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by  Darren Reid

The Muaūpoko people – formerly known as Ngāi Tara – were named because they lived at the ūpoko (head) of Te Ika-a-Māui – the fish of Māui, or the North Island. Over time, they lost much of their land. Today, the tribe is working to restore Lake Horowhenua and revive their culture.

Early history

The name of the tribe

The people of Muaūpoko are the descendants of the ancestor Tara, whose name has been given to many landmarks. The most notable is Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the great harbour of Tara), which refers to Wellington Harbour and environs. Tara’s people were originally known as Ngāi Tara, but more recently they have taken the name Muaūpoko, to indicate that they are the people living at the head (ūpoko) of the fish of Māui, as the Wellington region is known.

The fish’s head

The name Muaūpoko comes from mua (in front of) and ūpoko (the head). This refers to the shape of the North Island, which tradition holds is the fish landed by Māui. Its head forms the Wellington region, which is the territory of the Muaūpoko people.


At the time the Kurahaupō canoe landed at Māhia Peninsula its paramount chief was Whātonga. He was a noted Māori navigator and the grandson of the Polynesian explorer Toitehuatahi. He and his people settled first at Nukutaurua on the Māhia Peninsula.

In Hawke’s Bay Whātonga married Hotuwaipara, and they had a son called Tara. He was so named because just before he was born his mother pricked her finger with a tara, the spine of a fish.

Being of a restless disposition, Whātonga travelled south to Cook Strait. Here he discovered Wellington Harbour. He then travelled up the west coast to the Manawatū River. At Aokautere he settled and took a second wife, Reretua, with whom he had another son, Tautoki. Tautoki in turn would have a son – Tānenui-ā-rangi (also known as Rangitāne) – who was the ancestor of the Rangitāne people. They occupied territory at either end of the Manawatū Gorge.

After some years Whātonga returned to Hawke’s Bay, where he rejoined Hotuwaipara and Tara. They then travelled south to Wellington Harbour, and settled initially on Matiu (Somes Island). Later they moved to the largest island in the harbour, Motukairangi (now Miramar Peninsula).


Tara, Whātonga’s son, was the great-great-grandson of Kupe the Polynesian explorer. On his voyages Kupe had himself visited the Wellington Harbour region, leaving his name at various sites.

Tara had a son called Whakanui or Wakanui, who had a son called Tūria. Tūria married Hinematua and they had a son called Te Ao Haeretahi who married Rakaimāori. They in turn had a son called Tūteremoana who became the paramount chief of Ngāi Tara. His name has been given to rocks on a beach just north of the Whanganui River, to the highest point of Kāpiti Island, and to a fishing rock just south of Barrett’s Reef in Wellington Harbour.

Tribal boundaries

Traditionally Ngāi Tara occupied the area bounded by the Tararua Ranges in the east and the Tasman Sea in the west, and from Rimurapa (Sinclair Head) in the south to the Rangitīkei River in the north. Some hapū (sub-tribes) settled around Tōtaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) in the 17th century.

Invasion and colonisation

1800–1840: the occupation of Te Whanganui-a-Tara

By 1800 Ngāi Tara (later Muaūpoko) were sharing their traditional lands around Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) and on the Kāpiti Coast with later arrivals – Ngāti Apa, Rangitāne, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Hāmua and Ngāti Ira. Some areas had been ceded because of warfare; others were shared with associated tribes such as Ngāti Māmoe, who also descended from Toi. Nonetheless Muaūpoko retained and occupied most of their land.

From 1819, northern tribes began to venture south in search of resources. The first large-scale migration to Te Whanganui-a-Tara took place about 1822, when a party of Ngāti Toa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama arrived on the Kāpiti Coast.

Initially Muaūpoko welcomed the Ngāti Toa people, but conflict became inevitable after a Muaūpoko woman was killed. Muaūpoko sought revenge by killing several members of Te Rauparaha’s family at Papaitonga. This event led to bitter enmity between Ngāti Toa and Muaūpoko. As Ngāti Toa subsequently established their power at Te Whanganui-a-Tara and in the Kāpiti region, the Muaūpoko population became concentrated in Horowhenua.

