Te Āti Awa of north Taranaki is one of several closely related tribes originating from the ancestor Awanuiarangi. According to tribal traditions, Awanuiarangi had a semi-divine origin. He was conceived from the union of an earthly mother, Rongoueroa, and Tamarau-te-heketanga-a-rangi, a spirit that descended from the sky.
Despite the slight difference in name, Ngāti Awa and Te Āti Awa share a common ancestry. Several traditions describe how the people of Awanuiarangi settled originally in Northland, but were forced to move south following disagreements with other local tribes. They relocated to both the Bay of Plenty, where the Ngāti Awa people today reside, and to Taranaki, where Te Āti Awa live. It is not clear from these traditions whether the two areas were settled at the same time, or whether one was settled after the other.
In the 1820s many Te Āti Awa had moved south from Taranaki, as part of a larger contingent of tribes. They occupied the Kāpiti Coast, Wellington and various locations at the top of the South Island.
There are several other Awa tribes, created when the descendants of Awanuiarangi split in 1820. They share some aspects of their history, tradition and genealogy. But they are now independent political units with their own authority. Perhaps the most obvious expression of separate identity is the current affiliation of the Bay of Plenty Ngāti Awa people with the Mataatua canoe, and Te Āti Awa in Taranaki with the Tokomaru canoe.
Te Āti Awa in Taranaki are located on the coast between Ōnukutaipari, near New Plymouth, and Te Rau o te Huia, near Motunui. Before the arrival of Europeans this territory sustained Te Āti Awa, who cultivated some 32 km of coastline and a large undulating fertile plain that extends inland for several kilometres. The inland boundary is somewhat contested, but two markers that are generally acknowledged are Tāhunatūtawa, a promontory on the north-eastern slopes of Mt Taranaki, and the inland Matemateaonga Ranges.
Following many generations of Te Āti Awa settlement in the Taranaki region, the arrival of Europeans created major political, social and cultural disruption. An influx of New Zealand Company settlers in 1841, anxious to start farming the fertile Te Āti Awa lands around New Plymouth and Waitara, marked the start of continued unrest. This began at a time when large numbers of Te Āti Awa were away from their homeland establishing new communities and territories in the south with other allied tribes. The pressure that settlers put on Māori to sell land resulted in about 600 Te Āti Awa members returning to Taranaki from the Waikanae–Wellington area under the leadership of their chief, Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke, in 1848.
Kīngi was opposed to selling land to Europeans, but in the 1850s others in the tribe sold off portions of the tribal estate. This led to friction and warfare between various sub-tribes of Te Āti Awa, as well as hostility toward the European settlers. Despite this, Kīngi Te Rangitāke and his allies managed to establish a thriving tribal economy based primarily on selling food to the settlers in New Plymouth. They planted extensive orchards and wheat and tended a variety of farm livestock. They had also purchased European-style ships for trading outside the region.
In the 1850s, Kīngi was believed to be associated with a Māori ‘land league’, established to encourage Māori to retain their land rather than sell it. Because Kīngi was considered to be the leader of this organisation, he was vilified in the press. To the resident European population he exemplified everything that was perceived to be ‘bad’ about Māori.
In 1859 an opportunity to deal with the ‘Kīngi problem’ arose when the land Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke was living on in Waitara was offered for sale by Te Teira, one of the tribe’s junior chiefs. The offer was made to the government’s land purchasing officer Donald McLean. Kīngi and Te Teira had fallen out, and Te Teira’s offer was designed to hurt Kīngi. Despite the knowledge among officials that Kīngi was the paramount chief and that Te Teira had no right to sell the land, they chose to accept the offer.
Kīngi and his allies refused to leave the land in question and prevented surveyors from completing a survey of the block. The Crown issued Kīngi and Te Āti Awa with a written ultimatum. They were required to move or Crown officials would send in troops to open fire on them. Kīngi’s refusal to vacate his home in March 1860 led to the first shots of the New Zealand wars being fired by the British at Te Kohia pā, just south of Waitara.
While there was widespread Māori support for Te Āti Awa, the war was lost after a year of fighting. The Crown accused the tribe of rebelling, and punished them by confiscating their land. Consequently, in 1865 the government used the 1863 Suppression of Rebellion Act and the New Zealand Settlements Act to confiscate all of Te Āti Awa’s Taranaki land.
Despite the Te Āti Awa claim that they were simply defending house and home from an aggressive military attack, the confiscation proceeded. It created unprecedented political, social and cultural disruption, from which the tribe still suffers. The tribe’s traditional leadership was undermined and the main tribal political structures, which then included over 90 sub-tribes, collapsed to the present six of Ngāti Rāhiri, Ōtaraua, Manukorihi, Pukerangiora, Puketapu and Ngāti Te Whiti.
Several partial attempts were made by the Crown throughout the 20th century to compensate Te Āti Awa for past injustices. For example, in the 1920s the Sim Commission recommended some compensation; however, it did not properly investigate issues such as the return of confiscated land, sacred sites or other treasures.
By the 1930s a settlement sum had been agreed by the government without consultation with Taranaki tribes, including Te Āti Awa. Although the Taranaki Māori Claims Act 1944 stated that a full settlement for the wrongs admitted by the Crown towards the local people had been reached, there is little evidence that this was the Māori understanding. At the same time that these settlements were being arranged, land which had been held in reserve for Māori was still being sold off or locked into perpetual leases. By 1974, 63% of reserves held in the Public Trust for Taranaki tribes had been sold.
In 2013 more than 15,000 people claimed descent from Te Āti Awa of Taranaki. In 1996 the Waitangi Tribunal acknowledged past breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Āti Awa’s right to apply for compensation for land confiscation. In 1998 negotiations began towards a deed of settlement.
Te Āti Awa of Taranaki’s historic treaty claims were finally settled on 9 August 2014. The settlement was valued at $87 million, including payments made earlier, plus a cultural fund of $985,000. Several relationship agreements were made with Crown agencies – for example, with the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in relation to petroleum and minerals.
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 the Te Āti Awa tribe of Taranaki (including those who indicated more than one tribe), and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013.
Belich, James. The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict. Auckland: Penguin, 1988.
Buck, A. R., and others, eds. Land and freedom: law, property rights and the British diaspora. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
Houston, John. Maori life in old Taranaki. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1965.
Lambert, Gail, and Ron Lambert. An illustrated history of Taranaki. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1983.
Sinclair, Keith. The origin of the Maori wars. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, 1957.
Smith, S. Percy. History and traditions of the Maoris of the west coast, North Island of New Zealand, prior to 1840. New Plymouth: Polynesian Society, 1910.