According to Māori, the ancestor Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga is credited with fishing up a giant fish, which came to be what we now know as the North Island of New Zealand. This fish is known by many names to Māori, the most common being Te Ika-a-Māui or The Fish of Māui. To the Taranaki whānui tribes, this fish is sometimes more formally referred to as Te Ika-whakarau-a-kutikuti-pekapeka which describes the actions of the older brothers of Māui immediately after the surfacing of the fish, in causing the formation of many of the valleys and mountain ranges that form the landscape we know today. Remutaka, along with the Tararua and Ruahine mountain ranges, make up the spine of the fish and much of the topography that Upper Hutt is home to is derived from this tale.
The tale of Māui and his fish and subsequent the arrival of Te Kāhui Mounga (the mountain clan) to the summit of Pukeatua, heralds the appearance of two of the Wellington harbour’s most famous inhabitants. Once a lake, known as Te Wai-manga, the reformation of these waters and aspects of the surrounding landscape is attributed to the story of Ngake and Whātaitai. Most notably for the Hutt Valley, the force released from the tail of the guardian, Ngake, as it propelled itself from the northern shores to forge a pathway through the southern edge of the lake, created what we now know to be Te Awa Kairangi, the Hutt River.
Te Awa Kairangi is the oldest name for the Hutt River, attributed to first Polynesian explorer to come to this area, Kupe, and it is indicative of the importance of this waterway to Māori. Te Awa Kairangi was a significant freshwater fishery, with species such as pātiki (flounder), kanae (mullet), piharau (lamprey), kōkopu (giant and banded bully fish), īnanga (whitebait), ngaore (smelt), and long-finned tuna (eel) being abundant.
The origins of the streams flowing to Te Awa Kairangi are high in the Tararua Range. The streams and rivers lead down through Pākuratahi at the head of the Hutt Valley. The trail linking Te Whanganui-a-Tara and the Wairarapa came through Pākuratahi and over the Remutaka Range. Prior to the 1855 uplift Te Awa Kairangi, the river was a major arterial route for Māori travelling up the valley, with large waka being known to travel as far as Pākuratahi and the river was navigable by European ships almost to Whirinaki (Silverstream). Both Whakatiki and Pākuratahi are remembered as important encampment sites on the pathway between Te Whanganui-a-Tara and Wairarapa.
Kupe had many descendants, many of whom were famed for their exploits. One of these descendants, Whātonga, is noted as the next Polynesian traveller to arrive in this region. Whātonga captained the Kurahaupō waka that landed at Nukutaurua on the Māhia Peninsula. Whātonga had two sons, Taraika and Tautoki-ihu-nui-a-Whātonga, whose descendants eventually settled the lower half of the North Island and the top of the South Island. It is from this account that the name Heretaunga is often applied to this region, derived from the name given to the house of Whātonga at Nukutaurua pā.
Taraika, Tautoki and their people migrated and settled throughout the lower North Island and, at one time, were the dominant tribes of this region. Their descendants include the tribes of Ngāi Tara, Muaupoko, Rangitāne, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, and Ngāti Ira.
The name of Taraika has been immortalised in many prominent landmarks in the Wellington region, not least of which is Te Whanganui-a-Tara and Tararua. The name Tararua is derived from the saying, ‘Ngā waewae e rua o Taraika’ or ‘the spanned legs of Tara’, meaning that his people had a foothold on either side of these ranges.
Ōrongomai, meaning ‘the place of Rongomai’, was given to this area by these tribes and is the name of the area where Upper Hutt city now stands. Rongomai was an ancestor and deity of the tribes whose ancestors came on the Kurahaupō waka. The visible manifestation of Rongomai is the appearance of a comet, more commonly known today as Halley's Comet.
Remutaka comes from the tale of Haunui-a-Nanaia, the ancestor of Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi of the Whanganui region and a descendant of Kupe. According to accounts, Haunui had reason to pursue his errant wife, Wairaka, who had run off with two slaves during his visit to Hawaiki. Setting out from his home in Te Matau-a-Māui (Hawke’s Bay), he followed the path of Wairaka and the slaves across the island and down the west coast. After exacting his revenge at Pukerua, he decided to go home via the East Coast. Travelling up the Hutt Valley, he came to a mountain range at the head of the valley, which he climbed and clambered until he reached the summit. So exhausted from his efforts, he stopped to catch his breath and named the mountain range Remutaka, after the manner in which he came to be seated atop the lofty mountain.
From the early of 19th century, there was considerable movement of Māori into and around the region. Te Upoko-o-te-ika (the Wellington region) has seen various tribes occupying in succession and periods of simultaneous occupation by different tribes. Taranaki tribes have held the harbour and the Hutt Valley region since 1832.
In the early 19th century, the migration of both the Tainui tribes, from Kāwhia and Maungatautari, and the Taranaki tribes to the western part of the region (including Porirua), caused major changes for the Ngāi Tara, Muaupoko, Rangitāne and Ngāti Ira people who had been resident for many generations.
During 1820-21, a huge taua (war party), known as Te Āmiowhenua, was led by chiefs from Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua and included many allies from Kāwhia (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Rārua, and Ngāti Koata) and northern Taranaki (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Mutunga, and Ngāti Tama). Upon reaching Te Upoko-o-te-Ika, the taua lay waste to many of the Muaupoko, Rangitāne, Ngāi Tara and Ngāti Ira people in an area ranging from the west to the east of the region. This taua proceeded as far as Hawkes Bay before returning to their home areas.
That expedition preceded a series of migrations from these attacking northern tribes, as they moved into the region over the next 20 years. This was the pattern of occupation that existed when the New Zealand Company settlers arrived in the Wellington region in 1839.
There were few trails through the heavy forest of the valley. Many Taranaki Whānui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika kāinga (villages) and pā (fortifications) were close to the river, including at Te Hau-kāretu (Māoribank), Whakapapa Pā (across the river from what is now the Te Mārua golf course), Whakataka Pā (where the Mangaroa river joins Te Awa Kairangi), Māwai-hākona (Wallaceville), Whirinaki, Motutawa Pā (Avalon), Te Mako Pā (Te Ngaengae), Maraenuku Pā (Boulcott), Paetūtū Pā and, at the mouth of the river, Hīkoikoi Pā to the west and Waiwhetū Pā (Ōwhiti) to the east. Te Awa Kairangi linked these settlements as well as being a food supply.
Although Ngāti Toa Rangatira did not remain in the area after the initial conquest of the region, Te Awa Kairangi and the surrounding area continued to be important to the iwi, following their permanent migration and settlement in the lower North Island in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Te Awa Kairangi was traditionally a mahinga kai (food-gathering place), particularly for gathering piharau and tuna from its tributaries. The area also supported flax plantations, which were used by early Māori for trading with settlers.
There is now very little evidence of Māori settlement in Upper Hutt, either in terms of Māori land holding, wāhi tapu, sites with physical taonga or identifiable Māori settlements. The local marae, Ōrongomai, is a mātāwaka marae and representative of the many tribal affiliations of all who live in this region. The Ōrongomai Marae Committee is autonomous, in that it is able to make recommendations and offer advice pertaining to matters dealing with Māori in Upper Hutt.