Peace offering

He taonga rongonui te aroha ki te tangata.

Goodwill towards others is a precious treasure.

Rongo, a chief of Ngāi Tara, wanted to end warfare with the Rangitāne people. He set an ambush for a raiding party and sat alone in its path. Throwing a leafy branch in front of their leader, he then signalled for his warriors to appear. Next, slaves appeared, carrying baskets of shellfish. Faced with two options, the Rangitāne chief picked up the branch, confirming the choice of peace. After this, Ngāi Tara and Rangitāne became staunch allies and ‘Rongo’ became a synonym for peace.

Interaction with Europeans

In 1839 the New Zealand Company purchased land around Wellington Harbour from the chiefs of various occupying tribes. The people of Muaūpoko were not consulted, and were overlooked in the redistribution of reserve areas for Māori. Land on the Kāpiti Coast occupied by other tribes was also sold without Muaūpoko consent. These events later became the basis for a claim by Muaūpoko to the Waitangi Tribunal.

Muaūpoko were drawn into the wars over land and authority in the 1860s, under the leadership of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (known to Pākehā as Major Kemp). Te Keepa saw the conflict as an opportunity to exact revenge on tribes that had humiliated Muaūpoko in the past. After the wars he used his influence to regain lands at Horowhenua through the Native Land Court. Some of this territory was sold in the 1880s for railway and settlement land, but subsequent intertribal disputes about its ownership led to protracted court hearings, parliamentary debate and finally a royal commission in 1896. In the process, Muaūpoko lost more land. Some was taken to pay for the commission costs, and Walter Buller, who had acted as Te Keepa’s lawyer, took Lake Papaitonga in Horowhenua as his fee.

Just as with other tribes during the 19th and 20th centuries, loss of land and the impact of European agriculture and settlement had negative effects on Muaūpoko. However, some of the consequences of colonisation are now being addressed and put right.

Muaūpoko today

In 2004 the Muaūpoko people had their administrative base and main centre at Levin in the Horowhenua region. Other significant populations can be found in the Wellington Harbour region, Wairarapa and southern Hawke’s Bay, and Taranaki. Although records show that there have been 27 sub-tribes, only six are now active. These are Ngāi Te Ao, Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Pāriri, Ngāti Tamarangi, Ngāti Whanokirangi, and Punahau.

Lake Horowhenua

Waipunahāu (Lake Horowhenua) remains a significant rallying point for tribe members. Muaūpoko own the lake, and both of the active marae overlook the water. The lake was once an abundant source of food – eel, whitebait, crayfish, flounder, freshwater mussels, water birds and native pigeons. However, the lake and its surrounds deteriorated because of the clearance of forest and wetland vegetation, and waste from farming activities.

Since 1996 Muaūpoko, through their Lake Horowhenua Trust, have been involved in one of New Zealand’s largest environmental restoration projects. The aim is to replenish the lake’s fisheries and improve the water quality. This involves a replanting programme; there is a plant nursery on the lake shore.

Tribal initiatives

The Muaūpoko Tribal Authority provides health and welfare services for tribe members and the wider community. Muaūpoko also celebrate Waitangi Day by holding competitions for kapa haka (Māori performing arts) and touch football matches. This is a time when the hapū (sub-tribes) of Muaūpoko can come together and celebrate their collective identity. The main goal is to pass on to the younger generation ancestral customs and songs, so that these treasures are not lost forever. It is planned to establish traditional schools of learning in order to revive and maintain the customs, traditions and history of the Muaūpoko people.

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 Muaūpoko (including those who indicated more than one tribe), and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013..

  • 1991 census: 1,407
  • 2001 census: 1,836
  • 2006 census: 2,499
  • 2013 census: 2,691

Major regional locations

  • Manawatū-Whanganui: 1,176
  • Wellington: 483

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Darren Reid, 'Muaūpoko', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 September 2021)

Story by Darren Reid, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Feb 2015