A South Island toehold
Tahupōtiki, from whom Ngāi Tahu take their name, was descended from the legendary ancestor Paikea and Hemo ki-te-Raki. It is here that we enter the realm of human history. Largely because of internal struggles between Ngāi Tahu and their kin, Ngāi Tahu migrated further south to Wellington and settled the area with the related tribes, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Māmoe. Hostilities eventually broke out, and in the early 18th century some Ngāi Tahu, led by Pūraho and his sons Maru and Mako, left the North Island for Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island). Here they established a beachhead in the northern end of the island at Kaihinu pā, in Tory Channel. They had been preceded south by Ngāti Māmoe.
During this period, relations with another tribe, Ngāi Tara, had become strained. On one occasion a Ngāi Tahu party discovered the corpse of a Ngāi Tara chief inside a cave. The warriors fashioned the bones into fishhooks and invited Ngāi Tara on a fishing expedition. During the expedition, the Ngāi Tahu crew sarcastically commented, ‘The old man has them biting well.’ Ngāi Tara realised that the bones of their ancestor had been desecrated. In response, they killed the chief Pūraho, hiding under the latrine he used each morning and impaling him on a spear.
Intermarriage with Ngāti Māmoe
The murder of Pūraho led to a series of battles between Ngāi Tahu and Ngāi Tara, and their respective allies Ngāti Māmoe and Rangitāne of the Wairau valley. Traditions tell of how, in one of the more memorable battles, the leading Ngāi Tahu chief Tuteurutira and his kinsmen defeated the Rangitāne people. One captive taken was a woman chief called Hinerongo, whom Tūteurutira mistook as belonging to the Rangitāne tribe. However, as Tūteurutira’s canoes took to the sea, Hinerongo uttered a proverb that indicated she was not from the enemy tribe. She belonged to Ngāti Māmoe, who were located further to the south, and had been captured by Rangitāne some days earlier.
As Tūteurutira returned Hinerongo to her people at Matariki pā on the Clarence River, an alliance was struck, and both tribes attacked and defeated Rangitāne in the Wairau. In return, Ngāti Māmoe ceded the coastline north of the Clarence River to Ngāi Tahu. Tūteurutira and Hinerongo married and settled at Matariki pā.
This pattern of warfare, tribal alliances and strategic marriages saw Ngāi Tahu eventually establish themselves southwards. After Ngāti Kurī’s conquest of Kaikōura, Ngāi Tūhaitara, under the leadership of Moki and Tūrakautahi, conquered the Canterbury–Banks Peninsula region.
Kūmara down south
The northern part of the South Island was about as far south as kūmara (sweet potato), the staple crop of Māori horticulture, could be grown. Archaeologists have interpreted features at the mouth of the Waiautoa (Clarence) River – the location of Matariki pā – as evidence of kūmara gardens. Further south, at Taumutu on Lake Ellesmere, are depressions that may be ‘borrow pits’, from which Māori gardeners took shingle to create warmer soils for growing kūmara. The introduction of the European potato, which could be grown in colder climates, transformed the economy of the southern Ngāi Tahu.
Different sub-tribes of Ngāi Tahu pushed the tribal boundary steadily southwards. One of these, Ngāti Kurī, occupied Kaikōura in the early 18th century. Another, Ngāi Tūhaitara, settled in the Canterbury–Banks Peninsula region in the 1730s. Ngāti Irakehu, a further Ngāi Tahu sub-tribe, had already settled peaceably among Ngāti Māmoe on Horomaka (Banks Peninsula) by the time Ngāi Tūhaitara arrived. Just north of Banks Peninsula a Ngāi Tūhaitara chief, Turakautahi, built what became the largest fortified village in the South Island, Kaiapoi pā. It lay on the site of a stronghold of an earlier tribe, Waitaha, whose history and traditions Ngāi Tahu eventually adopted.