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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




An understanding of modern Maori social structure requires some knowledge of Maori traditional society. Not only have many of the traditional forms been directly responsible for the manner in which the modern Maori have developed, but also they have served as a conceptual image, providing an ideal frame within which Maori action is thought to take place most appropriately.

Traditional Maori social structure may be described most simply as a tribal one. The Maori tribe (iwi) was essentially a large territorially-based social unit, the members of which claimed descent from at least one common ancestor many generations ago. In some cases the tribe was named from such an ancestor; e.g., Ngati Tuwharetoa of the Taupo region claimed descent from Tuwharetoa; and Ngati Maniapoto of Waikato from Maniapoto, each about 15 generations from the present day. At the time that Europeans first began to visit New Zealand, each tribe probably comprised on the average a population of at least several thousands.

The Tribe

The tribe was the largest political unit of which the members regarded themselves as sharing common descent. An image of a wider political unity, however, was provided by the concept of the traditional canoe (waka) in which the major ancestors of a set of Maori tribes are believed to have come to New Zealand. (The country was inhabited by earlier peoples, also apparently of similar type, with whom the later immigrants intermarried and fought, but relatively little traditional data have been preserved about them.) According to tradition, some of these canoes came at various times, but a major contribution to the settlement of the country was made by the arrival of the “great fleet”, estimated on genealogical grounds to have come about 600 years ago. The vessels generally associated with this tradition were: Te Arawa, Takitimu, Tainui, Aotea, Mataatua, Toko-maru, Horouta, Kurahaupo, Nga Tokimatawhaorua. Tribes whose major ancestors were captains or crew of the same canoe regarded themselves as being in a general sense linked by this common origin. Such linkage did not constitute a federation for any regular specific political ends. It was rather a symbolic unity which sometimes became manifest in military alliances, but more often was called upon on social occasions to indicate ties between people of rank. But though the symbolic unity might not often be politically effective, it was cherished, and in some cases symbols of the original canoe, such as an anchor stone – miraculously preserved – were regarded with great respect.

The Sub-tribe

For most political purposes in traditional Maori society, the effective unit was what has commonly been termed the sub-tribe (hapu). This was a unit with strong local ties and very definite territorial boundaries and membership was demarcated by a combination of descent and residence. More precisely, the hapu may be described as a localised descent group. A person, in theory at least, could trace membership through either father or mother. When these belonged to separate hapu, he might claim to be a member of both and exercise rights, including land rights, in each. But the implementation of such claims was determined primarily by residence. The child of a non-resident member of a hapu effectively ceased to be able to exercise any claim therein. In anthropological terms a hapu was a non-unilineal descent group of ambilateral constitution, and such a group has sometimes been called a ramage. Hapu were formed by segmentary process. The descendants of, say, a younger son, after several generations, might separate off from the descendants of an older son, take a separate name and regard themselves for ordinary social and political purposes as a separate unit. The functions of the hapu were the control of a specific territory and defence of that territory, if necessary by war, against any other group. Feuding not infrequently occurred between hapu, even of the same tribe. Since the hapu was not necessarily an exogamous unit, i.e., a man could marry a woman either from his own or from another group, there was a tendency for the hapu to be fairly inbred and self-sufficient or to maintain an especially close relationship with another hapu territorially adjacent.

The lands of the hapu were divided up into sections, each administered by smaller social units (whanau) which may be termed extended family units. Each of these would probably comprise a grandfather, his wife, his unmarried offspring, his married sons and their wives and children; or a group of brothers with their wives, sons, sons' wives and offspring. To such a group a married daughter, her husband and children might also belong. Such a unit operated as a day-to-day economic group, cultivating its own land, fowling, fishing, and collecting raw material from within its own borders. It might also serve as the normal consumption unit, having one or more common ovens for the preparation of food. In marriage and at funerals, the whanau also operated as a primary unit.

