The Mahitahi or Maitai River
The river flowing through Whakatū, or Nelson is commonly known as the Maitai, however this is probably a corruption of its original name of Mahitahi or Maitahi. The name Mahitahi refers to either the abundance of inanga in the river (Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne), or to the people working as one, probably on the Pakohe (Argillite) found in the catchment (Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rarua, Ngāti Tama and Te Ātiawa). J.D Peart in Old Tasman Bay,1 however, states that the correct name is Mahi Tahi or Mahitahi, which refers to a single black pine (Prumnopitys taxifolia) which grew on the banks of the river. This is not currently supported by any Iwi stories.
Iwi of Te Tau Ihu have occupied sites in the catchment for centuries - at Matangi Āwhio (now Auckland Point), Pikimai (Church Hill), Koputirana (Maitai riverbanks between Trafalgar and Collingwood Streets), Poiwhai (Russell Street), and Te Puanwai (Richardson Street).
These kainga sites were used as bases for iwi to access the rich resources of the river, for food, flax and building materials, harvesting these from the estuary, the wetlands and eel ponds and the valley’s lowland forests. The river and its tributaries were also used as routes into neighbouring catchments - Wakapuaka, Waitaraki/Sharlands and Packers Creek, Lud and Teal Valleys.
The River is a vital artery running through Whakatū, and is the focus of the Nelson City Council-led Project Maitai/Mahitahi – which has been coordinating work to clean up and restore the river and its environment. The images on the right indicate how much the river and its valley were modified by early Pakeha settlers to Whakatū.
Each Iwi has its own sacred cultural association with the river and its catchment.2
Ngāti Kuia tradition states that Matua Hautere, a founding tupuna and descendant of Kupe, saw the river when he climbed Maungatapu on his way to find Whakatū. The river was later used to access Te Hoiere (Pelorus River) and Nelson Lakes.
The Mahitahi River was an essential part of the Ngāti Kuia pakohe trading industry and important source of food. The large shoals of upokororo (grayling, or native trout) in the river, remarked upon by James Hector in 1870 were largely destroyed by the introduction of introduced trout. The “Eel Pond” in Queen’s Gardens is the last remaining vestige of once extensive wetlands associated with the river.
Rangitāne o Wairau
Rangitāne, and Te Ātiawa, tell the story of Pohea (the great-great grandson of Turi, commander of the Aotea waka) who in 1450 founded Matangi Āwhio (‘The Whirling Sea Breeze’). This was a permanent village and large pā beside the mouth of the Mahitahi. There were a number of other pā and sites associated with Rangitāne (and the other Kurahaupō iwi - Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne and Ngāti Apa) connected to the river and its environs. Poiwhai, located at the foot of what is today Russell Street, about 500 metres from Matangi Āwhio, was a temporary occupation site for Māori visiting Whakatū to trade. Te Puanwai was located at the foot of what is now known as Richardson Street. It was a kainga, fishing station, and tauranga waka, or canoe landing place. A fishing station and kainga was also located on Manuka (Haulashore) Island, a short distance from the river mouth.
Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rarua, Ngāti Tama ki Te Tau Ihu and Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui
For these iwi, the name Mahitahi, is thought to relate to tūpuna working as ‘one’ with the pakohe to produce tools - maitai means ‘hard’, or ‘excellent’, like the pakohe of the area.
The rich ecosystems of the river and the Maitai Valley provided habitats for many different bird, plant and fish species. All of the iwi made extensive use of these food sources and of the flax and wood, from the valley’s Podocarp forest, for weaving and canoe building. Archaeological finds, in the vicinity of the Maitai Valley, contain a range of stone tools and evidence of their manufacture - fishing gear, drill points, adzes, chisels, hammer stones and ornaments.
Ngāti Toa Rangatira
Ngāti Toa recall that in the 1830s, some of Te Rauparaha’s children were burned on the banks of the river while en-route to Te Tai Tapu (Westhaven); because of this, the land was declared tapu and subsequently uninhabited by Māori at the time of European settlement. Not all sections of the Maitai River were affected by the rahui imposed by Te Rauparaha, and the river was an important source of mahinga kai. Ngāti Toa, like the other iwi, had settlements in the surrounding region at Whakatū, Wakapuaka and Waimea, which utilised the eel resource of the river. As for all iwi, the Maitai River was historically a source of pakohe/ argillite, a highly valuable and useful rock used for toki (adzes) and working tools.
Sources used in this story
- Peart, J.D. (1937) Old Tasman Bay, a story of the early Maori of the Nelson district, and its association with Europeans prior to 1842, supplemented with a list of native place names. Nelson, N.Z., R. Lucas & Son
- Te Tau Ihu Statutory Acknowledgements 2014, Nelson City Council, Tasman District Council, Marlborough District Council:
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Further sources - The Mahitahi or Maitai River
- Jackson, M.A. (2014) Settlement Patterns and Indigenous Agency in Te Tau Ihu, 1770-1860. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology: University of Otago
- Mitchell, H & J: (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough Vol I, The people and the Land. Wellington: Huia Publishers and Nelson: Wakatu Incorporation
- Venner, G. (2001) The Maitai Valley a history of the valley and its people, Nelson, N.Z.: The author
- Maitai Stories. Nelson Virtual Heritage Festival 2020 (How the Maitai River influenced Maurice Gee's writing). YouTube, Retrieved July 2020:
- Maitai Valley memories on Story Map:
- Mahitahi - the story of the River. One of a series of short films created for Te wiki o te reo 2019:
- Project Maitai. Story Map. Retrieved from Nelson City Council:
- Project Maitai. Retrieved from Nelson City Council, August 2021: