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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.




The Chiefs

The structure of leadership in the modern Maori community is very different from that which obtained in the traditional society. A reason for this has been the fact that, unlike the situation in many other territories over which Britain assumed sovereignty in the early years of the nineteenth century, the chiefs of the Maori were never formally integrated into the emerging administrative system. It was clearly recognised that the chiefs, especially the most noted ariki, had great authority, and in land transactions and political discussions great attention was paid to their opinions and to their power. But they were not brought formally into the structure of government – for example, there was no system of indirect rule through them as in some other parts of the British Empire. Hence they were left to find their own level in the new economic and political society which emerged. This absolved them from the danger of being regarded as spokesmen and tools of government at a time when newer leaders more representative of the people's opinion were arising in tacit or open opposition to them. The result was that the traditional chiefs have never been alienated from their own people, and a wide diversification of Maori leadership has occurred without much strain.

The Maori “King”

In some cases, notably that of the selection and support of the Maori King by the Tainui tribes, a chief of high rank in the traditional society has been selected as a modern leader. Even here, however, the first Maori King had rivals at least equal in rank; e.g., Te Heuheu of Ngati Tuwharetoa, and the King movement have tended to use the King as a symbol at a political and mystical level rather than as a practical leader in major economic and political affairs. The Maori King is an office and title unknown to the traditional society. But created on a European model a century ago in a situation of political strain, due in large measure to growing European pressure upon Maori land, the kingship in the person of Potatau Te Wherowhero and then of his son Tawhiao did serve to unite a large body of the Maori people at a critical time. Though its influence was considerable, its authority was never accepted by other major sectors. In the latter years of the nineteenth century attempts were made by some Maori leaders to secure the unification of all Maori tribes – the Kotahitanga movement – but the attempt failed owing in part to the refusal of some tribes to accept the leadership of a Waikato king. In recent years, however, as the memories of war and injustice have died down, and as the place of the Maori in modern New Zealand life is coming more closely under scrutiny, the role of the Maori King has assumed more social importance. His jurisdiction is not administrative. There are no organs of government in which he plays a major part, except those in his immediate neighbourhood. But the existence of the kingship and the person of the King are highly significant, as rallying points for Waikato sentiment. Representatives of other Maori groups, too, commonly attend from courtesy the most important celebrations at the King's residence. An old Maori proverb, “Waikato is the River, Taupiri the Mountain, Potatau the Man” is an expression of the symbolic association between territory, people, and leader which still epitomises much Maori thought and emotion. Taupiri, a noted landmark and burying place of ancestors, is still believed to signalise, with mist or with drenching rain, the funeral of a noted leader upon its slopes – the mountain mourns the tribal dead. Formerly standing for a conservative policy of traditional Maori behaviour, the King was not expected to take an interest in modern education and economic development. Now, however, his role is seen to be a much wider one of providing one important centre of leadership, and like other respected leaders elsewhere he has an influential voice on many issues of forward-looking major policy.

One of the most characteristic features of modern Maori leadership is that it rests primarily upon achieved rather than upon ascribed status. Nowadays it is personality and character or skill of a professional or administrative order which tend to give a person a significant role as a leader.

Leadership in war, which previously was a very significant element in Maori life, has almost completely lost its importance – not quite, because men who were prominent as officers or as performers of deeds of valour in the Second World War have received a great deal of respect and, being usually prominent in civil as well as military affairs, have their authority in ordinary life augmented by the record of their military prowess.

Basis of Leadership

In modern Maori society seniority by birth gives only a very limited right to the exercise of leadership. The mana ariki still exists in the respect given to someone who is of the appropriate descent. Mention is made in obituaries and other public notices of a man being a chief or rangatira of a tribe. But this respect operates at a formal ceremonial or ritual level and not ordinarily in the affairs of everyday life. In practical matters, involving major policy decisions on the use of resources or the resolution of political problems, modern Maori society has turned to those men who, for the most part, have been marked by superior education and have been successful in professional life – doctors, lawyers – or to men who have demonstrated their ability to handle problems in a broad, statesmanlike way. A special type of leadership in this connection is provided by priests and other people prominent in religious affairs. High birth, i.e., genealogical seniority, is an asset in such public affairs, but lack of it is no detriment. But leadership is exercised in many different contexts and at different levels. Naturally the professional man, churchman, and Government official tend to exercise most authority in the spheres most directly concerned with their own experience. At the level of village affairs leadership may be provided by people distinguished for their practicality, their strong views, their multiple local kin connections, and other characteristics. Here, skill in public speaking is very important. Most Maori decisions of significance to a community are taken only after there has been ventilation of the issue in public debate. In an assembly in the meeting hall or on the open marae many sides of the question are examined, and in the flow of argument the opinions of the gathering are formed. One who can present a case clearly, cogently, and forcibly is more likely to have his views adopted.

Some of the principles of traditional Maori society still operate, if only to a limited degree, in these gatherings. The convention that an elder should speak before a younger brother or cousin still operates generally, if only as an ideal. There is still the custom at some marae that no woman addresses a gathering. In 1956 the Maori Women's Welfare League, when torrential rains had flooded them out of their designated gathering place at Waitangi, broke with tradition when their conference took place in the great carved meeting hall named after Kupe, regarded as one of the first ancestors of the Maori to reach New Zealand. Since its opening in 1940, “Kupe” had never been used as a conference hall, and the breach with the tradition that no woman should stand and speak in a carved house caused much misgiving among the older men. On the other hand, some tribes claim that traditionally their womenfolk could always speak in public, and in modern conditions they very often do so.

Maori leadership in traditional society owed much to women, but their role tended to be a private rather than a public one. Nowadays, much committee work is in women's hands. Modern Maori society has seen the emergence of women as publicly recognised leaders. The great Te Puea Herangi, cousin of the Maori King, was for many years not only a power behind the throne, but also an ardent and efficient organiser in communal farm schemes, in settlement of a long-standing problem of Maori land confiscation by the Government, and in the establishment of the Maori political and cultural centre at Turanga-waewae. Presidents of the Maori Women's Welfare League have taken a prominent part in land-development schemes and in recreational and other welfare activities. Typical of one aspect of intercultural relations in New Zealand is the fact that one of them has also been president of a farmers' union and a rugby footballers' union, both having Pakeha (European) as well as Maori members.

A striking feature of the modern Maori situation is the important role played by younger people. This is partly because of the increasingly high level of education reached by many of them, and partly because of their conviction that they understand the problems and the workings of modern New Zealand society better than do many of their elders. Fired with this enthusiasm, many of them are keenly preoccupied with problems of Maori development and welfare. Young Maori Leaders Conferences, held in 1939 and in 1959, put much serious effort into grappling with questions of how some practical programme might be worked out to facilitate these ends.

In modern Maori leadership, however, despite the important role played by the professional men, Government officials, religious leaders, and by young people, considerable deference is still paid to the tribal elders. Kinship affiliations and seniority by descent combined with age are held in great respect, irrespective of the educational attainments of the persons concerned. The presence of the kaumatua graces a public gathering, their help is welcome in the reception of visitors and in carrying out the details of traditional ceremony, and their advice on other public matters is listened to with politeness, although nowadays it is by no means always followed. Even in the South Island, where traditional Maori forms have been much less adhered to than in the North, at a conference of one of the major tribal executives in 1956 the role of the elders was stressed. Although most of the discussion was conducted in English and the leaders were mainly younger sophisticated people, they made it clear that they acknowledged the authority of their elders and wished for their agreement. As one leader epitomised the matter in the assembly, “Our kaumatua must lead us, that is Maoritanga.”

Administrative Groups

The twentieth century has seen a marked growth in the assumption of Maori responsibility for organised stimulation and control of Maori social and economic affairs. During the nineteenth century, public administration of Maori affairs was primarily a matter for Government initiative and nomination of administrators by Government. In 1900, however, a system of Maori councils was established in order to give Maori communities some form of local self-government. For this purpose the community unit was taken to be the village; the jurisdiction of these councils was extremely limited; they had practically no finance, but they were of some effect in the improvement of housing, sanitation, and public behaviour. In 1945, as a result of the experience of organisation of Maori effort in aid of the war, the Maori councils were replaced by tribal committees, which have a less localised basis, broader policy interests, and some financial provision. Work done by such tribal committees includes the setting up of community centres; the organisation of sports facilities and youth clubs; assistance to the education of local young people; and the promotion of Maori arts and crafts. Some tribal committees have also energetically stimulated the provision of better housing.

