Story: Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce

Page 1. Traditional Māori workforce

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Whānau and hapū

Traditionally Māori worked on a whānau or hapū basis. Much of the daily work activity was based around the whānau, led by kaumātua (elders). Major activities such as building a , or large-scale fishing, were done by hapū under the leadership of the rangatira.

The role of rangatira was hereditary, but ability was also important. It was a matter of pride for rangatira to work as hard as ordinary workers.

Workplace training


Māori had an oral culture, and all the knowledge workers needed was passed on in songs and chants. The natural environment, from stars to flowering plants, was used as a kind of mnemonic for good work practice – for instance, the saying ‘Ka rere a Matariki ka wera te hinu’ means when Matariki appears, the fat is heated. The appearance of the constellation of Matariki (the Pleiades) in the dawn sky in June signalled the right time for catching birds, when they were plump and perfect for preserving in their own fat.


Seasonal nature

Throughout the year work was of a seasonal nature. As particular activities came around workers moved into different roles. Clearing land, planting, harvesting, fishing, eeling and fowling were all seasonal activities.

Rather than being a fisher, a gardener or a fowler, a worker would move from one activity to another through the year as dictated by the needs of the whānau or hapū. All able-bodied men were workers, and if war came, they were warriors too.

Gender roles

Certain tasks tended to be done by men and others by women. In general, activities such as rat trapping, tree climbing, fishing and warfare were performed by men. Men usually dug up aruhe (fern root) while women processed it.

Weaving was generally done by women. Certain activities, such as building and carving houses and canoes, were covered by tapu, so women could not be present.

Choosing a husband


The importance of the work ethic was stressed in proverbs such as ‘E moe i te tangata ringa raupa’ – marry a man with calloused hands (a worker).



People captured from other tribes would end up as slaves. As slaves they could perform activities that could not be done by people covered by tapu, such as carrying and cooking food.

In certain cases, subordinate hapū would come under the protection of a stronger hapū and would have to pay tribute to the stronger group. Apart from the tribute, members of these hapū were free people.


There were a number of specialists, known as tohunga. The branch of work they were engaged in would be indicated in their full title. A tohunga whakairo was a carver, tohunga whaihanga was a builder, tohunga tārai waka a canoe builder and tohunga tā moko a tattooist.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce - Traditional Māori workforce', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010