According to legend, Kupe is the mythical navigator who sailed from Hawaiki to a new and undiscovered island, thus establishing the Maori people in New Zealand. But this is merely a myth, and the story of the Kupe myth and how it came to occupy a prominence in the culture of New Zealand is an interesting study in its own right.
Some ethnographers refer to an “orthodox” Kupe myth, generally attributed to Stephenson Percy Smith (who in turn credits various Maori sources, and who refers to himself as the “translator.”) In this myth, Kupe was a great chief in Hawaiki. One day, bait began disappearing off the fishhooks of his fishermen. Kupe consulted the priests, who blessed the fishing gear, and Kupe and his people set off to sea again in their canoe. Now when the lines were cast into the sea, many octopi could be seen swarming the lines and taking the bait. The biggest of these octopi was a pet which belonged to the rival chief, Muturangi.
Kupe wanted to kill Muturangi, but he and his fishermen set to sea instead, to chase and kill Muturangi's octopus. They pursued it across the ocean all the way to a new island—a green, undiscovered land, which Kupe's wife Kuramarotini named Aotearoa (meaning “the Land of the Long White Cloud,”). Kupe stepped ashore in the North Island of Aotearoa, where his footprints can still be seen to this day. There are numerous other stories within this Kupe myth, as he and his followers explored the coastline, established camps (which would become settlements), and engaged in many legendary feats. Kupe place names abound, and his connection is strongest with the North Island in the area around the Cook Strait and Wairarapa.
But recent scholarship casts question about this orthodox Kupe myth. It does not accord with a significant portion of Maori traditional storytelling, particularly the whaikorero and whakapapa of many groups. Elements of the orthodox Kupe myth are part of the oral traditions in communities such as the Northland, Wairarapa and even the South Island, but even these diverge or contain additional stories not integrated into the orthodox Kupe myth. The current assessment of the Kupe myth as most commonly known is that it is at best highly syncretized by Smith, and re-incorporated by Maori communities, where it was subsequently regarded as “authenticating” Smith's work.
Kupe, nonetheless, exerts a presence in New Zealand today. In some sense he stands for the precedence of the Maori in settling the islands. An Art Deco statue of him stands on the Wellington Waterfront, and children study Kupe stories in the schools. To ask whether Kupe really did all the things to which he is credited, or to ask for the limits of his historicity seems to miss a broader picture—a picture of how oral tradition play into the Maori's view of their own history, and how this has been interpreted or misinterpreted by the Pakeha who came after them.