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Kahungunu History

Ngāti Kahungunu

Handsome and hard-working, the influential leader Kahungunu supervised building, irrigation, carving and canoe-making. During his life he married nine women, and his courtship of the beautiful Rongomaiwahine at Māhia Peninsula is legendary. Kahungunu’s many descendants – the people of Ngāti Kahungunu – also formed strategic marriages, creating a network of alliances from Gisborne to the Wairarapa.

Tribes and lands

Ngāti Kahungunu is the third largest tribal group in New Zealand. Although it is generally referred to as an iwi (tribe), like a number of other iwi it is perhaps more correct to consider Ngāti Kahungunu a grouping of tribes and hapū (sub tribes), all of whom are descendants of Kahungunu.

The three main tribal divisions are:

  • Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa (traditional northern boundary the Wharerata Ranges south of Poverty Bay)

  • Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga (traditional eastern boundary Hawke Bay)

  • Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa (traditional southern boundary the Remutaka Ranges in southern Wairarapa).

The numerous rivers, lakes and harbours within the Ngāti Kahungunu region were important highways as well as sources of food.

Like a river

Te Wairoa hōpūpū, hōnengenenge, matangirau

Wairoa, full of lumps, unevenness and spite

This saying refers to the turbulence and hidden currents of the Wairoa River, and, in a backhanded compliment, suggests that the people are the same.

Te Whanganui a Orotū

The two major  guarding this area in the Napier region were Ōtātara and Heipipi, but there were many others, as well as extensive settlements on its shores. Te Whanganui a Orotū contained shellfish beds and fishing grounds, and the surrounding rivers, streams and swamps provided eels, freshwater fish, flax and raupō (bullrush). Islands in the Ahuriri Lagoon (raised in the 1931 earthquake) were used as fishing bases, and the fertile land on the shores was favoured for house sites

and cultivations.

Lake Hātuma

Around this lake (originally known as Whātuma) near Waipukurau, there is evidence of many seasonal camping sites and villages. Along with Otaia bush (a breeding ground for cormorants) and the Tukituki River, the lake was part of a bountiful and important food-gathering area.


Whakapūnake is the mountain where the legendary character Māui snagged his fish hook. It lies at the northernmost boundary of Ngāti Kahungunu, halfway between Gisborne and Wairoa.

Still visible near Whakakī Lagoon east of Wairoa are seven hills: Tahutoria, Takitaki, Kōrito, Onepoto, Iwitea, Tūhara and Hikunui. Tradition holds that they were once seven whales. They are sacred to Ngāi Tahu Matawhāiti, a sub-tribe of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa.

Maungaharuru mountain, between Wairoa and Napier, is where Tūpai, one of the three tohunga of the Tākitimu canoe, placed the mauri of birdlife. ‘Maungaharuru’ means ‘mountain of the sound of a thousand birds in flight’.

Legend has it that Te Mata peak and the hills south to Kahurānaki (near Havelock North) are the body of the ancestor Rongokako, who left his giant footprints at Kahurānaki, Kirihaehae and Whāngārā. His shape is readily discerned when driving through Hastings towards Te Mata peak.

Te Pakake pā was in the area of Napier now called Ahuriri. When 2,000 men of Waikato, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Maniapoto – many armed with guns – attacked the pā, a number of chiefs were killed, including Whakatō, Pakapaka, Hūmenga and Te Hauwaho. The name Te Pakake (the whales) commemorates the battle, likening these fallen warriors to whales.

Puketapu pā was built by Rākaihikuroa, grandson of Kahungunu. About 70 members of Ngāti Māmoe were killed in a battle with Ngāti Ira on this site, which is near Ōmāhu.


Tākitimu canoe

The story of the sacred Tākitimu canoe and its people helped form the identity of Ngāti Kahungunu.

The Tākitimu arrived from Hawaiki, captained by Tamatea Arikinui. Having decided to settle in the Tauranga area, he handed command of the canoe to Tahu Pōtiki. A senior tohunga on the canoe, Ruawharo, settled at Te Māhia.

The Tākitimu travelled up the Wairoa River and landed at Mākeakea. The ancestral house, Tākitimu, now stands nearby. Tahu Pōtiki left some descendants here, who became Ngāi Tahu of Te Wairoa. Tūpai, another tohunga on the canoe, settled in the Wairarapa. Tahu Pōtiki then continued to the South Island, where he became the ancestor of Ngāi Tahu.


Tamatea Arikinui’s son was Rongokako, a tohunga who could take giant strides. In the contest with Pāoa to win the hand of Muriwhenua, he strode across land and sea, leaving footprints at Kahurānaki in the Heretaunga area, Kirihaehae at Māhia, and Te Tapuwae o Rongokako near Whāngārā.

