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One Woman’s Battle for Recognition of Ngāti Hotu

DNA to Rock the Nation (Part I)

In the traditions of Ngāti Tūwharetoa of Taupō, Ngāti Hotu were an aboriginal people living in that area at a time when the people of Tūwharetoa i te Aupōuri came to live in the lands claimed by their ancestor Tia. It was thought the original people took the name Ngāti Hotu to be spared from being destroyed by the Tainui and Te Arawa peoples. One story among the Tainui people says that Kupe found these islands inhabited by a short, light-skinned people whose tribes were named Tūrehu-tūrangi, Pokepoke-wai, Hā-moamoa, Patu-paiarehe and Tūrehe. Monica’s ancestors were here too, the Urukehu often mentioned by early historians and connected with the legendary Tūrehu people.


Monica is the one who carries the history of her family. Of 14 children, she and her brother were chosen to receive the old stories, to carry on the whakapapa. When her brother died, it was left to Monica to continue the fight to be recognised as Ngāti Hotu – ancient settlers of this land.

Monica: “I was born at Te Rena and my mother was Tangi Maria Karauti, whose father was a descendent of Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Maru. My grandmother was Te Oti Mihi-Terina, whose father was Mihi-Terina Piki Kotuku from north Pikiao-Rotoiti. She was born in 1857 and died in 1938, aged 81, at her kāinga (village) Te Rena on the banks of the Whanganui River.

“My mother and my grandfather Mahinui Te Araroa Karauti both stood up to be recognised as Ngāti Hotu, to try and get back their land. My koro attended many Māori Land Court hearings and was 99 when he made his last trip there by bus and train. I have appeared at five court hearings to be granted the right to speak on the troubles faced by Ngāti Hotu and Ngāti Hinewai. Eventually, to be recognised as ‘existing’, I claimed under the lineage of my great-great-grandfather Piki Kotuku of the Whanganui people. But I am standing up for all those people who have been made invisible by the tools of the Crown, as it has tried to define us. We are not the only ones - there are other people who have been called extinct, like the Tamahaki of the Whanganui region.

“There are about 2,000 Ngāti Hotu left. I hope more will come forward when they read this story. Of my generation of our family, there are only four left – me, my brother and two sisters. There are 800 in our whānau. When the seven warrior waka arrived in New Zealand, my people were here. Our history says that our people first came to Aotearoa a long time back from what is now called Iran. If you go there today, the women still have moko, the black lips. Our people came here through Borneo.”

Monica jokes about her curved ‘Mediterranean’ nose. Her mother taught her the Ngāti Hotu language, a tongue that she says that is quite unlike Māori. Linguists have taken no note of this vital link with the ancient history of New Zealand. How could they, when Ngāti Hotu were said to be extinct?

The history of Tūwharetoa describes Ngāti Hotu as a large, peaceful tribe of fair skinned people who came from the Bay of Plenty at Rotorua to settle around Taupō and the mountains of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe, holding lands extending to Hawkes Bay. Tūwharetoa speak of how battles with incoming warrior tribes seeking land continued over following generations and the once large population of Ngāti Hotu was slaughtered in successive attacks and driven off their lands in the eastern and south eastern districts of Taupō and the western portions near Tuhua and upper Rangitikei. Ngāti Hotu came to the point of extinction in final battles with Tūwharetoa. At Tikihope in the Battle of Whatararapa (in what is now National Park), they were massacred by pursuing war parties that included one from lower Whanganui. The last survivors fled to country around Taumarunui. Over this terrible time as their numbers were decimated, survivors were enslaved or intermarried and hid under the protection of stronger tribes. Their story was also hidden, because those who had driven them to the brink of extinction believed that mana lay with those who vanquished their enemy and so considered Ngāti Hotu unworthy of being remembered. Monica believes they were called ‘extinct’ by tribes intent on posing as owners of Ngāti Hotu land being sold to the Crown solely for financial gain. She says: “It was evidence by Tūwharetoa that made us extinct. We were made extinct because we were never going to sell the land...”

The Rohe Pōtae original title to land that is now known as National Park was changed in 1886 by Te Heuheu Tūwharetoa to Taupō-nuia-Tia. Between 1904–1910, around 80,000 acres of Māori land around Nga Maunga Tongariro and Ruapehu, including the southern end of the Taurewa Block was sold to the Crown for tourism by Tūwharetoa.

“Because of this, Ngāti Hotu lost control of their ancient pa, Ngā-Hou-te-Pō, near the end of the Mangatepōpō stream, which flows into the Whanganui River,” says Monica. “It was here that the biggest massacre of Ngāti Hotu took place at the hands of Tūwharetoa, about 1832. Some 600 died. Tūwharetoa described the stream flowing red for days. My mother said that over time, some 3,000 Ngāti Hotu perished.

Another massacre of Ngāti Hotu, called ‘the last great cannibal feast’, took place in Taumarunui around 1834 at the hands of Maniapoto. The site of this dreadful event is now called Cherry Grove, a favourite picnic and boating spot in Taumarunui and departure point for boat trips on the Whanganui River. At the time, Monica’s great-grandparents Mihi-Terina and Te Kaaka were hiding with their children at Omangahou Taurewa Te Rena from their arch enemies, Tūwharetoa. They stood firm and courageous throughout their lives, refusing to be driven off their land, despite the murderous times. When they eventually both passed away in old age and could not longer defend their home, their house at Whakahou Te Rena was ‘stolen’ - carted away. Today only 2000 acres remains of their original 80,000 acres that stretched from Taurewa under Ruapehu to Te Rena, near Taumarunui. Monica simply says: “We are the family who never left the land.”

