The East Coast region is home to several related tribes – Ngāti Porou in the north, and four that dominate the Tūranganui-a-Kiwa area – Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri and Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti. Their ancestors include Porourangi, after whom Ngāti Porou was named; Kiwa, who named the region; Pāoa, who explored the hinterland; Pāoa’s sister Hinehākirirangi, who brought the kūmara (sweet potato) from Hawaiki and planted them near Manutūke; and, eight generations after Pāoa and Kiwa, the paramount chief Ruapani.
Several waka (canoes) made landfall in the region, the most well-known being Nukutaimemeha, Tākitimu and Horouta.
Ngāti Porou regard Nukutaimemeha as the foundation waka of the region. Oral tradition holds that this vessel, which the demigod Māui used to fish up the North Island, lies petrified on Hikurangi mountain.
Of the major East Coast ancestors, Whironui and his wife Araiara were among the first to arrive on the Nukutere canoe. Their daughter Huturangi married Paikea and their descendants became the founders of Ngāti Porou.
Paikea the whale rider
The Paikea traditions say that, when dressing his sons’ hair before launching a new canoe, Hawaiki chief Uenuku used a special comb for Kahutiaterangi (Paikea). He asked Paikea’s half-brother Ruatapu to provide his own comb because he was from an inferior marriage. An infuriated Ruatapu bored a hole in the canoe and covered it with a small plug. When he and his brothers had paddled out to sea beyond sight of land, Ruatapu pulled the plug and sank the canoe. All except Paikea were drowned.
Paikea called for help from the sea guardians and a taniwha (sea god) in the form of a whale was sent to his aid. The whale carried him to land in several places before reaching Whāngārā on the East Coast.
The sacred waka Tākitimu travelled from Hawaiki, the legendary homeland of Māori.
After arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand, it made many trips including along the East Coast. Northern East Coast accounts say Ruawharo was commander and that the canoe landed at Whanga-o-Kena, the small island off East Cape, before going on to Māhia. Southern East Coast traditions say the commander was Tamatea-arikinui and the canoe landed at Tauranga, where Tamatea disembarked. Others took it to the East Coast, leaving settlers at several places including the Waiapu River, Ūawa (Tolaga Bay) and Tūranganui (Gisborne).
The history of the people of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa began once the Horouta canoe, captained by Pāoa, arrived from Hawaiki in the early 14th century. The Horouta made several landfalls including at Whakatane or Ōhiwa, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, where it ran aground and damaged its hull while entering the harbour. Pāoa went inland and found a suitable tree with which to repair the canoe on top of a high mountain. While there, he urinated, giving form to the stream Te Mimi-a-Pāoa, the Mōtū River, which flows to the north, and the Waipāoa River, which flows south-east towards the sea. Some say he urinated to increase the streams’ volume as they were too small to float the timber to the sea.
The repaired Horouta called in at various places around the East Coast before landing at the southern end of Tūranganui, near Muriwai, where it is believed to rest in the Wherowhero Lagoon.
Some traditions acknowledge Kiwa as the first person to set foot on the land, having sailed the Horouta around and south of East Cape. Pāoa and others trekked overland.
The area became known as Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (the long waiting place of Kiwa). Others say Kiwa arrived on the Tākitimu, before the Horouta.
The Te Ikaroa-a-Rauru canoe arrived after the Tākitimu and Horouta. Its captain Māia is often credited with bringing gourd seeds from Hawaiki.