South Canterbury is in the territory of the Ngāi Tahu people. The lines of earlier South Island iwi (tribes) – Ngāti Mamoe and Waitaha – merged into those of Ngāi Tahu, but are especially strong in the region.
The founding ancestor of the Waitaha tribe was Rākaihautū, who arrived at the top of the South Island in his canoe, Uruao. Leaving his son Rokohouia with the canoe, he made the first known exploration of the South Island’s interior. At Waihao (near Morven) he met up with Rokohouia, who had brought the canoe down the east coast. The Waihao marae is one of the main centres for Waitaha.
The major Ngāi Tahu settlement in South Canterbury was Te Waiateruati, a pā between the coast and the Arowhenua bush. By the mid-1840s the pā was partly abandoned, and today nearby Arowhenua is the site of the marae.
South Canterbury Māori used a special craft, the mōkihi, to navigate the region’s swift, shallow rivers. The vessel was made by binding light reeds together – a skill kept alive in recent years by Tim Te Maiharoa of Glenavy.
For South Canterbury’s earliest inhabitants, moa were a major source of food, along with forest birds, and the eels and flounder that were abundant in coastal lagoons.
Especially important in South Canterbury was kāuru. Shaped like a carrot, it is the root of young cabbage trees (tī kōuka). Shortly before the tree flowers, the root is rich in sugars. At this time the tree would be dug up and the root baked in umu-tī (ovens), which partially crystallised the sugars. The kauru would then be dipped in water and chewed.
The main settlements were on or near the coast, but Māori also hunted inland. They sought moa and weka in the Mackenzie Country, travelling to summer camps through the Waitaki Gorge. Quartzite rock was quarried at Grays Hills.
South Canterbury has New Zealand’s largest amount of Māori rock art. Images and patterns were drawn on the walls of limestone overhangs and caves, in charcoal and red ochre. The motifs include moa, dogs, fish and some recognisably human figures, while others are mythical, such as taniwha (water monsters). Many of the drawings are now faint, and some are probably more than 500 years old, confirming the early occupation of the region. Several hundred sites are known, mainly in the middle reaches of the Ōpihi and Pareora rivers.
One of the reserves set aside for South Canterbury’s Māori in 1848–49 was a 20-acre site near Caroline Bay. This was in exchange for huts and cultivations where Europeans wanted a landing place. A small area was taken back in 1871 for the railway, and in the 1920s the Timaru Borough Council bought the remainder. The name Maori Park recalls the area’s history.
There were very few Māori in South Canterbury at the time of European arrival – probably between 100 and 200. They were living mainly at Arowhenua and Waimate. By the 1840s they had adopted European food and clothing and were cultivating grain and potatoes.
South Canterbury was purchased from Ngāi Tahu in 1848. The only two reserves of any size in the region set aside after the purchase were at Arowhenua and Waihao, where there are still marae.
The land reserved for South Canterbury’s Māori did not allow for the customary seasonal round of hunting and gathering over huge areas. Māori came to be considered trespassers when they visited the ‘mahika kai’ (food-gathering areas) on which European farmers were now running sheep.
The issue came to a head in 1877–79, when the prophet Te Maihāroa led a heke (protest march) to Te Ao Marama (today's Ōmarama) to assert traditional food-gathering rights in an area they believed had not been sold. The episode ended in 1879 without bloodshed when Te Maihāroa agreed to lead his followers back to reserves on the coast.