In Bay of Plenty we had the pleasure of meeting William Stewart at Mataauta. He welcomed us into his marae and shared the history and stories of his town and ancestors with us. 

Of the many voyages made from Hawaiki to Aotearoa, the story of how the coastal town of Whakatāne (Fah-kah-tah-ne) got its name is quite different, as the hero of the story is a woman.

This is William’s story of how Whakatane got its name.

“The hero is Wairaka, the daughter of the Rangatira (chief) Tōroa, who made the voyage from Hawaiki to Aotearoa New Zealand with his family in a great waka hourua [traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe], named Mataatua. 

The waka was given its name during the voyage when the vessel became caught in a whirlpool.  After safely freeing the waka Tōroa recited a karakia (prayer), for a safe onward journey, when the face of God appeared before him.  Tōroa then renamed the waka Mata-atua, meaning the face of god, and they sailed on, eventually making landfall at Whakatāne, the home of the descendants of Toi-Te-Huatahi, an early Māori ancestor who inhabited the area several generations beforehand.Whakatane-wharf-(1).jpg
The men quickly set off to join their hosts on a tour of the new land, but still wary of the intentions of the home people, the decision was made to leave the women safe aboard the canoe. A swift outgoing tide then loosened the canoe from its mooring and it began to drift slowly out to sea. It was thought women would not have the physical strength required to operate such a great vessel without calamity, so women were forbidden to take control of the waka under tapu – a Māori sacred restriction.

The women’s panicked cries for the men to help went unheard and the situation quickly became dire. Realising the serious danger they were in, Wairaka - the high-spirited daughter of the chief of the canoe Tōroa – rose to take control of the situation. Some of the older women on board warned Wairaka that if she disobeyed the tapu, she would offend the Gods and expose herself to supernatural evils far more dangerous than their current situation. Wairaka was certain they were doomed if she didn’t act, so she took control of the waka and as she did she cried out ‘Kia whakatāne ake au i ahau!’, asking the Gods to give her the manly attributes required to successfully control the canoe.
Her actions saved the women and the town took its name from this event, Whakatāne, Whaka meaning ‘to give a certain quality to something’, and ‘tāne‘ meaning man.

The wharenui (ancestral house) at Te Mānuka Tūtahi Marae  (traditional communal and sacred meeting ground for Māori) in Whakatāne is named Mataatua in honour of the great Waka and the ancestors who arrived with it.  Every carving within the magnificent Mataatua tells a tale, and these fascinating histories are shared with guests by their living descendants.”

In Whakatāne visitors will see the sculpture of "The Lady on the rock", designed to represent Wairaka in the moment that she called out for the strength she needed to save the women in the canoe.  

Those visiting Mataatua can enjoy a magnificent light show that immerses them in the cultural stories and histories of the region.


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