Story: Kaumātua – Māori elders

Page 1. Kaumātua and their role

All images & media in this story

Kaumātua are elders in Māori society. Male elders are also known as koroua (or koro for short), and female elders as kuia.

Whether a person can be considered a kaumātua depends on age, knowledge of tribal history and traditions, and the presence of other potential elders for younger generations to turn to. People aged in their mid-60s or older would be universally accepted as a kaumātua. Some elders may be considered kaumātua purely based on their age, while others, despite their youth, have knowledge and leadership abilities which see them considered kaumātua at an earlier age.

Names for Māori elders

The general term for Māori elders is kaumātua, but there is a range of terminology, some tribal-specific, that denotes someone as an elder, grandfather or grandmother. Some examples are:

Ancestor/grandparent: tipuna/tupuna, matua tupuna.

Grandfather: tipuna matua/tupuna matua, koroua, kauheke, koroheke, koro, koko, karanipā, koeke, korokoroua, pōua.

Grandmother: tipuna wahine/tupuna wahine, kuia, karanimā/karanimāmā, perekōu, tāua, ruruhi, ruahine, kui, kuikuia, ngoingoi.

Position of kaumātua in society

In Māori society elders are held in high esteem. They are recognised for their life experiences and the knowledge they have accumulated over the years. Age brings not only respect and recognition, but also expectation. Their guidance is often sought on all manner of topics in daily life, as well as the more esoteric and ceremonial matters of Māori tradition. Elders are expected to perform certain roles and duties within the wider family and tribal community.

Traditional role of kaumātua

Kaumātua had an important leadership role. Kaumātua, both male and female elders, were the leaders of the whānau. They would make decisions concerning the whānau land, the control and use of whānau property, the rearing and education of children, and were the spokespeople for the whānau in tribal councils.

Additionally, Kaumātua would mind children during the day while parents were working or during warfare. It was traditional for the kaumātua to raise their first-born mokopuna (grandchild). Kaumātua were the storehouses of tribal knowledge, genealogy and traditions.

Changes over time

Lengthening life expectancy has had an effect on the age at which a person is considered kaumātua. Before European colonisation, 40 years old would have been considered old age, and some in their 30s may have been considered kaumātua.

In the 1980s when a government department organised a hui for kaumātua they set the minimum age at 70, which excluded one of the best-known Ngāpuhi kaumātua of the time, Haimona Snowden, who was in his 60s.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Paul Meredith, 'Kaumātua – Māori elders - Kaumātua and their role', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/kaumatua-maori-elders/page-1 (accessed 12 November 2019)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Paul Meredith, published 5 May 2011