Story: Te mana o te wāhine – Māori women

Page 3. Women of rank

All images & media in this story

Terms for high-born women

Tribal histories and traditions speak of numerous women of high rank. The terms used to describe these women include puhi (high-born, unwed woman), wahine rangatira (women of rank), kahurangi (chieftainess) and ariki tapairu (first-born in a family of note), depending on the woman.

According to Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), in Ngāti Kahungunu, first-born females of senior families were known as māreikura. They were seen as tapu, and as young girls their puhi (virgin) status was jealously guarded by the hapū so they could be betrothed to a suitable suitor from another community. Attendants were often assigned to such women to take care of their needs, as their special status prevented them from doing menial tasks.


One renowned ariki tapairu was Hinematioro, whose genealogy represented the leading lines of descent on the East Coast. Hinematioro was the acknowledged leader of Te Aitanga a Hauiti, but her influence extended from Whāngārā to Tolaga Bay. Her mana is captured in the following song excerpt: ‘my fame mounts o'er the sea, Like Hinematioro's; — she of noble birth and mien’.1 It is said she was considered so tapu she did not walk on the ground, and was instead carried on a litter.

Te Rangitopeora

Another female leader was Te Rangitopeora of Ngāti Toa. A signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi, she was often referred to as the Queen of the South. She was a noted composer and mediator, and rejected European clothing throughout her life.

Te Atairangikaahu

A 20th-century ariki tapairu was the late Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who succeeded her father, King Korokī, in 1966, to become the first Māori queen in the Kīngitanga. Affectionately known as ‘the Lady,’ Dame Te Ata was held in high esteem not only because of her inherited status but also because of her humility, her tireless work with numerous organisations and and the many relationships that she nurtured.

Moko kauae

Traditionally women who acquired moko kauae (female chin tattoos) received them on the basis of their mana, established through their whakapapa. They were nominated by the hapū to ensure there was a woman of mana to represent them on the marae.

Rere-o-maki of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi was a woman of mana who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, putting her moko on the treaty taken to Waitangi by Henry Williams. Hēni Materoa Carroll, wife of 19th-century politician James Carroll, had a moko kauae. So did the Ngāti Apa prophet Mere Rikiriki, who foretold the emergence of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana as a religious leader.

However, not all women of mana acquired moko kauae – sometimes for the very reason that they were considered too tapu to receive one. One of the few recorded examples of such a woman who was deemed too tapu to be tattooed was Mihi Kōtukutuku, a woman of high rank from Te Whānau-a-Apanui and Ngāti Porou. During her adolescent years some tohunga tā moko (tattooing experts) from Te Arawa arrived on the East Coast to tattoo chosen girls with moko kauae. The tohunga refused to operate on Mihi Kōtukutuku due to the mana of her whakapapa and therefore the degree of tapu that would be associated with her blood.

From the late 20th century moko kauae have been revived among Māori women as part of a reassertion of Māori female identity.

  1. Daily Southern Cross XII, no. 842 (24 July 1855), p. 1. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins rāua ko Paul Meredith, 'Te mana o te wāhine – Māori women - Women of rank', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins rāua ko Paul Meredith, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jun 2017