Rongokako and Muriwhenua had a son, Tamatea Ure Haea (Tamatea the circumcised). He was also known as Tamatea-pōkai-whenua-pōkai-moana (Tamatea who travelled over land, over sea) because he circumnavigated New Zealand. This version of his name is incorporated in one of the world’s longest place names:


It was at this spot, near Pōrangahau, that Tamatea played the flute to his lover.

The birth of Kahungunu

Tamatea Ure Haea had three wives, who were sisters: Te Onoono-i-waho, Iwipūpū and Te Moana-i-kauia, the daughters of Ira and Tokerauwahine. With Iwipūpū he had a son, whom they named Kahungunu.

Kahungunu the man

Kahungunu (also known as Kahu-hunuhunu) was born at the Tinotino  in Ōrongotea (later named Kaitāia). His father subsequently moved to the Tauranga area, where Kahungunu grew to adulthood.

Birds before the birth

Kahungunu’s wife Ruareretai was a high-born woman of Tūranga. Just before she gave birth to their daughter, Kahungunu obtained some young tīeke (saddleback birds) as a special delicacy for his wife. When the child was born they named her Ruahereheretīeke (saddlebacks taken in a bunch from their nest).

Tall and handsome, he was renowned for his charismatic leadership. He supervised the planning and building of entire villages, the irrigation and drainage of cultivations, the gathering of food, and the arts of carving, tattooing, weaving and canoe making. His people said of him:

Ko Kahu-hunuhunu he tangata ahuwhenua mōhio ki te haere i ngā mahi o uta me te tai.

Kahu-hunuhunu is an industrious man and one who knows how to manage works both on land and at sea.

In one account of his life, Kahungunu was persuaded to organise the digging of a canal from Awanui to Kaitāia, to enable Ngāti Awa to take their fleet of canoes up to the fertile flats there. But the ambitious task proved too time consuming and wasteful of tools, which were broken on the many obstacles in the swampy ground.

Kahungunu’s journeys

After this Kahungunu decided to head south, leaving behind his first wife Hinetapu and their children, Tamateaiti, Haruatai and Poupoto. Kahungunu stayed a short

while with his father Tamatea Ure Haea in Tauranga.

An old man’s darling

When the high-born Pou Wharekura was captured in battle, she was claimed by both the leader Wekanui and Kahungunu’s son Kahukuranui. To prevent an argument, Kahungunu himself took her for his wife. It is said that she chose him, preferring to be doted on by an old man rather than enslaved to a young one.

At nearby Ōtira he seized some fish from a net being drawn up onto the beach. When his half-brother Whaene threw a tāmure (snapper) at him, Kahungunu was pricked on the hand by its fin. Some time later, when his cousin Haumanga had a son, Kahungunu commemorated the incident on the beach by naming the boy Tūtāmure (pierced by a snapper).

Kahungunu next went to Whakatāne, where he married Waiarai. Pō Tirohia was the child of this marriage. Further on at Ōpōtiki Kahungunu stayed with his cousin Haumanga. He took part in the battle known as Te Awhenga, against the people of Rotorua.

Kahungunu’s wives and children

As he continued his long journey southwards, Kahungunu met and married several other women, and had many children.

  • In Ōpōtiki he married Te Hautāruke. Their three children were Rākei, Whakatau and Papake.

  • In Whāngārā, he had two children with Ruarauhanga: Ruaroa and Rongomaire.

  • At the Popoia fortress in the Tūranga area, he married Ruareretai, the daughter of the principal chief, Ruapani. Their daughter was Ruahereheretīeke.

  • At Whareongaonga, he married Hinepuariari, with whom he had Pōwhiro (or Te Pōhiro) and one other child. He also married her sister Kahukurawaiaraia, and they had two children, Tuaiti and Pōtirohia.

  • Intrigued by a challenging remark made by the beautiful Rongomaiwahine, Kahungunu travelled to her home of Nukutaurua on the Māhia Peninsula. He had heard reports of her beauty as well as of her rank and prestige, and their subsequent courtship and marriage became a legend in Māori history.

  • Later, in his old age, Kahungunu married a woman of high rank, Pou Wharekura, who was captured at Kaiwhakareireia pā. They had a daughter, Ruatāpui Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine

The story of Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine’s romance has been told many times.

Kahungunu had heard reports of Rongomaiwahine’s beauty and high birth, but when he arrived at Nukutaurua, on the Māhia Peninsula, he found that she was already married to Tamatakutai. In an attempt to impress her people, he gathered enormous quantities of fern root, tied them into bundles with vines, and rolled them down a hill. Such were the quantities that it became like a landslide, blocking the doors of the house.

