Maori and Milford Sound

Milford Sound, a special place for Maori

The Maori called Milford Sound Piopiotahi, after a now extinct thrust like bird that used to live there. According to Maori myth the legendary Maori hero bought the thrush with him from the fabled homeland of the Maori, Hawaiki. When Maui was killed by the goddess of death, Hinenuitepo, the bird flew south in mourning to give its name to the famous fiord.

iEarly Maori began to explore Fiordland from about 800 years ago where they found the precious Pounamu or New Zealand Jade, commonly known as Greenstone.

Pounamu with its beauty, resilience and rarity has always been regarded by Maori and all New Zealanders as a great treasure. To Maori the stone has great spiritual significance and its possession is held in high regard. New Zealand Jade have also huge practical value as a raw material, it is as hard as steel and was greatly prized for making tools, weapons and ornaments. During World War II when Nazi Germany was running out of hard steel they even used New Zealand Jade they had collected before the war, to make propellor shaft bearings for their U Boats. The West Coast is New Zealand’s only source of Pounamu and the Maori that gathered the stone from Milford Sound traded it with other tribes throughout the country.

The semi precious stone is found from Milford Sound, north to Greymouth, the stone from particular areas often features different colours, translucency, grain and pattern. Even today Pounamu is held is great respect by all New Zealanders, objects made out of the precious stone are considered treasures and often handed down through generations of families.

The Maori came to gather the stone from Milford Sound when the seasonal weather was milder. They did not live in the area year round, preferring to head back to the Otago and Southland coastal areas where there food was plentiful and the weather less harsh. However there is a great story about a lost tribe in the Fiordland area. We have included an account of this story published in the West Coast Times on the 23rd of February 1869. The story of the tribe was passed on by Dr Haast to Dr Hochstetter, and was published by him in his book on New Zealand:-

The Legend of the ‘Lost Tribe’

“The most ancient tribe that inhabited the South Island is said to have been the Waitaha. This tribe was exterminated by the Ngatimamoes, who had come over from Wanganui, North Island. The Ngatimamoes lived on the shores of Cook’s Strait, and subsisted principally on the gigantic moas. They were subsequently joined by the Ngatitaras, who likewise came from the North Island; and when their friend, the Ngatikuris, heard of the charming beauty of the new country, and of the excellent eel fishery there, they also emigrated from the North Island to the South Island.
New hostilities arose The Ngatikuris joined their kindred tribe, the Ngatimamoes. The latter, in the course of long and bloody wars, were driven more and more to the south, and from the coast, into the interior of the island, to take up their abode among the inhospitable Southern Alps. About a century ago – thus related Taitai, a chief from the West Coast of the South Island, who died in 1861 – the Ngatimamoes were driven back as far as Jackson’s Bay (lat. 44 deg.), whilst their villages at the mouth of the Mawhera (now Grey River) fell into the hands of the Ngatitahus.

At the time the Ngatimamoes were led by a famous warrior, who on account of his speed and agility was called Uira, ‘the lightning.’ They were in possession of a precious ‘mere pounamu’ (battle-axe of nephrite} named by them Taonga or Tongo, which they regarded as the last symbol of their tribe, and which they held in high esteem, like the banner round which a regiment rallies amid the din of battle. The Ngatitahus had endeavoured for a long time, but without success, to get possession of Te Uira and his precious mere; at last they accomplished this by a stratagem, and conveyed their captive to their Pa (village) on the Arahura River. Here he was tied to a tree, and was destined to be tortured to death. But in order to share the pleasure of seeing Te Uira die with their friends from Mawhera Pa, the execution was postponed till after their arrival. Meanwhile Te Uira managed to escape. Possessed of great strength of body, he burst his bonds and fled from pursuers into the depth of the bush. He was thus again free, but before returning to his kindred and friends, he determined to try whether he could not recover also the mere ‘pounamu;’ for he was ashamed to return home without the jewel of his tribe. At nightfall he stole up to the enemy’s pa, and watched for an opportunity to accomplish his design. This soon presented itself. One of the Maoris left the watch-fire to refresh himself by walking to and fro in the cool night air. Swift as a tiger, Te Uira bounded upon him, strangled him, and after having doned the cloak of his victim to disguise himself, he calmly walked up to the fire and sat down among his enemies. They were just entertaining themselves with the wonderful mere, handing it around and expressing their unfeigned admiration for the same, when Te Uira, who knew that the man he had just killed, and whose cloak now served him as a disguise, stuttered, imitating the organic defect, asked for the mere. No sooner did he feel the wonted weapon in his hand than he dealt a blow to the left and another to the right striking down the two men between whom he sat; and with one bound he was out of the their midst and speeding towards the woods, without his enemies being able to overtake him. When they saw that Te Uira had escaped from them, they endeavored to cut off at least his retreat to his pa, and to this end proceeded forthwith along the coast to Jackson’s Bay. They found the pa well fortified, and were not able to take it. but on the second day they saw a fire burning on the top of a steep rock to the rear of the pa. This was the signal of the Ngaitmamoes to retreat into the interior of the country to a place previously fixed on. At dead of night and with the least possible noise, they left the beleaguered pa and retired into the wilderness, taking with them the only token of their former greatness, their ‘mere pounamu.’

Since that time they have never been heard of; but there is rumour current, that in the interior of the Province of Otago, in the wild unexplored mountainous regions, are living the last of the Ngatimamoes. The Maori of the coast represent them as savages, and both natives and European settlers pretend lo have seen such wild Maori, who are said to be extremely timid.

What is known is that Ngaitahu tribesmen from the north pursued remnants of the major southern Maori tribe Ngatimamoe. The tribe fled into remote parts of the Fiordland in the late 18th century. Around 1780 two battles are said to have been fought in the far southwest at Preservation Inlet which the Maori called Rakituma, ’the threatening sky’. About 5 years later legend has it that Pukutahi led another group of fleeing Ngatimamoe intending to take refuge and settle in the Murchison Mountains (where the rare Takahe bird would be rediscovered) between the south and middle fiords of Lake Te Anau. Te Hau, a Ngaitahu warrior, led a party which caught and slew some of the escapers in a fracas thought to have taken place across the lake from the hotel at Te Anau.

The survivors disappeared and entered lore as the poignant holders of the names ’lost tribe’ or ’wild natives’ of Fiordland. In 1851 Captain Stokes of the survey ship Acheron recorded that he and his crew ’came on the fresh foot-marks of some natives’ in Bligh Sound, most likely members of the ’lost tribe’ that Paddy Gilroy, skipper of the Amazon, had seen there in 1842. And Captain Cook had earlier made contact with Maori when he put the Resolution in to Dusky Sound for repairs and to rest his crew from March to May of 1773. The story of this ‘Lost Tribe’ was taken seriously by the New Zealand authorities and as late as the 1860’s released a warning to those looking to explore around Otago and the West Coast for gold. About a potentially dangerous group of Maori who were known to be hiding away in the Otago Westland area.

The wild and somewhat unexplored nature of the Fiordland environment continues to lend itself to popular folklore like the story of the Lost Tribe. We have in recent years seen international film crews looking for surviving examples of the giant Moa bird and for some there is an ongoing hunt for descendents of Moose that were released in the area early last century,.

The Maori presence today in Milford Sound is less obvious but no less important. The principal South Island Maori tribe is Ngai Tahu, they are largest landowners in the South Island of New Zealand and have substantial investments in New Zealand’s tourism industry. In 1997 the New Zealand government handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring Pounamu to Ngai Tahu. Wearing Pounamu has become part of New Zealand culture, New Zealanders the world over can often be identified by their carved Pounamu pendants.

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