An introduction to mahinga kai

As well as being an internationally significant wetland, Te Waihora has outstanding significance for Ngāi Tahu as a tribal taonga, representing a major mahinga kai and an important source of mana. In Ngāi Tahu history, it was Rākaihautū and his son Rokohuia who first landed the Uruao waka on the South Island/Te Waipounamu, many centuries ago.

Rākaihautū travelled down the island beating the land with his kō and leaving the inland lakes. The original name for the lake is Te Kete Ika o Rākaihautū/The Fish Basket of Rākaihautū, in reference to the lake being a considerable tribal resource.

Food production is at the heart of Ngāi Tahu culture and identity. It is the cornerstone of Ngāi Tahu spiritual, social, and economic well-being. It is a symbol of the tribe’s continuing relationship with the traditions and history of place and it ties Ngāi Tahu together as an indigenous people.


Mahinga kai was, and still is, the currency of the Ngāi Tahu people. It’s all about manaaki – about looking after people; so the quality and quantity of food whānau (family) can produce is a reflection of mana (standing).

The ability of Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere to sustain people as a mahinga kai (gathering place), is upheld in the whakataukī (tribal proverb) from Taumutu: Ko ngā hau ki ētahi wāhi, ko ngā kai ki Orariki – No matter which way the wind blows, you will always eat at the pā of Orariki, Taumutu.

Simply put, this proverb states that no matter what the season, you will always be able to find food in the Te Waihora environment.

Te Waihora was the greatest inland fish basket found in Te Waipounamu and is still considered a tribal taonga (treasure), a traditional resource used by the whole Ngāi Tahu whānui. As a mahinga kai, Te Waihora provided fish and shellfish, it was a hunting ground for several bird species and it was (and still is) a gathering place for numerous plant and other natural resources.

The swamps provided raupō and harakeke, and Kaitorete Spit provided fish, pingao and other plants. Various trees were used for building whare (houses) and waka (canoes); and several plant species were used as medicines and food.


Feathers and plant fibres were used for weaving; mud, soils, berries and tree bark were used for dying fibres; and the seeds of some plants were used for their oil.

Materials such as bone, shells and wood were used to produce taonga (treasures), personal ornaments and tools. Of all the resources gathered at Te Waihora, the plentiful fish, especially the tuna (eels) and pātiki (flounder), were the most valued.


Mahinga kai encompasses the social and educational elements of food gathering. It includes the customs practised in accordance with rangatiratanga (leadership), kaitiaki (guardianship) and whakapapa (genealogy). By recognising these traditional customs, mahinga kai ensures the continuation of traditional practices and the passing down of values to children and grandchildren.

Mahinga kai also encompasses the way resources are gathered, the places they are gathered from and the actual resources themselves.

Te Waihora is a mahinga kai of great importance to Ngāi Tahu and participation in food and resource gathering on the lake is as important now as it was for early Māori. A commitment to customary use implies sustainable use and the need to manage, protect and restore species, habitats and ecosystems. Ngāi Tahu now focuses its relationship on the protection and enhancement of threatened species to the point where they can once again be used by Ngāi Tahu whānau.

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