Kahungunu then went up onto a hill and watched the karoro (shags) diving. He practised holding his breath, counting ‘pepe tahi, pepe rua, pepe toru …’ (count one, count two, count three . . .) until the birds reappeared. Then Kahungunu went diving, holding his breath for as long as the shags had done. He filled several baskets with enough pāua (a type of shellfish) for all the occupants of the village. When he surfaced from his final dive, he had covered his chest with pāua, and everyone was very impressed. The hill has since been named Puke Karoro.

Having gained the approval of Rongomaiwahine’s people, Kahungunu set out to create discord between Rongomaiwahine and her husband Tamatakutai. One night he surreptitiously broke wind near the sleeping couple, causing an argument between them. In the morning Kahungunu joined Tamatakutai in the sport of surfing in a canoe. After several trips Kahungunu took over the steering, and capsized it on a particularly large wave. Tamatakutai fell out and, unable to swim, was drowned.

Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine marry

One day Kahungunu asked Rongomaiwahine to dress his hair for him. As she was fastening his topknot, the tie broke. Kahungunu took from his plaited belt some flax that had been grown at Kawhainui, near Tauranga. After softening the flax in water, Rongomaiwahine used it to tie his topknot. Kahungunu then stood up, and facing north said: E te pūtiki wharanui o Tamatea i mahue atu rā i runga o Tauranga. Here is the binding broad-leaved flax of Tamatea that was left at Tauranga.

It was from this remark that Rongomaiwahine and her people finally knew the true identity of Kahungunu, and he became her permanent husband. They settled at Maungakāhia, their  at Māhia, where Kahungunu eventually died. Many of Rongomaiwahine’s descendants on the Māhia Peninsula identify themselves as Ngāti Rongomaiwahine rather than as Ngāti Kahungunu: they believe her to be of superior lineage.   

The marriage of Kahungunu’s daughter

The principal  of Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine was Maunga-a-Kāhia (Maungakāhia), which was built by Kahungunu on the Nukutaurua tableland. They had five children: Kahukuranui (son), Rongomaipāpā (daughter), Tamatea-kōtā (son), Mahakinui (son) and Tauheikurī (daughter).

There is only one remembered instance when Maungakāhia came under serious attack. Tūtāmure and Tamataipūnoa (sons of Kahungunu’s cousin Haumanga) had set out from Ōpōtiki with 500 warriors and engaged in a series of battles on their way to the Māhia Peninsula. Maungakāhia was a very high and well-fortified pā, but the brothers and their war party laid siege to it. When the situation was beginning to look serious, Kahungunu sent Tauheikurī, his youngest daughter, to find out who was leading the attack. Tūtāmure came forward and pronounced:

Ranga ranga te muri, ka tutū te ngaru o te moana ko au tenei ko Tūtāmure.

When the north wind blows, up rise the waves of the ocean. It is I, Tūtāmure.

Kahungunu knew then that it was his cousin’s son, and sent Tauheikurī, with her consent, to offer herself as his wife. Not knowing which was Tūtāmure, she knelt in front of his handsome younger brother, Tamataipūnoa, and offered him the stone weapon called Titingāpua. On learning this, Tūtāmure went to look in a small pool of water in the reef in front of Maungakāhia, and acknowledged that he was indeed not as good looking as his brother. That pool has ever since been called Te Wai Whakaata a Tūtāmure (the reflecting water of Tūtāmure). Tūtāmure told his brother to accept the peace offerings – the weapon and marriage to Tauheikurī. Some time later, Tauheikurī and Tamataipūnoa went to live in the Tūranga area. They had two children, Tawhiwhi and Māhaki. Māhaki became the ancestor of Te Aitanga a Māhaki.

Kōtore, the chief of Ōmaruhakeke

The pā of Ōmaruhakeke, near Marumaru, was raided by a force led by Apanui of Te Kaha. The village chief, Kōtore, was about to be killed when he cried, ‘E hoa, ko te weriweri ai ka takoto ai au ki roto ki tō puku!’ (Friend, you are so ugly, and I am going to have to sit on your stomach!). Apanui asked where there was a better looking man, and Kōtore saw his own sons Umurau and Tamahikawai being led to Apanui to be killed. Kōtore replied, ‘Arā, kia pērā me ngā tukemata-nui o Kahungunu e ārahina mai rā.’ (There, be like the broad handsome face of Kahungunu being led towards us.) Kōtore’s grandson Tapuwae, his wife Ruataumata and their descendants became known as Ngā Tukemata nui o Kahungunu. Later the name was given to all the descendants of Kahungunu.

