Bonds of kinship continue to be of profound importance in Māori society and underlie many long-lasting customs and traditions. A speech in Māori will often begin with a recital of the speaker’s whakapapa (genealogy), which may establish links with the group addressed or the issue under debate. Even on less formal occasions whanaungatanga (kin relationships) may decide a particular course of action. Those kinship bonds extend well beyond the nuclear family to include grandparents, informally adopted children and even deceased relatives whose actions and example may be taken into account for generations after their death.
Although Māori in the 2000s are a highly urbanised people, most retain some links with their original tribal territories and return there for ceremonial and social events. Tribal identity therefore continues to hold great importance for many Māori, and the distinctive customs and traditions of their own iwi (tribe) may be upheld and retained even when living in a predominantly non-Māori society. Each tribe is made up of a number of hapū (sub-tribes), whose members can generally claim descent from a common ancestor. In turn, each hapū is made up of a number of whānau (extended families), who are even more closely related.
Traditionally, every hapū can claim rights to specific marae within its tribal territory. Those marae, and the sites and tribal lands associated with them, are known as the tūrangawaewae (standing place) of the members of the hapū. Those members hold the highly valued status of tangata whenua (people of the land), meaning they can host gatherings on the marae, hold weddings and funerals, and generally regard those specific marae as their shared property.
With those usage rights, however, come responsibilities to uphold the reputation and maintain the facilities of the marae. In modern times this means that hapū members living and working at a distance from their marae feel an obligation to return there periodically to take part in collective activities. This obligation is known as ‘ahi kā’ (a lighted fire). The term means that, symbolically, the fires lit on the marae to provide warmth and cooking must not be allowed to die out completely through neglect by the tangata whenua.
Status of elders
Kaumātua and kuia (elderly men and women) are generally given an honoured and active place in Māori community life and have special roles in marae ceremonies and in collective debate. Because elders play a respected role, old age is a proud and happy time in Māori communities.
Status of family members
Within a Māori family the mātāmua (firstborn) holds extra mana (status), and tuakana (elder siblings) have more mana than tēina (younger ones). However, those traditional relationships are no longer upheld as firmly as in the past; ability, educational qualifications and other achievements may now also determine mana and responsibilities within a family.