Ō-pā-waho means Outpost pā. It refers to a pā sited just downstream of the present Opawa Road Bridge at what is now the intersection of Judges St and Vincent Place. The Ōpāwaho pā was used by Ngāi Tahu, who used the Ōpāwaho River to travel between Tuahiwi, Kaiapoi and Te Pātaka o Rakaihautu (Banks Peninsula).
The wetlands draining the Ōpāwaho Heathcote River were called Te Kuru and the upper reaches of the river at Spreydon was called Wai Mokihi after a smaller pā located there called Ō Mokihi, which means meeting place of the raupo rafts. Waitaha people would have known the Ōpāwaho river area first, and then came Kati Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu.
Water plays a unique role in the traditional economy and culture of Ngāi Tahu. The most direct physical relationship that Ngāi Tahu have with water involves the protection, harvesting, and management of mahinga kai. The term mahinga kai refers to natural resources and the area in which they are found. It includes the way resources are gathered, the places they are gathered from, and the resources themselves. It includes fish such as tuna and inaka, materials such as harakeke, and paru, which are used for dyes.
Near Wigram the Ōpāwaho River is close to the headwaters of the Halswell River. Ngāi Tahu travellers used to drag their waka across this gap, thus being able to travel by water from Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) to Otautahi (Christchurch). The Ōpāwaho River was an important mahinga kai, a source of plentiful food, especially tuere (blind eel) and kanakana (lamprey). The swamp forest around the river provided gathering grounds for water fowl and forest birds. Traps were regularly set for inanga (whitebait), pātiki (flounder) and tuna (eels).
In the 1800s Ngāi Tahu made unsuccessful attempts to have some sites in the Christchurch area made into mahinga kai reserves (see Kemp's Deed). They were effectively excluded from exercising their kaitiaki responsibilities in the development of the City and the management of the Ihutai catchment.
Longfin and shortfin eels, bullies, kanakana, inanga, kowaro (Canterbury mudfish), kākahi (freshwater mussels), kōura (freshwater crayfish), and pātiki flourished in Christchurch waterways prior to extensive modification by urban development. These were important food sources for Māori, but are still found in certain parts of the river in smaller numbers.