Māori & Geothermal

Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand (Aotearoa). Māori who either settled in or traversed through geothermally active areas of New Zealand (Aotearoa) gained a deep connection to geothermal (waiwhatu) resources found in these areas. These geothermal (waiwhatu) resources possessed significant cultural, spiritual and practical value to Māori and were considered a treasure (taonga).

Māori and Geothermal Resources

For centuries, Māori have recognised and utilised naturally sourced geothermal (waiwhatu) energy for various purposes. They consider these areas as sources of healing, sustenance, and power and traditionally use thermal fluid for bathing and treating various ailments.

Additionally, geothermal (waiwhatu) resources played a vital role in traditional Māori cooking practices. Steam vents, hot springs and heated soils were used for cooking, particularly for the preparation of "hangi" meals. A hangi involves cooking food in an earth oven, utilising geothermal (Waiwhatu)steam and heat to impart unique flavors to the food.

Geothermal (waiwhatu) sites and resources also hold cultural and spiritual significance for Māori. They are considered as meeting places between the physical and spiritual worlds, and ancestral stories and legends often connect these areas to the creation and history of Māori people.

Māori actively engage in managing, protecting and even developing geothermal (waiwhatu) resources. They consider themselves as guardians (kaitiaki) of these natural resources, and as result, possess a deep-seated sense of cultural and spiritual duty to ensure they are appropriately protected. Where geothermal (waiwhatu) resources are being used, this kaitiaki duty extends to ensuring such use is done so sustainably and in a culturally sensitive manner. This is to minimise impacts on the life-force (mauri) of the resource while ensuring an appropriate balance is achieved between any benefits derived from the resource and cultural and environmental preservation.

In present times, the traditional kaitiaki role of Māori is facilitated through Aotearoa New Zealand’s resource management legislation where, the relationship of Māori and their culture and traditions associated with such resources, needs to be recognised and provided as a matter of national importance during any related resource management decisions.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between the British Crown and various Māori chiefs, aimed to establish a partnership between the two parties in New Zealand. The treaty guaranteed Māori rights to their lands, resources, and cultural autonomy while also granting them the rights and protections of British subjects.

However, significant issues arose post-signing, notably concerning land confiscation. The British Crown did not fully honor the treaty, leading to breaches of Māori land rights. This resulted in widespread land confiscation, often through questionable means, such as the misuse of the legal system or coercive practices. The loss of land had profound implications for Māori, impacting their socio-economic well-being, cultural identity, and ability to sustain their traditional ways of life – including the ability to use, enjoy and prosper from geothermal resources located within various tribal areas.

Over time, numerous protests, legal cases, and settlements have attempted to address these injustices and work towards reconciliation, seeking to address the historical grievances and disparities resulting from land confiscation.

In spite of progressive Māori land losses over time, some Māori retain ownership of land through the establishment of Te Ture Whenua by way of Ahu Whenua Trusts and Incorporations to address concerns surrounding fragmentation of Māori land and associated difficulties to develop this land. In addition, treaty settlements, including financial compensation, land and asset transfers (including, in some cases, deep geothermal (waiwhatu) wells) and statutory acknowledgements, have been initiated by the New Zealand government to redress the grievances, promote healing, and support Māori development and cultural revitalisation. These initiatives have enabled some Māori who own land with underlying geothermal (waiwhatu) resources to embark on their own geothermal (waiwhatu) development journeys - providing benefits for their beneficiaries and the wider Māori population.

Despite these efforts, the issues related to land confiscation and the Treaty of Waitangi continue to be subjects of ongoing discussion, negotiation, and efforts towards achieving greater justice and equity for Māori.

Māori Geothermal Myths

Geothermal features hold a significant place in Māori myths and legends, playing a unique role in the spiritual and cultural beliefs of the indigenous people of Aotearoa. According to Māori mythology, these geothermal wonders have been created by their ancestors, who used their powerful forces to shape the landscape. These captivating tales and beliefs surrounding the geothermal features continue to be passed down through generations, encompassing the rich cultural heritage of the Māori people.

Whilst these myths and legends have many different versions, unique to each particular iwi, there are a number of common themes throughout. We have highlighted some of these below.


Ngātoroirangi was a high priest (tohunga) who arrived in Aotearoa on the Te Arawa Waka (canoe). During his travels of the central North Island, Ngātoroirangi summoned fire to Mount Tongariro as he lay freezing on its slopes. This document from LEARNZ gives in-depth insight into the context and details of Ngātoroirangi's journey and legend. Further information can be found through Te Ara, and a video depicting the legend can be seen below.


The tribes (hapu) of Ngāpuhi, who see themselves as guardians (kaitiaki) of the Ngāwhā geothermal resource, have various beliefs regarding the waters' healing properties, as well as its connection to the mythical water creature (taniwha), Takauere. These beliefs were included in the 1993 Waitangi Tribunal Resources Report on Ngāwhā, detailed in section 2.2, page 10.

Te Pakanga o te Kāhui Maunga
The Battle of the Mountains

Ngāti Tuwharetoa tell the story of the volcano Tongariro battling with other mountain lords to win the heart of Pīhanga Tīpare Uēnuku. This legend is depicted in the animation below.

Geothermal Statutory Acknowledgement Areas

Treaty Settlement: Geothermal Statutory Acknowledgement Areas

Iwi Consultation

For any proposal affecting geothermal resources in New Zealand, particularly proposals requiring resource consent, it is recommended (as a matter of best practice) to undertake prior consultation with the relevant Iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe), marae or iwi authority. The purpose of this consultation is to introduce the proposal to “mana whenua” (tangata whenua (people of the land) who have the authority to talk on behalf of the land or resources affected), and to hear and consider their feedback and views. Click here to identify which Iwi and / or hapu are mana whenua for any particular area of New Zealand. It should be noted that a single site or area may have more than one hapu with cultural interests. It should also be noted that these maps provide a guide only. To better understand who the appropriate iwi/hapu groups and/or their respective iwi authorities are to consult, it is also advised that you contact the relevant Regional Council for confirmation. The Regional Councils can also provide relevant contact details and other advice to assist with Iwi consultation.

The Waiwhatu Project

The Waiwhatu Project is the work of Geothermal: The Next Generation, sourcing appropriate geothermal terms to be used in Te Reo Māori. This project acknowledges the importance of scientific language whilst also incorporating Mātauranga Māori, resulting in a number of Te Reo words that can be implemented by the geothermal community. The term 'waiwhatu' is a combination of 'wai' (liquid / oil) and 'whatu' (stone / core), and can be translated to 'geothermal fluid'.

In its initial phase, the Waiwhatu project released the following words (kupu) for use in the geothermal community:

  • Māpuna: Reservoir
  • Ngaohū: Enthalpy
  • Kūwhewhewhewhe: puckered, wrinkled [This is a Te Arawa term for wrinkling of the skin after being in water for a long time]
  • Rangitoto: Lava
  • Waiwhatu: Geothermal Fluid
  • Tokarewa: Magma

Read more on the project here


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