The tribal committees are integrated on an elective representative basis into a structure of tribal executives, these in turn furnishing membership to district councils. Finally, at the national level, the district councils send representatives to a New Zealand Maori Council of Tribal Executives, the first provisional meeting of which took place in June 1961.

Special problems have been presented by the organisation of tribal committees in urban areas. In a New Zealand city the Maori people tend to be split into various groups depending upon their tribal affiliations and upon whether they are the descendants of local people or are immigrants. Kin relationship alone cannot be the basis for tribal committee organisation. The solution in the case of Auckland, for example, was for the Maori residents in different territorial divisions of the area to each form their own local tribal committee irrespective of their original tribal affiliation. Representatives from each tribal committee constitute the Waitemata Tribal Executive which operates for the whole of the Auckland City area.

Land Problems

At a different level of administration and concerned with different problems are the administrative units involved in handling Maori land. Structurally these have come to be of great significance in the twentieth century. The history of Maori land legislation and administration is a complex one. But on the whole the role of the Maori people themselves in these organs of administration has tended to grow over the years. The general principle behind these various structures is that, despite the growing differentiation of Maori society and urbanisation of the Maori people, the Maori still has a substantial economic interest and a very important social interest in land. For the most part, an interest in the local land by descent from earlier owners, even if it be of small proportion, is regarded as entitling a person to speak on the community marae. The distinction between local landholders and others with no local land rights, though disappearing in many respects, is still a valid one for much social action. The Government, though in the past often indifferent, has attempted both to secure and define Maori interests in land and to promote a more efficient utilisation of this basic asset. These two objectives have been sometimes difficult to reconcile. Individualisation and fragmentation of rights have led, as is well known, to much inefficient possession of land which the rightholder cannot work economically. Maori leaders have been much concerned with this problem and their initiative and pressure have been responsible for much of the more effective administrative action. From the many proposals and devices adopted to deal with this major problem have emerged certain types of administrative units which are of significance for the structure of modern Maori society. Of some lands, such as Maori reserves and Maori townships, the Maori Trustee is established as the legal owner, and the responsibility for the arrangements of leases, and the collection and distribution of the proceeds to the proper beneficiaries, is entrusted to him. With the assistance of representative committees, some of the income from these lands goes to the support of Maori education, community centres, or marae improvement. Provision is also made for the consolidation of interests, where possible. Maori Trust Boards administer for the benefit of the members of a particular tribe or set of tribes funds arising from payments made by the Crown for various purposes – usually damage deemed to have been suffered by the Maori people in question. For example, the Arawa District Trust Board of Rotorua receives on behalf of the tribes of the Arawa canoe, payment of £6,000 per annum in perpetuity, in compensation for the rights of these people to the beds of the lakes in the vicinity, the waters being used for fishing and other purposes by New Zealanders at large. These funds have been used for the improvement of water supplies and other health services, for advancing money for education, housing, and farming in the area.

Administrative units involving more direct cooperation on the part of the people concerned have been the incorporations by legal process of the owners of Maori land. Originally begun as family enterprises on the East Coast about the beginning of the century, for the last 50 years or more they have existed under legislative act as a means for the more efficient utilisation of communal land interest. Since these incorporations have been allowed to borrow from Maori funds and general State funds, their economic development has been greatly stimulated, so that nowadays some of them are large business entities employing much labour and handling large sums of money. Administered by committees of management, the shareholders in the corporate body are the shareholders in the rights of the land. Sometimes there have been difficulties in their administration, owing to inadequate accounting systems or clash of factional interests. But these incorporations represent one of the most imaginative and effective ways of meeting the problem of preserving personal Maori interests in ancestral land and at the same time making for a modern efficient utilisation of the resources.

Although the general structure of these incorporations follows a modern Western business model, the institutions still retain a distinctly Maori character. The shareholders in the incorporation are members of a family or larger kin unit, and their shares are their respective interests in the ancestral lands they have inherited. One sociological function of the incorporation is that it helps to keep united for corporate action members of this kin group. The overt functions of the incorporation are broad. The revenue from the lands administered by it is not simply dispersed in satisfying superficial individual wants; most of it goes into the satisfaction of definite welfare needs. Improvement of housing of the shareholders is one important function so served; education in the form of grants and special training is another. Some of the incorporations provide facilities for marae. All this is in addition to more directly economic provisions, such as technical improvements and stock replacement.

