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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.




Political and Cultural Relations

A most significant factor is the changed demographic position of the Maori. Traditionally spread over most of New Zealand (their numbers not closely known, but perhaps around 200,000), their economic and political relations of cooperation and competition were with one another. Nowadays they are a minority – but despite their rapid growth they still comprise only about 7 per cent of the New Zealand population – and they live in discontinuous areas. Economically their basis of life has radically changed from a simple subsistence type of agriculture, with fishing and collecting as subsidiary employments, to modern farming and industrial and urban employment.

Political Unity

How far then do the modern Maoris constitute a community? Politically they do so only at the level of parliamentary government, the four Maori electorates allocated on a geographical basis providing representatives of the people who, together with other New Zealand representatives, constitute the democratic government of the country. Among themselves the Maori people do not constitute a single political unit. The Maori “King”, sometimes thought by people elsewhere to be the political leader of all the Maori society, does in fact – though his prestige is great throughout the entire country – exercise direct influence or authority only over one major sector of the Maori people. Today King Koroki, fifth bearer of the title, is the head of the group of Waikato and allied tribes, including Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Haua, Ngati Paoa, Ngati Maru, and Ngai-te-Rangi, broadly grouped as the descendants of the Tainui canoe. Historically the reasons for this are well known.

The strength of regional ties for the Maori and the values attached to them are illustrated by cases of cooperative action. In the early years of the present century Hone Heke , M.P., a noted chief and statesmanlike leader, who had represented the Maori people of the north in Parliament, died in the south of the country. The southern Maori leaders, as was appropriate, brought his body back to his home for burial, a gesture very much appreciated by the northern people. Led by the mother of Hone Heke, the northern people described his seat in Parliament, in graphic Maori language, as his “widow”, and decided to reciprocate the southern gesture by asking for a southern nominee to fill the seat. Dr Peter H. Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), afterwards a noted anthropologist, was thus put forward as a candidate for Parliament and won his election uncontested and without making a single speech; he had “married” the northern Maori “widow”, and automatically was given all the votes. Different regional units also combined in a gesture of Maori solidarity at the funeral of “Princess” Te Puea Herangi, a close kinswoman of the Maori King and the most prominent Maori woman leader in New Zealand. Her pall-bearers were men each representing a different ancestral canoe, and this ceremonial funeral service was thus shared by Maoris from all over the country, not as individuals but as delegates from major political divisions of the Maori people. So the traditional symbolic divisions into “canoes”, though of significance only in Maori society, and of no official relevance in the overall New Zealand political system, still constitute modern allegiances which may be quite significant in action.

Cultural Unity

But if the Maori people have not political unity, they do have much cultural unity. It is true that a very few people who are entitled to call themselves Maori by descent may have cut themselves off completely from the main body and become completely merged with other New Zealanders. It is true also that many Maoris, especially young people, know little of their own vernacular language. But for the great majority Maoritanga – the Maori way of doing things – is still highly significant in social and especially ceremonial affairs. If a distinguished guest is welcomed at a public meeting of general importance, his arrival is quite likely to be challenged in conventional Maori style with a defiant speech and a thrown stick. It is for the guest formally to indicate his peaceful intentions by picking up the stick and declaring his mission. A death is marked by the elaborate ceremonies of the tangi, in which formal wailing, speeches of farewell in the vernacular, and the watch over the dead are accompanied by funeral feasts of large proportion. The feast (hui) marks many events of public significance in a Maori community, including the opening of a new church or meeting house. Special types of food, cooked in the Polynesian type of covered earth oven heated by stones, are often then characteristic. The ceremonial sharing in the consumption of food helps to ratify socially important undertakings and relationships. A particular Maori gesture of friendliness (common also to other Polynesian peoples) is the hongi, the ceremonial pressing of noses, by which people of either sex or any age greet one another, in private or in public. Public expressions of aroha (sympathy) give a special quality to many relationships between Maori people, especially relations between kin. It is this conception which, perhaps as much as any other, is responsible for the adherence of young people to Maori community life. They believe that in many respects they have in their Maori relationships a warmth, a generosity, and a tolerance which they feel is sometimes apt to be lacking in the world outside. Structurally such concepts and relations are of great significance, especially in the relatively dispersed conditions of modern Maori living.

Modern Group Structure

Some modern Maori people dwell in nucleated settlements; but many live on individual farms, often interspersed among those of other New Zealanders, and many others, engaged in industrial employment, live in or near towns, sometimes with no marked local concentration. For a great number of those who live scattered in rural areas or in or near urban centres the marae of the home locality is still a powerful social magnet. Tribal names and tribal affiliations are still very important. The canoe link still has significance as a symbolic force of unity. The canoe name is cited to show relationship between people, or a model of the canoe, built in accord with traditional description, is prepared for presentation on a public occasion.

Importance of the Marae

One of the most striking features in modern Maori society is the importance attached to the marae and its meeting house as places of assembly and symbols of local unity and pride. It is thought by Maori leaders that every Maori community should have its marae or some form of “civic centre”. So even when, as has happened in some cases, Maori people have practically severed their ties with their tribal home, they have tended to recreate a community structure in their new home, using either a marae or hall of assembly, or both, as their focus. Members of several tribes may combine in modern conditions to institute such facilities. As far back as 1929 a group of Maori people in Wellington formed an organisation for welfare and relief work, contributing money and services each week to be used to assist other Maori people who were suffering from the economic depression. These people, of diverse tribal origins, called themselves the Ngati Poneke Club, thus setting up a new group name on the model of the old collective tribal name. (Poneke was the early Maori pronunciation of Port Nicholson, the name for Wellington Harbour.) It seemed to the Maori appropriate that a term equivalent to “the children of Port Nicholson” should designate their unity in a manner parallel to the designation of traditional Maori tribal units. Later developments along similar lines have led to the formation of the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club which, by dances, concert parties, and the teaching of action songs, has done much to develop knowledge of Maori culture locally among the young people. Again, far to the south in the town of Bluff, also in difficult circumstances, a small Maori community descended from Ngai Tahu, Ngati Mamoe, and Waitaha tribes, combined to institute an assembly hall with a courtyard to serve as a centre for the practice of Maori songs and the entertainment of visitors.

In the modern Maori scene the traditional principles of group structure have been considerably modified, and new forms of grouping have come into social prominence. The individual or elementary family has gained in significance against the extended family or the hapu. For the most part now Maori families live in separate dwellings, each housing a married pair with their children and perhaps some attached kin. This group may function as a single consumption unit, but in most economic contexts it is the elementary family with the husband and father as wage earner which is most significant.

At the wider social level a kin group which is not precisely the extended family of traditional Maori society, but a group of composite kin character, with a marked absence of unilineality, is often the operative unit. Overall, hapu structure in general is still preserved, though some young people nowadays are even uncertain of the name of the hapu to which they belong. (Nearly all Maoris, however, are clear about their major tribal affiliation.) In the major urban areas alignment by hapu is almost if not completely absent, though many ties may still be kept up with kin living in a rural area, where the traditional principles are more observable. In most rural areas there is still an association between a marae (with attached hall of assembly) and one or more local hapu who have had traditional land interests in the vicinity. But in many cases land interests have become attenuated. Traditional principles of segmentation may still operate as, for example, when two or more marae may be constructed in one settlement, each representing the interest, pride, and power-seeking of different sections of the community. Each of these sections may, in fact, constitute a hapu, but each may comprise, too, members of other groups attached by marriage or by wider kin ties. In many rural settlements Maori people from other groups have come in to settle in search of employment, and control of the marae and of local Maori affairs generally may be exercised in practice by leaders not all of whom may be of local origin.

Special Organisations

One of the most important categories of modern Maori grouping for a wide variety of administrative and social purposes is the Komiti (an anglicised form of Committee). These organisations, very often having women as well as men members, allow of debate and airing of opinion which Maori democratic procedures find desirable before coming to a conclusion on public affairs. A Komiti is not always the swiftest and most efficient mechanism for arriving at decisions and getting them implemented, but although often slow moving, it suits Maori ways.

Despite the loss of precision in many aspects of traditional Maori social structure, there is still considerable interest in many quarters in genealogy and aspects of Maori history. To a significant degree this would seem to be a reaction to the threatened loss of Maori community values in the face of the various forces of modernisation impacting upon the people. This interest in genealogical and historical material has found expression in various forms of organisation of an essentially modern type. These range from small family committees entrusted with the preparation or care of genealogy books to a large and diffuse Maori association bearing a localised title with a president, secretary, and other officers. Some of these associations have public proceedings in which they set out some of the results of their investigations. Particularly of note in this field was the organisation set up to celebrate what was taken to be the six hundredth anniversary of the landing of the ancestral canoes. Following upon various specific celebrations on different canoe territories, the culmination of the series was held at the request of Princess Te Puea at Turangawaewae Pa, Ngaruawahia, in October 1950. For this, the Tainui celebration, a commemorative brochure (edited by the late Dr M. Winiata) was produced, with articles concerning the traditional canoe voyages and landfall in New Zealand, and the specific story of Tainui with appropriate genealogies. But, in accordance with the pattern set by the late Sir A. T. Ngata for these gatherings, the statement by Maori authorities of the oral traditions of the canoe was associated with an elaborate display of Maori dances and ceremonies, with some practical achievement in the form of concrete discussion on matters affecting Maori economic and social welfare. In this way there is still modern recognition of the canoe celebrations as symbols of Maori initiative and adaptability.