fbpx Māori connection to awa | LEARNZ

Māori connection to awa

← Contents: Discover more

Water has always been a taonga to Māori. Image: LEARNZ.

Water is a taonga

Water has always been a taonga to Māori. It is viewed as the essence of all life, like the blood of Papatūānuku who supports all people, plants, and wildlife. Māori often consider their personal health and the health of the Iwi to be linked to the health of their waterways.

Māori identity is linked to water through whakapapa – a lineage that descends from Ranginui and Papatūānuku down to people and all parts of the environment. Awa are thought of as tīpuna that have been present throughout history.

Māori recognise different types of water, known as ngā momo wai, that have different values and uses. Each body of water also has a mauri and should not be mixed with water from another source.

Ko te wai te ora ngā mea katoa - Water is the life giver of all things. Image: Water New Zealand.

What did Māori used awa for?

  • settlements
  • mahinga kai
  • hāngi stones
  • gathering materials such as raupō
  • a source of taonga such as pounamu
  • access routes and a means of travel
  • access to important wāhi tapu – sacred sites.

Early exploration in Aotearoa

Early Māori relied on awa. Awa were used as landing sites, settlements, and a source of fresh water. Māori explored new land as far as possible upriver on many waterways.

Māori used mōkihi to travel along the many fast flowing awa of the South Island/Te Waipounamu. Image: LEARNZ.


It was easier to get from place to place by canoeing up or down awa than by walking over the mountains or through dense bush. Waka made of hollowed-out logs were used to travel along or across awa. On the many fast flowing awa of the South Island, Māori used mōkihi.


Māori often built settlements at the mouth of awa. Kai was gathered from the awa itself or its estuary.

Food sources found inland or at sea could be reached easily by awa. Māori recognise the link between awa and the sea and the need to look after awa from their source in the mountains right through to the sea.

Being able to gather mahinga kai from awa, such as these freshwater mussels, is an important part of the connection Māori have with awa. Image: LEARNZ.


Pounamu is found only on the South Island’s West Coast/Te Tai Poutini. Produced deep in the earth, it is brought to the surface by mountain uplift, and then cleaned by river action. Pounamu is a taonga. Māori used it to make tools, weapons, and ornaments, and it became a valuable item of trade. Groups made expeditions to the West Coast, where they cut pounamu from boulders and carried it back over paths known as greenstone trails.

Water spirits

Often in Māori tradition taniwha lived in awa. They could be guardians of a place, or upholders of customs and tribal mana.

Māori have used awa for transport, rituals, and gathering food and other materials for centuries in Aotearoa. Image LEARNZ.

Try the Māori connection to awa quiz.

Various properties of waterbodies are also often reflected in the name of the waterbody, For example:

  • Wai-kato: (full flowing river)
  • Wai-rakei: (the place where the pools were used as mirrors)
  • Wai-rarapa: (the glistening waters)
  • Wai-whetu: (the star waters)
  • Wai-taki: (the tears of Aoraki)
  • Wai-makariri: (cold waters)

Audio Māori keywords: