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The legend of Wairaka and the naming of Whakatane

Māori mythology is rich with fascinating tales of brave male ancestors who courageously fought to defend the women and children of their tribes from the clutches of menace and evil.

The Ngāti Awa people of the Eastern Bay of Plenty however, tell an ancestral tale with a difference. It is a tale of a brave teenage girl, who risked her young life to avert a disaster that nearly claimed the lives of every single woman and child of her tribe. The ancestor is Wairaka and this is her story.

In the time of the great Māori migration to Aotearoa (circa 800AD - 1200AD), the Mataatua waka (canoe), under the guidance of the great chief Toroa landed at Kākahoroa (now known as Whakatāne). After berthing the waka on the beach, the men, unaware of what dangers the new found land may hold, disembarked to survey and explore, while the women and children were left in the perceived safety of the waka.

Some time later, with the men far out of sight and deep into the exploration of the new land, the rising tide freed the canoe's mooring and carried the vessel, laden with the women and children, towards the breaking waves of the river mouth.

Women were forbidden to operate the waka in any manner - this was strictly the dominion of men. This ancient lore was tapu (sacred) and out of a deep fear of severe repercussions, this was a rule no woman dared to break. They were helpless; the women's desperate cries for the men to return were drowned out by the booming of the ever approaching waves smashing against the jagged rocks.

It was then that Wairaka, the daughter of the captain Toroa, showing courage well beyond her young years, stood and proclaimed 'Kia whakatāne ake au i ahau' (Let me act as a man) as she bravely took control of the waka and steered it away from the angry sea to once again rest safely on the shore.

The legend of Wairaka has been embraced with immense pride for many years by the people of Whakatāne, especially by her descendants - the Ngāti Awa. A bronze statue of Wairaka today stands high upon Turuturu Roimata, a rock at the entrance of the Whakatāne Harbour and the town's name is in itself, an eternal tribute to the legendary maiden's heroic exploits.

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