The Family

Within the whanau the elementary family of parents and children was not very clearly defined as a structural unit. But there is good evidence that for many social purposes in everyday life, including much of the care of children, the elementary family was an operational group. Moreover, the fact that a person could inherit land rights from his mother as well as from his father meant a specification of ties in individual family terms and not a merging of them indiscriminately in the extended family. However, in residence, land rights, exchange of goods, and many other social and economic actions, the elementary family of parents and children did not stand out as a separate entity in the way characteristic of European family life. Traditional Maori society emphasised the rights and obligations of persons as members of village, whanau and hapu rather than as discrete individuals. Moreover, individuals were used at times in order to further group interests. Marriages were sometimes contracted on behalf of young people by their elders for political reasons. Again, adoption, a fairly common custom in traditional Maori society, often took place in order to revive or bind more closely kin ties among people who lived at a distance, sometimes with the object of renewing rights to land or maintaining connections for aid in war.

Settlements and Society

Residentially, the Maori people in former times lived in nucleated settlements varying in size from a hamlet of a few households in a remote and rugged mountain area to a village in a fertile plain of several hundred dwellings and a population of a thousand people or more. Apart from ordinary dwellings, which usually accommodated households larger than an elementary family, each settlement of any size had one or more buildings of superior style, large (perhaps 50 ft or more in length) and with carved bargeboards, lintels, and interior slabs. Such a large building was the public meeting house or hall of assembly of the village people. The carved timbers might serve to commemorate well-known ancestors and be named after them as memorial slabs. Standing at one side of the village central square (marae), the meeting house, like the square itself, served as the focus of community life, the place of reception for distinguished visitors and the scene of the most significant community ceremonies, including funerals.

Traditional Maori society was not highly stratified. Theoretically there were three social strata, gentry (rangatira), commoners (tauwareware), and slaves (taurekareka). But the segmentary structure of Maori descent groups meant that in general those persons who could be described as commoners in most social contexts were in fact the junior kin of those described as gentry. On the other hand, from the general body of gentry could be distinguished the leading chiefs (ariki), senior by descent from the original ancestors of the tribe. Slaves, commonly captives taken in war or their immediate descendants, had no personal rights, though in practice they appear to have been treated reasonably well, and intermarriage between them and free people of low rank was quite common, the resulting offspring being free. Among the free members of a community social relations were without very much formality. Those of lower rank, for example, addressed those of higher rank by their personal names, and only in the case of ariki was there a marked differentiation observed. At the same time, the rules of personal taboo applying to people of high rank tended to inhibit their complete freedom of behaviour.

Leadership in traditional Maori society rested largely upon age and seniority. Elders (kaumatua) were respected and their advice commonly heeded. But more specific leadership was provided by people of senior descent from the primary ancestors. At the apex of the pyramid of leadership in a tribe was the ariki, ideally the first-born descendant of a line of first-born sons, and in practice the man of senior descent, normally in the male line. Since the Maori system of descent and succession was not formally unilineal, a person of high rank could trace his title through females as well as males. But an unbroken descent in the male line was preferred, if possible; and this was termed the aho ariki (chiefly cord) or tahuhu (ridge pole). The senior man by descent in a tribe always retained his mana ariki, his prestige as a lineal chief, and certain associated powers, including some of a ritual nature. In practice, however, not all ariki were of high competence, and ability and force of character could give other men an achieved status, especially in war, which was frequent. But while such men might have great mana, the authority and power deriving from success in practical affairs, they never could be ariki, or have ritual status. A term for a leader of low birth; whose status was derived from his personal qualities, was rangatira paraparau, meaning fairly literally a “pseudo-aristocrat”. Women who had senior positions by descent held high status, and some of forceful character exercised authority parallel to that of men. But the system was unequal in that by convention in most tribes a woman could not stand up and address a gathering publicly at a village marae, as her brother or her husband could.

This sketch of traditional Maori society shows part of the background against which modern Maori society operates. The structure of this modern society is more complex and less clearly marked.