The Maori called Milford Sound Piopiotahi, after a now extinct thrust like bird that used to live there. According to myth the legendary Maori hero Maui bought the thrush with him from the fabled homeland of Hawaiki. When he was killed by the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po, in mourning, the bird flew south, to give its name to the famous fiord.
Early Maori began to explore Fiordland from about 800 years ago where they found the precious Pounamu or New Zealand Jade, commonly known as Greenstone.
Pounamu with its beauty, resilience and rarity has always been regarded by Maori and all New Zealanders as a great treasure. The stone is seen as having great spiritual significance and its possession is held in high regard. New Zealand Jade also had huge practical value as a raw material, having steel-like hardness it was greatly prized for making tools, weapons and ornaments. Milford Sound jade is unique in that is a a mineral called Bowenite, the rest of the jade found in New Zealand is Nephrite.
Pounamu from Milford sound is called Tangiwai Greenstone, it is a translucent olive-green which is very dark when held against the skin and shows its hidden depths when held to the light. Tangiwai comes from a Maori legend which reads - "The three wives of Tama-ki-te-Rangi (captain of the Tairea canoe) deserted him, and he searched for them from Cook Strait to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound). The flax-like kiekie, which fringes the fiord for miles, sprang, according to legend, from the shreds of Tama's shoulder-mat, torn off in his forest travels. Here he found one of his wives, but she had turned into greenstone, and as Tama wept over her his tears penetrated the very rock. This is why the nephrite found on the slopes of Mitre Peak, close to Anita Bay, is called tangi-wai (the water of weeping, or tear-water). If you take a clear piece of this stone and hold it up to the light you will sometimes see marks like water-drops in it. This is the true tangi-wai, for these are the tears of Tama-ki-te-Rangi."Even today Pounamu is held is great respect by all New Zealanders, objects made out of the precious stone are considered treasures and often handed down through generations of families.
Maori came to gather the stone from Milford Sound when the seasonal weather was milder. They did not live in the area year round, preferring to head back to the Otago and Southland coastal areas where food was always plentiful and the weather less harsh. The West Coast is New Zealand's only source of Pounamu and the Maori that gathered the stone from Milford Sound traded it with other tribes throughout New Zealand.
The Maori presence today in Milford Sound is less obvious but no less important. The principal South Island Maori tribe is Ngai Tahu, they are largest landowners in the South Island of New Zealand and have substantial investments in New Zealand's tourism industry. In 1997 the New Zealand government handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring Pounamu to Ngai Tahu.