Wakatu or Whakatu?


Many Māori names of localities and landscape features are no longer known, and where they have been preserved, the reason for the name may have disappeared in the mists of time. In some cases, both the name and its origins have been preserved; names often commemorate an event or a person, or describe special resources. In rare cases there may be a plethora of traditions to account for the origins of a particular place name, and its alternative spellings; Wakatū a.k.a. Whakatū (Nelson) is one such place.

Nelson Haven [1841]Nelson Haven [1841] by Charles Heaphy Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission must be sought from ATL for further use of this image.
Click image to enlarge

Four traditions, and a fifth possibility stemming from dialectic differences, offer some insights into the alternative spellings – Wakatū or Whakatū.


  • Among the traditions of the thirteenth century migrations from Hawaiki is the journey of the chief Potoru, captain of the waka, Te Ririno. Potoru was the cousin of Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe. Together they travelled together across Te Moananui a Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean) as far south as Rangitāhua, at the Kermadec Islands. On the final leg south to Aotearoa, Potoru and Turi disagreed about the correct interpretation of Kupe’s sailing directions. Turi continued on to safe landfall in southern Taranaki, while Potoru heading further south, was caught in a fierce storm and blown into eastern Tasman Bay. There the canoe was wrecked (thrown up – waka tu) on the Boulder Bank, with the loss of all hands.

  • A legend (possibly no more than a myth, which unfortunately lacks details of dates and iwi affiliation), also features the Boulder Bank of Nelson Haven, where a chief, Te Maia, was interred. As appropriate for a chief of high mana, his grave was marked by the erection of his waka; i.e. his waka was stood up (tu) to mark his final resting place.


    Arthur Range from Wakatū. [Gilbert, George Channing] Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission must be sought from ATL for further use of this image


  • One tradition, again short on details of participants, dates, and iwi affiliations, states that the longstanding residents of the district advised a group of newly arrived people to take up residence, and to build (whakatū) their homes near the nests (kohanga) of the seabirds (matangi āwhio) – “Whakatu to kainga ki te kohanga o te matangi āwhio”.

  • A sixteenth century tradition tells of a young warrior, Hikutawatawa (renamed Tūāhuriri as the stories unfold), visiting from Hataitai to seek out his stepfather, Tumaro, and grandfather, Kahukura, at the Ngāi Tara pā at Waimea (the site adjoins present-day Appleby School). After a series of dramatic and threatening exchanges, Tuahuriri eventually departs, leaving the inhabitants of Waimea Pā near death from starvation. Within days many of the inhabitants succumb, and some believe their deaths were due to leprosy, known, among other names, as whakatuwhenua.

A fifth theory attributes the different spelling to dialect. For locals of Taranaki tribal origins (Ngāti Tama, Te Ātiawa) the word is likely to be pronounced “w” as in “water”; for those of Tainui affiliations, pronunciation is closer to “wh” as in “where”, sometimes hardened to a sound like “f”.

Wakatū Incorporation chooses one spelling and/or tradition, while Whakatū Marae adopts another.


Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Mitchell, H & J (2004-) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough: Wellington, N.Z.: Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatu Incorporation.

    Re Potoru: see Vol I, pp61-62
    Re Hikutawatawa/Tuahuriri: see Vol I, pp74-76.
    Re dialects: see Vol II, p207-208.

Want to find out more about the Wakatu or Whakatu? ? View Further Sources here.

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  • I was a member of the Wakatu Cricket Club for a decade during the 1970's. While retracing out name and history since 1921, we came across the history that suggested Wakatu meant 'safe harbour'. We then used a stylised Māori canoe prow as the Club emblem and logo. In recent years the club has dropped the prow emblem in the belief there is little evidence of the link. We have a 100 yr anniversary next year and we are keen to clarify the position. Can anyone assist? Thank you.

    Posted by Stuart Abbott, 18/06/2020 8:09pm (3 years ago)

  • As far as I know whakatu marae has always been ‘Whakatu’, although the corporation is different.
    It has always been a dialect thing. "Wakatū"
    Whakatū is the Māori name by which the Nelson region is commonly known. Using the word Wakatū instead was a decision made by our kaumātua (elders) in order to be inclusive of our tribal diversity.
    Our kaumātua interpret the word "Wakatū" to mean the standing up (tū) of the canoe (waka) of Potoru who was a revered tupuna.
    Whakatū, the word, is also used in an old lament were it translates to mean standing:
    Mā te 'Paraha e whakatū, mai te toiere – e
    With Te Rauparaha standing in the bow
    Sung by Kauhoe upon hearing of the death of her husband.

    Posted by cindy batt, 16/02/2016 4:42pm (7 years ago)

  • It seems odd that for many years the name for Nelson was always "wakatu" and yet only more recently "whakatu" has become the predominant version. Who has promoted the new version and why does it have ascendency over the older tradition?

    Posted by Bruce Reid, 14/02/2016 9:33am (7 years ago)

  • So important to use correct names. Especially during Maori Language Week.

    Posted by Nicola, 21/07/2014 4:46pm (9 years ago)

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Further sources - Wakatu or Whakatu?




Unpublished sources

  • Bell, F.D (1849) Draft Report of the Nelson Settlement, p.51  MS papers 0337 [Alexander Turnbull Library]