From 1886–1908, eight tribes sold land to the Crown – all except Ngāti Hotu and Hinewai. Taurewa was never sold. In 2006, Monica led a group – all ages and of mixed iwi, who held a protest camp to stop the sale to private investors of 1,000 acres of ancestral Ngāti Hotu land at Taurewa. The people endured harsh months of snow and ice in tents under the mountain, until the sale was stopped and the Crown was forced to land bank the area.

When Monica and her family return to visit these lost lands, they are saddened by the vast areas of vivid yellow flowering gorse and broom. She says: “Once these lands were covered with tall kauri, tōtara, tawa, kahikatea, rimu and rewarewa, stretching from here to Kāwhia. The forests were full of birds. Taurewa was the ‘bread basket’ for all people. After the Europeans came, the trees were all chopped down for milling and to use the land for agriculture. But the soil was not suited to that. Today it’s a wasteland. If the Crown thought they bought the land from the true kaitiake (guardians), they should look at the neglect today at places like Te Rena and Te Pōrere. It is not cared for by the people who sold the land. True kaitiake would never take money for their land. You cannot sell guardianship.

“In recent years, graves of the ancient Tūrehu people found along the Whanganui Awa were dug up and reburied elsewhere by unrelated iwi. Even a skull found on Ruapehu, thought to have been thrown up by a recent eruption, was given to unrelated Tūwharetoa and reburied. These remains should have been scientifically examined, DNA tested. These are ancestral people with no relation to the warrior Polynesians who drove them out. It is proof of the ancient settlement of this land.”

Through terrible times, the distinctive Ngāti Hotu did not die out. Today, the red hair that once marked this people out as ‘fair prey’ to those who hunted, killed and put them in the ovens, can be found among the Te Arawa people of Rotorua and wherever survivors settled. When Monica was born, she carried the same colouring as her mother and grandmother, and passed aspects of the fair complexion, blonde or red hair and blue green eyes on to her daughters and grandchildren. “It is as if, after nine generations, the ancestors are returning,” she says.


After the warrior Polynesians arrived in New Zealand, their striking physical appearance marked Ngāti Hotu out for merciless attention. Ironically, Monica’s daughter Janet experienced something similar at school when she was six years old.

Janet explains: “One day at school in Tokoroa, the teacher was doing a count of different nationalities,” Janet recalls. “She asked for all Māoris to stand up. I am Tūhoe, Tainui, Ngāti Pikiao, Te Arawa, Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Maringi, Tūrangitukua, Ngāti Hinewai and Ngāti Hotu-Uenuku. I stood up and was told to sit down. I told the teacher I was Māori. She told me “No Janet, you’re not.” When I replied, “Yes I am,” I was told to leave the room for being disobedient. The next day at school the kids were telling me that I was adopted. My mother told me I wasn’t and that the gossip must have come from their parents. She said they were envious because they didn’t have a little girl who looked like me. I told the kids this and the following day while I was playing on the swings, six of them attacked me and tried to pull out all my hair. My sister Joanne chased them off, but I was left with a big bald patch.

“I now know that my great-great-great-koro Te Piki Kōtuku was of Ngāti Hotu and Ngāti Hinewai Pikiao descent and had green eyes and fair skin. He was tall, slim and athletic and able to outrun his enemy. He was one of the greatest peacemakers of his time. Our great-grandmother Te Oti was fair skinned with green eyes and red hair. Her sister Tamara was the fairest of them all, with white hair and blue eyes and the tallest at 5′2″. Kataraina was dark with black hair and dark eyes. They were all different, but all were beautiful grand aunties, and all were Māori. When I learned this, I was happy to be of Ngāti Hotu descent. I think the Crown’s systems put people in boxes where you are either Māori or Pākehā. Everybody says that they all want one nation, but this is not what I have experienced.”

“Our Ngāti Hotu ancestry is something we hold dear to, although our whānau never really spoke of it,” Monica says. “Growing up at school, the tribe was ridiculed and I was teased for my red hair and my green eyes. There are two branches of Ngāti Hotu. Some of them have red hair colouring with round faces and small eyes with thick eyebrows. Some, called the Family of the Sky, are of fair complexion and pleasing to behold. They have larger features, fair skin and red hair colouring. They are called ‘Urukehu.’ The hair of these people shone and glistened in the sun.

“Ngāti Hotu are an aboriginal people, a parent tribe from ancient times prior to the arrival of Toi aboard Te Paepae-ki-Rarotonga, and are descendants of Ruatipua and Mouruuru. We come from a time when the indigenous tribes of the Ancient Ones and the myriad of other species lived here as one, based on the harmony of the sacred natural order, under the mantle of Tāne - a race of vegetarians. A race committed to the principals of peace.”

According to Tūwharetoa, Toi came to Aotearoa seeking his grandson, blown out to sea in a storm from a lagoon in Tahiti, around AD 1150. He found many people already settled here. One group, Ngāti Kahupungapunga, is acknowledged as the tangata whenua in Tainui territory. They were wiped out in AD 1600. Ngāti Hinewai, including Monica and her family, trace this part of their lineage back to Toi.

“It was evidence by Tūwharetoa that made us extinct. We were made extinct because we were never going to sell the land...” – Monica Matamua

“Everybody says that they all want one nation, but this is not what I have experienced...” – Janet Te Ahuru

This was the first chapter of the ‘DNA to Rock the Nation’ minibook, now available from the elocal bookstore. Click the banner below to purchase the full version for only $9.95!

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elocal Digital Edition – May 2020 (#230)

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