Religious Bodies

An important role in Maori social structure today is played by religious bodies . Of the traditional Maori religion hardly a vestige remains, except for some beliefs in mana and in tapu, some concepts about the nature of human personality, and some practices associated with the Maori tohunga, especially in treating sickness. But these threads of Maori religious belief are interwoven with those derived from Christian and other Western sources. Moreover, they operate in a relatively unorganised milieu. Structurally, it is the various churches which are significant, both in dividing broadly the Maori people into half-a-dozen or so major groups and in providing them with important aspects of their ideology. They also provide valuable avenues for the training of young people and many important welfare services. A few of the churches are specifically Maori in the sense that they owe their origin to Maori leaders and have their organisation controlled completely by Maori people, with no reference whatsoever to an external body. During the last century such Maori churches, e.g., the Ringatu, the faith of the Lifted Hand, have played a very important part in Maori life in various areas. Recently a prominent body, the Ratana Church, has endeavoured to cope with the problems of today at an economic and political, as well as at a religious, level. The other major churches which have substantial numbers of Maori adherents are either immediate offshoots from European and American churches or are closely associated with them. But however closely they may be integrated into a wider organisation, the Maori body of worshippers tends to constitute an entity with characteristics of its own. The Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, for instance, has a Maori Synod, which holds periodic gatherings in Maori meeting houses. The Maori Anglican church has its own leader, the Bishop of Aotearoa, and regular gatherings at various levels specifically provide for the interest of the Maori members. One such gathering in 1960, ostensibly at diocesan level, drew over 5,000 people, many from other denominations. The different churches increasingly manifest tendencies to cooperation. They are one very important frame for much Maori activity, and are likely to develop their individuality in terms which render them still more recognisably Maori focuses of sentiment.

Position of the Maori Today

In a general review of the position of the Maori people in New Zealand today, what is noteworthy above all is the manner in which they have preserved their individuality. Increasingly they have entered into modern New Zealand life at every level and in every aspect. But they have not simply been assimilated – there is indeed no simple word which can satisfactorily describe their total place in the society. Apart from very few who have aligned themselves completely with the Pakeha majority, the Maoris have retained a number of elements of their own culture, adapted and transmuted them, and fitted them into the general pattern of their living. Some of this adjustment has not been without strain and some of it is still imperfect. But it is recognised that there are positive values in “being a Maori”. So far from tending to reject more and more of their cultural heritage, the Maori people of today see that much of this heritage can be used by them in a constructive way, providing them with standards and patterns of behaviour which help to give a richer meaning to their life, and to give them an individuality as a community within the wider framework of the New Zealand society. Symptomatic of this general cultural attitude is the growing tendency of Maori people to think at the national rather than the tribal level. This tendency for individuals to conceive of themselves as representatives of more than tribal interest has been fostered in recent years by a wide range of factors, from increased education to the accelerated pace of migration into the towns, with a necessary diminution of local traditional loyalties.

by R.F.

  • Some Modern Maoris, Beaglehole, Ernest and Pearl (1946)
  • The Maori (2 vols.), Best, Elsdon (1924)
  • Economics of the New Zealand Maori, Firth, R. (1959)
  • The Maori People Today, Sutherland, I. L. G. (1940)
  • The Effect of Technological Change on Four New Zealand Maori Communities, Ritchie, J. E. (Research Reports Nos. 1 and 2, Department of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, 1954, 1955)
  • American Anthropologist, n.s. Vol. 46, Mem. No. 64, 1944, “The Maori: A Study in Acculturation”, Hawthorn, H. B.
  • The Changing Maori, Keesing, F. M. (Memoir, Board of Maori Ethnological Research, Vol. 4, 1928)
  • Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 65, pp. 212–31 (1956), “Leadership in Pre-European Maori Society”, Winiata, Maharaia
  • Te Ao Hou: The New World, Department of Maori Affairs, 1952–to date.