Ko Te Katoa o Te Ingoa i Kōrerotia

Ko Te Katoa o Te Ingoa i Kōrerotia

The name says it all

Mātauranga taiao, environmental knowledge, has never been more relevant. Built over generations, it’s represented in the names of places all around us, and it offers insight into how these places might behave in a changing climate. That is, if you know what they mean. 


The great waka migration from the tropics of Polynesia to the cooler landmass of Aotearoa called for the readjustment of an entire culture and people. The first settlers of this land quickly discovered that it differed immeasurably from their homes in the Pacific. They had to adjust to entirely different seasonal patterns. They had to discover new resources and develop new methods of acquiring clothing, tools and shelter. All of this is stored as a vast, accumulated wealth of mātauranga taiao, and it’s reflected in what ingoa (names) they gave the places they went.


Many, if not most, ingoa Māori provide us with an insight as to what contributed to its naming. Some serve as physical reminders of historical events, many of which commemorate battles, and others acknowledge potential dangers or provide warnings around the landscape. For example, Wai-te-matā, now known as the Auckland Harbour means ‘obsidian waters’ – a glassy surface that once resembled volcanic obsidian rock. According to Te Arawa tradition, the harbour was originally named by the ancestor Tamatekapua, captain of the Te Arawa waka, when he placed a volcanic stone as a mauri, or talisman, in its waters near present-day Birkenhead. It also obtained the name ‘Te Wai-o-te-mate’ or ‘the waters of death’ from neighbouring tribe Ngāpuhi as a reference to battles to control the Tāmaki isthmus.


On their journey’s inland, Īhenga and Tamatekapua explored the lakes district, naming many of the tribal landmarks we know today, including two of the Te Arawa district’s largest lakes – Rotoiti-i-kitea-a-e-Īhenga te moana and Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe. These are now known locally in their abbreviated form as Rotoiti and Rotorua. Tamatekapua’s exploration extended far beyond the tribal territory of Te Arawa to the far reaches of Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island) leaving behind names that still exist today.

On the other hand, histories local to the Otago region tell of Rākaihautū who journeyed across Te Waipounamu, carving out the illustrious southern mountains and lakes, establishing the ahi kā (occupation rights) of the Waitaha people. The ancient names that Rākaihautū anointed upon the land link the sacred waterways to the ancestral Pacific homelands of Te Pātū Nui o Aiō - the first home of Māori. Waitaki was given the name wai (water) and taki (weeping sound) to illustrate the unfortunate tragedy that occurred amongst Aoraki and his brothers who were turned to stone after being tipped from their waka. The further naming and formation of the land and its many cascading, rippling waterways that flow from Aoraki and Waitaki river is explored in this pūrākau, of which symbolically represent the everlasting tears of Tāne Mahuta. The great southern river is of paramount importance to Waitaha, as it is entirely sourced from Aoraki, the highest mountain in the Southern Alps - Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. For several centuries the Waitaki river channels have provided long-served local Māori as a main highway, an abundant food basket, medicine cabinet and a source of immense mana and identity.


Similarly, other local place names hold just as much significance in determining the history of the location or even providing clues as to what one might expect in that area. Present day Logan Park was once known as Tauraka Pīpipi, an estuary that once was inhabited by a brown songbird known as the Pīpipi; the commonly known Halfway Bush was originally called Taputakinoi and once served as a battle site; and Kōpūtai, which refers to a full tide, eventually became Port Chalmers. Many place names represent great losses for some, like Pūrākaunui, which highlights the bloody massacre where many perished and were piled upon each other, appearing as a huge heap that resembled a large pile of wood. On the other hand, original place names also tell of impressive feats - one of the most popular is the story of Wairaka, the daughter of Toroa, one of three captains of the Mataatua waka. Historical accounts recall Wairaka saving the canoe when it came adrift, commanding ‘me whakatāne au i ahau!’, or ‘I must act like a man!’. From the heroic deed of Wairaka, Whakatāne came to be and remains to this day. In addition to her long-lasting legacy, Wairaka’s bravery is also commemorated in a bronze statue which now stands solidified on a rock at the Whakatāne heads. Contradictory accounts also claim Muriwai, the aunt of Wairaka, to have saved the Mataatua waka.

Elsewhere in the North, Te Tai Tokerau, a well-known ancestor named Tohe once lived in the furthest point of the Northland area. His people were the guardians of Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Rēinga) and former rivals to Ngāti Whatua. In efforts to attain peace, Tohe offered his granddaughter Rāninikura to marry into the rival tribe - but he missed her and decided to travel to see her before he died. Warned against his age and inability to walk such a distance, Tohe set out to see his mokopuna (grandchild), traversing the torrential waters of the Hokianga and naming many places along the way. Tohe made great progress but did not live to finish his journey, passing at the shore of Riripo which he called Mahutu. Tohe’s remains were eaten by seagulls - news of which reached Raninikura, who renamed her hapū (smaller tribe) Ngāti Manu to commemorate her grandfather. Therefore, Ngāti Manu is a significantly old name in this region, surviving numerous hundreds of years.

Most iwi, on the other hand, are named after particular ancestors, often founders of the land they inhabited. A prevalent feature across the entire motu, the concept of collectively identifying with an individual’s name is somewhat foreign from the outside looking in. To Māori, however, it is a solidifying expression of identity, one that reinforces the importance of kinship and whānau as a support system. From the far North, where the vast majority of tribes are named after women, to here in the deep South where the iwi take names from great voyaging ancestors, Māori have long identified themselves with these ancestral names for their pioneering traits and leadership qualities. However, one iwi in particular contrast this commonality with a different take, taking place many generations before Kupe in the distant land of Hawaiki was mother-to-be Kareroariki who craved a particular meal: a human heart. Due to her high ranking within the tribe, her demand was justified, and a sacrifice was enacted to satisfy Kareroariki. Three names emerged from the birth of the child of Kareroariki: Puhi-kai-ariki, Puhi-moana-ariki and Puhi-taniwha-rau - which collectively give rise to the plural, ‘ngā’, or many puhi - Ngāpuhi. The fact that Ngāpuhi derive their name from an event rather than an ancestor, which is the case with most tribes, is unusual. Considering the long-established identity of larger tribes across the rest of the country such as Te Whānau-ā-Apaui, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Maniapoto, all of whom are derived from particular ancestors, the case of Ngāpuhi proves incredibly rare. And ya’ll wonder why Ngāpuhi think they’re all that.

Without oral histories and Māori place names, within which the largest clues to pre-colonial society lie, how are we to familiarise ourselves with these places to begin with? The original place names of this land provide us with immeasurable information and an undeniable blueprint of how Māori settlers perceived the world and responded to obstacles. From the OG girlboss Wairaka, to the devotion of Tohe, there is so much to be learned from the way in which our ancestors lived. And yet, there still remain folks who refuse to educate themselves on the importance of Māori place names, even as places named for their flood-prone nature make headlines for, you guessed it, flooding.

Mātauranga Māori has never been more relevant than now. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2023.
Posted 2:55pm Sunday 19th March 2023 by Nā Skyla from Ngāti Hine.