Marriage within traditional Māori society was shaped by the importance of family and tribal links.
For most people, partners were ideally chosen from within the hapū or iwi group. Marriages were often arranged, with children promised in marriage from a very young age. People also sometimes found their own partners, and would then seek agreement from senior members of their family.
Intertribal marriage often meant loss or dilution of land or food-gathering rights and the danger of divided loyalties if conflicts arose. A high rate of marriage to outsiders could also break a group down. After armed conflict, for example, the victorious hapū or iwi often absorbed, through inter-marriage, those they defeated.
Rangatira were the exception to the preference for marriage within the group. The marriage partners of young men and women of high rank were carefully chosen to create or maintain links with other iwi or hapū. Waikato Maniapoto iwi were a notable example of this, building up links to major North Island iwi.
Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke (Te Arawa), writing in 1856, listed the gifts given to reconcile a family opposed to their daughter’s marriage. ‘Here then are two pieces of land, two dogskin cloaks, two greenstone ornaments, two canoes, two fine flax cloaks, six nets, four bird spears, three whalebone clubs, a maipi spear, a tewhatewha club, and one turuhi weapon.’ The gifts were all the young man’s family owned, given because ‘it is not as if a woman were a thing of small worth. Remember that food comes from the earth, sea-food from the net, and man from woman’.1
There was no marriage rite as such, but hapū or whānau approval was required. Extended family would meet and vigorously debate the merits of a relationship. In some cases taonga (treasure) would be given by the family of one of those marrying to the family of the other. When rangatira married into another hapū or iwi, great feasts were usually held.
Sex and marriage
Regulation of sex was not a primary purpose of marriage within Māori society. Most young people were expected to form sexual relationships, and might have more than one before settling down with a partner. In some cases these early relationships became a marriage. The exception to this sexual freedom were puhi – young women of rank, who remained virgins before marriage.
Continuation of traditional marriage
In the 19th century virtually all Māori who married did so according to their own custom. In 1887, for example, there were only 13 marriages between Māori performed according to colonial law. In the early 20th century the majority continued to follow tradition. Māori custom was also used by some mixed Māori–Pākehā, Māori–Dalmatian and Māori–Chinese couples.
Traditional marriage was still in common use in the 1950s.
Colonial law and traditional marriage
Marriage according to Māori custom was recognised as valid by the colonial legal system until 1888. After a Supreme Court decision in that year, New Zealand’s legal system became contradictory. Statutes passed by Parliament continued to recognise traditional marriage, while the courts sometimes didn’t. Court decisions on inheritance and the legitimacy of family relationships could deem invalid marriages that were regarded as legitimate by Maori communities.
When the Supreme Court decided in 1888 that marriage between Māori was governed by English common law, children born within customary unions became illegitimate. Described almost 80 years later as ‘doubtful legally and deplorable socially,’2 the decision was unknown to, or ignored by, most Māori.
From 1909 legal recognition of marriage between Māori required a minister of religion recognised by the Marriage Act 1908 to perform the ceremony. Customary marriage remained sufficient for inheritance of Māori land. This last shred of legal recognition of traditional marriage ended when the Māori Purposes Act 1951 was passed.
After this, to avoid illegitimacy of their children and to access the family benefit, Māori couples had to marry according to European custom. This, combined with the increasing urbanisation of young Māori, resulted in a move away from traditional marriage.