Story: Te mahi kai – food production economics

Page 5. Roles and mana

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The rangatira (chief) was responsible for organising large communal enterprises, including food production. His position was hereditary, but leadership ability was vital. A chief’s position and status could vary depending on his effectiveness as a leader during the business of food production.


The tohunga (expert) had a vital role in producing food. He was knowledgeable about the appropriate karakia (charms) and ceremonial activities. The vitality of food resources was represented by their mauri (life force) and it was the tohunga ahurewa’s responsibility to maintain this. He also understood the important balance between tapu (sacred) and noa (everyday). Planting kūmara, in particular, was very tapu. The tohunga’s expertise also included the right times for various activities.

Artistic warehouses

Food was kept in pātaka (storehouses), sometimes elaborately carved. Pātaka that still exist are considered works of art. Their beauty was a way of displaying wealth and increasing mana (status).

A show of mana

While surplus food was vital to individual whānau (families) and hapū (sub-tribes), the use of food to maintain mana was equally important. Gifts were governed by the principle of utu (reciprocity) – when a gift was given, there was an expectation that a gift of greater value would follow.

Kaihaukai – food exchange

Kaihaukai was essentially a feast given by one tribal group to another, with an expectation that the feast would be repaid. Because different iwi (tribes) had access to different resources, there was often an exchange of food. Coastal iwi exchanged goods with inland iwi, including fish, shellfish, karengo (seaweed) and berries from karaka, a coastal tree. Inland tribes in turn had birds and kiore (rats) in tahā (calabashes), and various forest products including hīnau cakes. Tītī (muttonbirds) were exchanged for kūmara from Canterbury, and for taro and hue (gourds) from the North Island.


Certain places were noted for the production of special kinds of food. At Rotorua and other inland lakes of the North Island, īnanga (whitebait) and kōura (freshwater crayfish) were preserved in large quantities. The īnanga were dried, then packed in baskets and stored in long strings. The people of Waikato and the Whanganui River caught large numbers of eels and traded them for food products from other tribes.

How to cite this page:

Manuka Henare, 'Te mahi kai – food production economics - Roles and mana', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Manuka Henare, published 24 Nov 2008