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Recording place names in events, songs, and chants

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Māori history is remembered in the naming of places after ancestors, battles, and notable events. Some songs or chants are a list of place names. They work as oral maps of an ancestor’s journey or a tribal boundary. These names became survey pegs. If a person could trace their lineage back to an ancestor, they could claim rights to the places he or she had named.

The name ‘Waikato’ comes from an incident during the journey of the Tainui canoe. When the canoe arrived just off the mouth of the river, its current could be seen exerting a pull (kato) in the sea – so the river itself was named Waikato (wai meaning water). Image: LEARNZ.

Commemorating events

Many place names are a record of events. For example, Tūpai, a priest aboard the Tākitimu waka, placed a mauri stone on a mountain between Wairoa and Napier. The stone attracted large flocks of birds. The mountain (maunga) echoed (haruru) with birdsong and became known as Maungaharuru.

According to tradition, the name Kaipara had its origins back in the 15th century when the Arawa chief, Kahumatamomoe, travelled to the Kaipara to visit his nephew at Pouto. At a feast, he was so impressed with the cooked root of the para fern that he gave the name Kai-para to the district. Image: LEARNZ.

Long place names 

Long Māori place names are usually those that describe events. These places are often better known by their short form:

  • Rangitoto Island is Te Rangi-i-totongia-ai-te-ihu-o-Tamatekapua (the day that Tamatekapua had a bloody nose).
  • Rotorua is Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe (named by Īhenga to honour his uncle Kahu).
  • Mana Island is Te Mana-o-Kupe-ki-Aotearoa (the ability of Kupe to cross the ocean to Aotearoa).
  • Taupō is Te Taupō-nui-a-Tia (Tia’s rain cloak).
  • Hokianga is Te Hokianga-a-Kupe (the great returning place of Kupe).

Rangitoto Island’s full name is Te Rangi-i-totongia-ai-te-ihu-o-Tamatekapua (the day that Tamatekapua had a bloody nose). Image: LEARNZ.

Oral maps

Many waiata or tauparapara act as oral maps of tribal areas. For example, ‘He oriori mō Wharaurangi’ (a lullaby for Wharaurangi) lists places on the lower west coast of the North Island that the ancestor Haunui-a-Nanaia named.

The chant ‘Te Tau-o-Mataatua’ describes the tribal area of people of the Mataatua waka, as well as neighbouring tribes and places. The chant ‘Te Whare-o-Ngāpuhi’ outlines boundaries of the Ngāpuhi tribe.

Many stories also outline the travels of explorers and the names they gave to places.


Māori also named all the waters around Aotearoa. The Pacific Ocean is Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the great sea of Kiwa), and the Tasman Sea is Te Tai-o-Rehua. The west coast of the North Island is Te Tai Tamatāne, and the east coast is Te Tai Tamāhine. Cook Strait is Te Moana-a-Raukawa. The sea along the western coast of the South Island is Te Tai Poutini, and waters on the eastern side are, from north to south, Marokura, Mahaanui and Āraiteuru.

Māori named all the waters around Aotearoa New Zealand. Image: LEARNZ.

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