The net of Te Huki

Te Huki was a sixth-generation descendant of Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine, and a principal chief of the coastal area between Waihua and Mōhaka. Through his marriages, and later the strategic positioning of his sons and daughters from Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Poverty Bay) to the Wairarapa, he made a series of lasting alliances that were known as Te Kupenga a Te Huki (the net of Te Huki).

Te Huki had three wives:

  • Te Rangitohumare, granddaughter of Te Whatiāpiti (or Te Whatuiāpiti) of Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay)

  • Te Ropuhina, a chieftainess of Nūhaka in the northern Kahungunu district

  • Rewanga, daughter of Te Aringa i Waho, chief of Tītīrangi pā at Tūranganui (Gisborne).

These women remained among their own people, and Te Huki visited each at her own home. Their children married the sons and daughters of influential chiefs, and among their descendants were the principal families of Whāngārā–Tūranganui, Mahia, Nūhaka, Wairoa, Heretaunga and Pōrangahau.

European contact

Muskets and war

The arrival of Pākehā, who traded muskets with Māori, had a noticeable effect on Ngāti Kahungunu from the 1820s. Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa came under attack from the musket-bearing tribes of Ngāpuhi, Hauraki, Waikato, Te Whakatōhea and Tūhoe, about 1822. Two years later Te Wera Hauraki of Ngāpuhi established himself at Māhia and became a protector of its people.

Leftovers for the enemy

When Ngāpuhi, armed with muskets, came to raid the Wairoa district the people fled to their formidable  high above Mōrere, south-east of Nūhaka. Ngāpuhi laid siege, but the pā’s food stores were plentiful, and soon it was the attackers who were starving. The defenders taunted Ngāpuhi by throwing scraps of food to them – hence the name Moumoukai (wasteful of food). Eventually, Ngāpuhi lifted the siege. Before he left, Pōmare of Ngāpuhi asked that a couple name their child after him. So it was that the name Pōmare came to be a Nūhaka family name.

Around 1830 a great proportion of the Napier population of Ngāti Kahungunu from the Ahuriri (Napier) area moved to Māhia to escape the raids of a large force of Waikato, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Maniapoto.

Te Hāpuku of Ngāti Whatuiāpiti, who had kinship links with Ngāti Kahungunu, was taken prisoner at Te Pakake pā, but managed to escape to Māhia. In 1835 Te Hāpuku was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence.

Trade and treaty

By the late 1830s whaling stations were established at Māhia, Te Wairoa, Tāngōio, Pētane-Heipipi and Cape Kidnappers, mainly on land leased from Māori. Around the same time the people of the Ahuriri (Napier) area began to return from Māhia to their ancestral lands.

Te Hāpuku signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Another signatory was Mātenga Tūkareaho of Wairoa, and possibly three others of Ngāti Kahungunu. By 1851 Ngāti Kahungunu were well established as producers of wheat, maize, fruit, vegetables, pigs and potatoes for trade. Pākehā pastoralists had already established themselves in the Wairarapa and were moving north towards Ahuriri, at first illegally leasing land.

Productive plains

‘Heretaunga haukū nui’ (Heretaunga of the plentiful dews) refers to the productiveness of the Heretaunga plains area – the fertile soils, plentiful waterways and many food and plant resource areas. Swamps were valuable food and fibre resource areas for tangata whenua, and when they were drained by Pākehā for agricultural purposes the soil was very rich and fertile.

Land sales

By 1859 an estimated 1,404,700 acres (568,462 hectares) of land had been purchased by the British Crown from Ngāti Kahungunu in Hawke’s Bay, sometimes by very questionable means. Only 3,000 to 4,000 acres (1,200–1,600 hectares) of the ancestral estate remained for the Māori population of approximately 3,500. Initiatives to stop further land sales eventually developed into the Repudiation Movement of the 1870s, which sought to reject all land agreements.

Little land remained in the hands of the seven hapū of Te Whanganui a Orotū by the time of the 1931 Napier earthquake, which raised a significant amount of land in the Ahuriri Lagoon. The government claimed six former lagoon islands under the Public Works Act, without compensation. Within 40 years the hapū had lost all their rights and lands.

