Tangata Whenua – The People of the Land

The Waitaha people left their ancestral home of Patu-nui-o-Aio because of war. After traveling through many Hawaiiki, they finally landed on the South Island of what is now New Zealand. Their canoe was called Uruao, and their leader was Rakaihautu. Their arrival is set at about the year 840 AD by whakapapa (genealogical record) and carbon dating.

Uruao was tied in tandem with another canoe, which brought the Rapuwai people. One tribe was expert in the ways of all water, and the other was expert with food cultivation and gathering. The Rapuwai canoe, called Arai-te-Uru, was wrecked at what is now Shag Point. Its hull became the hill and peninsula, and its captain turned into the highest rock. This may have been the canoe that brought kumara (sweet potato) from Hawaiiki. When the canoe was destroyed, the kumara scattered, and turned into irregular boulders along the shore. The food baskets that held the kumara became the round Moeraki boulders.

Early on, Waitaha occupied the kaika (village) known as Huruhuru Manu, on the south side of the Waitaki River mouth. Here fires were lit. Ashes from the fires were mixed with water from the river to make a paste. This was used to baptise (toha) the tupuna (ancestor) Waita, son of Rakaihautu. A special effect was said to have been created when several feathers floated onto Waita from birds wheeling above the ceremony.

This gave rise to the saying:
I tohia te Wai, te pungarehu, me nga Huruhuru Manu.
(He was blessed by the water, by the ashes and by the feathers of the birds.)

The Waitaha were a peaceful and industrious people, learned in religion and astronomy, who placed high value on remembering and passing on the traditions of their ancestors.

As well as providing for themselves, the Waitaha traded resources with North Island iwi (tribes). They provided the flesh of moa (a large bird now extinct), the kauru (baked root) of ti (cabbage tree) and a strongly scented oil from taramea (speargrass). In return they received kumara (sweet potato), whariki (mats) and waka (wooden canoes).

The Waitaha were a nomadic people who spent months at a time traveling in search of food, clothing materials and material for tools. These travels were extensive – from the mouth of the river to the mountains – and there were many traditional camp sites along the routes.

Waimate (stagnant water), a nearby camp, was used when collecting food from the sea, rivers and forests, or when trading with northern iwi (tribes).

The Papakaio Area (the place where food is sought and eaten) was so called for the spring where large, succulent tuna (eels).were caught and cooked in umu (ovens). This was a camp site for traveling Maori, and the traditional river crossing place.

During their travels in North Otago, Maori used the limestone overhangs and caves for shelter. The rock faces provided an ideal surface for drawing. They are still there, though deteriorating, and are time windows to a world we can only wonder at. Mostly, human and animal forms are portrayed. Some are realistic while others are mystically abstract. The Waltaha say, ‘In the silence of the rocks the spirit of the old inhabitants is still alive.’

The Waitaha name for Kurow is Kurau or Kuaka-rau and refers to the wairua (spiritual) home of the Black Stilt.

Hakataramea (dancing speargrass) commemorates a dance which took place near the confluence of this river with the Waitaki. The dancers were wearing sachets filled with a sweet-scented gum from the flower stalks of taramea. The sachets were made from the skins of whekau (laughing owls), once common in this district. Their weird laughter would sometimes be heard in the.night, up to 1900, but they are now thought to be extinct.

The Otematata area (place of good flint) was used by Maori during their travels inland. There was a hunting camp near the mouth of the Otematata River where the hunters left hearthstones, flint knives and the rounded quartz stones from the crops of moa they had killed. Up through the gorge, now flooded by Lake Benmore, were other hunting camps where drawings were made on greywacke stone walls – the only ones of their kind in New Zealand.

Maori have used the high country since Rakaihautu ‘dug up’ the lakes on his explorations 1,000 years ago. Later they avoided its winter harshness but lived here in summer to hunt moa, other birds and tuna (eels); to dig aruhe (fern root) and raupo root (bulrush); and to quarry stone for tools.

The Waitaha elders recognised that the waters responded to the call of Marama (the moon), and they recognised that human behaviour became heightened when the moon was full. Omarama (food of the moon) was a place where, the elders said, if mental information was given it would remain forever as food for/of Marama.

Lake Ohau was originally named Ohou, after Hou, one of the crew in the first canoe Uruao. It was later changed to Ohau (place of the wind).

Lake Pukaki was named by Rakaihautu, probably for the outlet’s ‘swollen neck’. It is the sacred resting place of the bow piece of the waka ‘Mahunui’ and ‘Mahuru’.

Lake Tekapo should be called Takapo (getting ready to leave in the night). It was named by Waitaha after two of their chiefs were lost on a journey to Central Otago, and were found turned to stone near Lake Ohau. The people immediately packed their belongings and left their pa on Take Karara (Ram Island) in the lake. Their descendants still live around Temuka. The area had been famed for the plentiful weka (woodhen), aruhe (fern root), and kanakana (lamprey eel). Raupo grew thick around the lake, haumata (snowgrass tussock) covered the hillsides and tumatakuru (matagouri) grew tall as shelter for the weka.

Some 700 years after the Waitaha arrived, around 1550, the Katimamoe people moved down from the North Island, followed around 1685 by the Kai Tahu people. First one, then the other tribe became dominant through the South Island by warfare and intermarriage.

For about the next 150 years these later people followed much the same life patterns as the Waitaha. They too followed the river banks up the Waitaki Valley in their investigations, but they also trekked over the Southern Alps to find pounamu (jade or greenstone), a stone the Waitaha never valued.

The arrival of the first Europeans in the 1830’s, depicted in some of the later rock drawings, was to have a profound effect on Maori lifestyles.

The Maori people were helpful to the early Europeans. In 1864 Edward Shortland, the first European to describe the Waitaki Plains, met the rangatira Huru Huru who drew him a map of the Waitaki River, inland lakes and a pass to the West Coast. He then ferried Shortland across the Waitaki in a mokihi. This attitude was to undergo some change in the next few years.

In 1877 Te Maiharoa, the last great Tohuka (tohunga – learned man) and rangatira of Waitaha descent led his people on a heke (march) to Omarama in support of the Southern Maori claim that this inland country was not included in the sale of Otago. He established a kaika on the Ahuriri (angry swelling) River just below the Chain Hills but was later evicted by a force of armed men. Te Maiharoa took his people to the Waitaki River mouth and settled there. He began a wharekura (school) where he taught astronomy, mythology and history. Descendants still live in the area.