Māori history of the Greater Wellington region
The Wellington region has a long and eventful Māori history, not the least of which is its MÄori identification as "Te Upoko o Te Ika a Maui" or the Head of Maui's fish.
This naming presupposes an ability by early Māori to view Aotearoa from the heavens and so envisage the fish-like shape of the whole North Island.
The head of the fish, in Māori thinking, is the sweetest part.
Modern archaeology has confirmed that sites found in the Palliser Bay area of south Wairarapa, along the southern Wellington coastline and on Kapiti Island are some of the oldest recorded sites in New Zealand, dating back some 650 years. This distinction is shared with sites in the Far North.
According to Māori mythology, Maui is credited with fishing up a large fish (ika). This became what we know today as the North Island of New Zealand or Te Ika a Maui and the South Island was his canoe (waka) or Te Waka a Maui.
There are several landmarks in the region that are associated with this deed.
Wellington Harbour and Lake Wairarapa are referred to as the eyes of the fish (Nga Whatu o te Ika a Maui). Palliser Bay, on the south coast of the Wairarapa, is the mouth of the fish (Te Waha o te Ika a Maui) and Cape Palliser and Turakirae Head at either extreme of the bay are the jaws.
The Rimutaka, Tararua and Ruahine mountains make up the spine of the fish.
Kupe is generally considered to be the first Polynesian explorer to come to this area. His name abounds in the coastline and islands in and around the region.
For example, Somes Island in Wellington Harbour is known as Matiu, named after one of Kupe's daughters, and Nga Ra o Kupe (the sails of Kupe) are rock formations found near Cape Palliser. Kupe and his people did not stay to populate the area but returned to Polynesia.
Some time later Whatonga is noted as being the next Polynesian traveller to arrive in our region.
Whatonga captained the Kurahaupo waka that is said to have landed at a place called Nukutaurua on Mahia Peninsula. Whatonga had two sons, Tara and Tautoki, the descendants of which eventually settled the lower half of the North Island and the top of the South Island.
Tara and Tautoki and their people migrated to and settled throughout the lower North Island. Their descendants include the tribes of Ngai Tara, Rangitaane, Muaupoko, Ngati Apa, and Ngati Ira.
Tara's name is immortalised in many of the prominent landmarks of the region. The MÄori name for Wellington Harbour is Te Whanganui a Tara or the great Harbour of Tara.
The Tararua Mountains that divide the Wellington Region from east to west are named after him also. The name Tararua being derived from the saying "Nga waewae e rua a Tara" or "the spanned legs of Tara", meaning that his people had a foothold on either side of these ranges.
The next arrivals into the region were the people of Ngati Kahungunu who descend from the Takitimu waka. They settled extensively throughout the East Coast from Mahia Peninsula down to Wairarapa.
They also migrated to and lived in the Heretaunga area or the Hutt Valley and inhabited the Eastern Wellington Harbour along with their Ngati Ira relations up until the 1820s.
Since those early days, there has been considerable movement of Māori into and within the region.
The Wellington Harbour area (Te Whanganui a Tara) has seen various tribes occupying in succession, with periods of simultaneous occupation by different tribes.
The most complex and turbulent period began when Europeans arrived in and around the area at the beginning of the 19th century and continued until the arrival of the New Zealand Company settlers in 1839. The harbour has been held by Taranaki tribes since 1832.
The migration, in the early 19th century, of both the Tainui tribes, from Kawhia and Maungatautari, and the Taranaki tribes, to the western part of the region (including Porirua), caused major changes for the Ngai Tara, Muaupoko and Rangitaane people who had been resident in the area for many generations.
A taua (war party), led by Ngapuhi and Ngati Whatua, and including Ngati Toa and Atiawa chiefs, laid to waste many of the Muaupoko, Rangitaane, Ngai Tara and Ngati Ira people in an area ranging from the west to the east of the region.
This taua proceeded as far as Hawkes Bay before returning to their home areas.
A series of migrations from these attacking northern tribes moved into the region over the next 20 years.
It was this pattern of occupation that existed when the New Zealand Company settlers arrived in Wellington in 1839.
Up until this point the Wairarapa had remained largely inhabited by Rangitaane and Kahungunu hapu. Ngati Tama was the first of the Taranaki people to settle near Lake Wairarapa in the late 1820s.
A series of battles between the West Coast tribes (Atiawa, Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga) and Wairarapa Maori led to the exodus of the Rangitaane and Kahungunu inhabitants back to their relations at Mahia in 1834.
After several years in exile and further exchanges between Wairarapa and Wellington (Taranaki) tribes, peace was declared at an historic gathering at Pitone (Petone) in 1840.
Soon after this event the Rangitaane and Kahungunu hapu slowly began to return to the Wairarapa.
The main tribes still maintaining their traditional tangata whenua status in the region are as follows.
Ngati Raukawa are centred in the north-west of the region at Otaki, with only part of their tribal territory in the Wellington region. Further south, around Waikanae, are Te Atiawa ki Whakarongotai.
Ngati Toa Rangatira are focused around Porirua. Te Atiawa ki Te Upoko o Te Ika are centred mainly in Hutt Valley and Wellington city. Rangitaane o Wairarapa and Ngati Kahungunu o Wairarapa have traditional bases throughout the Wairarapa.
Today Te Upoko o Te Ika is home for people from all of the tribes of Aotearoa and Te Waipounamu (North and South Islands).
A rich mixture of tribal backgrounds is represented, from the pre-colonial tangata whenua who constituted most of the Maori of the region for the best part of a century, to the East Coast tribes encouraged here by people such as Sir Apirana Ngata and Sir James Carroll. Maori were encouraged to come to Wellington for work and educational opportunities.
The resulting drift to the cities became a flood in the post World War 2 era because of the decline in rural industry and the rapid development of urban industry such as the Gear freezing works, Ford Motor Company and other light and heavy industrial employers of unskilled labour.
These modern migrations produced a situation where the original tribes of this area were numerically overwhelmed by Māori people from afar.
This brought a cultural shift for the tangata whenua and for new arrivals. The institution of Ngati Poneke, an urban Māori culture club for non-tangata whenua Māori, was one response to these changes.
This dynamic history of changing mana whenua in the region still influences Māori relations today and has an important bearing on resource management issues of interest to Māori people of the region.