he, flanked by Tā Tipene O’Regan who were instrumental and fought to get the Takahanga Marae land returned to the hapū. The mantle was handed to Wiremu when his father passed away and the battle for the land was finally won, money was then raised to build the new Marae, it was opened in 1992, erected on the exact same spot as the ancient Takahanga Whare.

Takahanga Marae And Whalewatch Kaikōura

Wiremu Solomon our Ūpoko Rūnanga, took on the challenge of his father and showed quality leadership by gaining the willingness of the people, to establish both Takahanga Marae and Whale Watch Kaikōura in the mid 1980’s. These were initiatives by which we could maintain our cultural connections including with the sperm whale.

Today they still demonstrate our commitment to the principle of kaitiakitanga from which our tohu (the sperm whale), continues to sustain our people through watching whales. Images of whales are depicted in the carvings that adorn Takahanga Marae.

For Ngati Kurī we understand, that in order to exercise the principle of kaitiakitanga for our Sperm Whale, we must apply this principle to all the children of Tangaroa for, what begets the smallest, begets the largest, that is the food web.

Our path and the whale’s path has continued to reconnect throughout the ages, as it is inherently meant to. Whakapapa is very much like a kete of relationships where the interweave returns, crosses and keeps connecting. Kaitiakitanga is about duty and pride, an obligation to nurture and nourish this relationship, not just for us but especially for our children and their children to come.

Ngāti Kurī has in place protocols for the treatment of whale bone and whale recovery with DoC. Applications for the use of whalebone is an important responsibility for our hapu along with whale recovery, we are actively involved in these processes, including with a number of other government processes for the discovery and recovery of whale bone taonga.

It is recognised that the sperm whale tooth was a taonga of mana and generally only worn by rangatira.

Our Ūpoko Rūnanga was gifted a carved sperm whale tooth. This particular taonga is renowned, exhibited in displays and museums in a number of countries. We have attached two photos showing our Ūpoko wearing the taonga alongside Tā Tipene O’Regan, Cliff Whiting and Te Auē Davis. These were taken at the Museum Volkerkunde, in Germany. A museum for folk people and indigenous cultures. Cliff Whiting was commissioned to develop a gateway for the museum and he brought that commission to Takahanga and the carvings were developed and completed there. The gateway is called Te Kūaha o Wharetutu, named after Wharetutu daughter of Rangi and Miriama Solomon.