Pāpāwai village and the Kotahitanga

Pāpāwai village, near Greytown in the Kahungunu district of Wairarapa, was an important tribal site in the late 19th century. It was here in the 1860s that the tohunga and historian Te Mātorohanga passed on his knowledge of the ancient history and traditions of Ngāti Kahungunu. These stories, and the teachings of another Wairarapa tohunga, Nēpia Pōhūhū, were written down by Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury. They were translated by the ethnologist S. Percy Smith in the influential book The lore of the whare wānanga. Later, the Wairarapa rangatira Tamahau Mahupuku added to the body of writings. He was one of the main informants for Percy Smith.

The Māori parliament, known as Te Kotahitanga (the union), met at Pāpāwai in 1897. The Kotahitanga movement was strong in the Waiarapa district, and meetings were also held at Waipatu marae in Hastings in 1892 and 1893.

The challenge of the new

Te Aute and Hukarere

In 1857 the people of the Te Aute settlement granted 1,745 acres (700 hectares) as an endowment for a school to educate Māori children. Subsequently, Te Aute College and its sister school Hukarere Maori Girls’ College have produced some of the best-known Māori leaders. The Te Aute College Students’ Association, later the Young Maori Party, was founded by pupils and former pupils of Te Aute in 1897.

Newspapers, media, and arts

Ngāti Kahungunu has produced a number of newspapers to inform their people and air their views and concerns. They include:

  • Aotearoa, published by John Thompson and Mariata Honepi in 1892

  • Huia Tangata Kotahi, the newspaper of the Kotahitanga movement at Waipatu, edited by Īhāia Hūtana from 1893 to 1895

  • Te Toa Takitini (the bravery of many), between 1921 and 1932

  • Te Reo O Aotearoa (the voice of Aotearoa), edited by the bishop of Aotearoa, F. A. Bennett, from 1932 to 1933

  • Kahungunu, with Huia Huata and Jo Spooner as proprietors, editors and managers, published in 1991

  • He Ngakau Hou, a Maraenui community paper edited by Bonnie Waka and later Paul King and Jimina King, established in 1999.

Radio Kahungunu, established in 1988, operates in Hawke’s Bay. Internationally renowned Ngāti Kahungunu artist Sandy Adsett heads a contemporary Māori arts school, Toimairangi, in Hastings. The Kahurangi Māori Dance Theatre, which has toured North America, is also based in Hastings.

Kahungunu organisation and marae

Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated is an organisation that oversees the development and social needs of all of Ngāti Kahungunu, as well as providing a body to address political issues. Its rohe (area) is divided into six taiwhenua, and there are also taurahere of Ngāti Kahungunu members living in urban areas such as Auckland and Wellington. Altogether, there are 86 Kahungunu marae within the traditional rohe of the tribe. A few of the marae have no building, and some have a building that is in a state of disrepair, but the marae status remains. However, most of the marae are still the centre of the various Ngāti Kahungunu communities, and numerous new and refurbished marae buildings are evidence of the continuing strong presence of Ngāti Kahungunu within their tribal region.

In 2016, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa Tāmaki Nui-ā-Rua, the section of the tribe in the southern region of Ngāti Kahungunu’s territory, was negotiating with the Crown for settlement of its historic treaty claims.

Facts and figures

Iwi (tribal) identification

In the New Zealand censuses since 1991, residents of Māori descent were asked to indicate the tribe to which they were affiliated. The figures below show the number who indicated Ngāti Kahungunu (including those who indicated more than one tribe), and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013.

The only previous census asking Māori to indicate tribal affiliation – but not of multiple tribes – was that of 1901.

  • 1901 census: 5,064

  • 1991 census: 43,614

  • 2001 census: 51,552

  • 2006 census: 59,943

  • 2013 census: 61,629

Major regional locations

  • Hawke’s Bay: 17,532

  • Wellington: 10,278

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

    • Ballara, Angela. Iwi: the dynamics of Māori tribal organisation from c. 1769 to c. 1945. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1998.

    • Buck, Peter. The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Maori Purposes Fund Board/Whitcombe & Tombs, 1949.

    • Halbert, R. W. Horouta: the history of the Horouta canoe, Gisborne and East Coast. Auckland: Reed, 1999.

    • Keene, Florence. Tai Tokerau. Whāngārei: F. Keene, 1986.

    • Mitchell, J. H. Takitimu. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997 (originally published 1944).

    • Waitangi Tribunal. Te Whanganui-a-Orotu report. Wai 55. Wellington: Brooker's, 1995.

    • Wright, Matthew. Havelock North: the history of a village. Hastings: Hastings District Council, 1996.

How to cite this page: Mere Whaanga, 'Ngāti Kahungunu', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 January 2021)

Story by Mere Whaanga, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 3 Mar 2017

All text licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence ( Commercial re-use may be allowed on request. All non-text content is subject to specific conditions. © Crown Copyright.

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