Ngāi Tahu - The Iwi - Who We Are

Ngāi Tahu – Who We Are

Ngāi Tahu means “people of Tahu” and all Ngāi Tahu whānui can trace their ancestry back to this man, the tribe’s founder Tahu Pōtiki.

Our defining link as Ngāi Tahu is the ability to whakapapa back through this history and link with our ancestors of the past. This brief history gives an overview of where we come from which hopefully does not diminish the rich tapestry that is our history.

Ngāi Tahu are the Māori people of the southern islands of New Zealand – Te Waipounamu – the Greenstone Isle. We hold the rangatiratanga or tribal authority to over 80 per cent of the South Island. Our histories begin as with all Māori when the first settlers of Polynesia colonised Tonga, from the west, about 1500 BC. Over the next 2000 years their descendents colonised the remainder of Polynesia, starting with Samoa, then moving on to the Marquesas (about 2000 years ago), Tahiti (1500 years ago) then on to Easter Island, Hawaii, New Zealand and the Chathams. They found New Zealand uninhabited but full of wonderful new food sources. Some of the features typical of this period are moa-hunting and sea-mammal hunting economy, supplemented by crops of root vegetables.

Archaeology reveals that settlements were predominantly coastal, probably for the proximity to their major food source, the ocean. As a result of population pressure about 500 – 800 years ago, settlements became more widespread and regional differences began to appear perhaps relating to the development of different tribal groups. The first real evidence of tribal warfare comes from this period with the appearance of various weapons and the construction of fortified pā sites (settlements).

The Ngāi Tahu people have their origins in three main streams of migration. The first of our people to arrive in the southern islands migrated here under the leadership of Rākaihautū on the waka (canoe) Uruao. They arrived in Whakatū, Nelson and proceeded to explore and inhabit the South Island. This is the origin of the Waitaha iwi, who named the land and the coast that borders it.

The plentiful resources of Te Waipounamu called others to abandon their northern homes and move southward. The second wave of migration was undertaken by the descendants of Whatu Māmoe who came down from the North Island’s east coast to claim a place for themselves in the south. These descendants came to be known as Kāti Māmoe and through inter-marriage and conquest these migrants merged with the resident Waitaha and took over authority of Te Waipounamu.

Continuing the link with the east coast of the North Island, Paikea landed in the Bay of Plenty and fathered Tahu Pōtiki.

The descendants of Tahu Pōtiki who formed Ngāi Tūhaitara and Ngāti Kurī moved south travelling first to Wellington. Ngāi Tūhaitara and Ngāti Kurī settled in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) under the respective leadership of Tū Āhuriri and Maru Kaitātea.

Ngāti Kurī and Ngāi Tūhaitara migrated to Te Waipounamu. Maru Kaitātea established Ngāti Kurī at Kaikōura. Tūāhuriri’s son, Tūrākautahi, placed Ngāi Tūhaitara at Kaiapoi Pā. With Kaikōura and Kaiapoi Pā established, and through intermarriage, warfare and political alliances, Ngāi Tahu interests amalgamated with Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha iwi and Ngāi Tahu iwi established manawhenua or pre-eminence in the South Island. Sub-tribes or hapū became established around distinct areas, and have become the Papatipu Rūnanga that modern day Ngāi Tahu use to exercise tribal democracy.

Further Reading

For further information regarding Ngāi Tahu history there are several good books, available at public libraries or for sale in bookstores, such as:

  • “The Long Dispute” by Harry C. Evison
  • “Ngā Pikitūroa o Ngāi Tahu The Oral Traditions of Ngāi Tahu” by Rawiri Te Maire Tau

Other interesting websites you may like to visit are the Waitangi Tribunal site at, which contains information on the Claims process as well as full reports, including the Ngāi Tahu claim report, and summarised reports.