Story: Tribal organisation

Page 1. The significance of iwi and hapū

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The largest political grouping in pre-European Māori society was the iwi (tribe). This usually consisted of several related hapū (clans or descent groups). The hapū of an iwi might sometimes fight each other, but would unite to defend tribal territory against other tribes.

Iwi-tūturu (the homeland tribe) or tino-iwi (the central tribe) were groups living in a long-held location. They would take their name from a founding ancestor. Iwi-nui or iwi-whānui (the greater tribe) were groups tracing descent from the founding ancestor of the iwi-tūturu. They were often widespread and lived alongside people from other iwi.


The most significant political unit in pre-European Māori society was the hapū. Hapū ranged in size from one hundred to several hundred people, and consisted of a number of whānau (extended families). Hapū controlled a defined portion of tribal territory. Ideally, territory had access to sea fisheries, shellfish beds, cultivations, forest resources, lakes, rivers and streams.

Many hapū existed as independent colonies spread over a wide area and interspersed with groups from other iwi. This pattern of land use could give rise to a web of overlapping claims. Ruling families and their leaders mediated some disputes over land, and others were resolved through intermarriage. But failure to reconcile competing claims could lead to conflict. The viability of a hapū depended on its ability to defend its territory against others; in fact the defence of land was one of its major political functions.

Mutual support

The major social function of the hapū was support for its members. Hapū undertook all the major tasks necessary for group survival. The members cooperated in fishing, land clearing, building fortifications, and constructing canoes and meeting houses. Several small hapū might occupy a single , while a larger hapū might have one or several pā to itself. Some groups moved with the seasons to exploit resources in different places. Others moved out from a main centre for months at a time before returning.

Hapū membership rights

Children whose parents belonged to different hapū had membership rights in the hapū of both parents. The concepts of ahi-kā (warm fires) and ahi-mātao (cold fires) defined the state of these membership rights over three generations. Membership rights were active or ‘warm’ within the hapū of the parent where children or grandchildren actually lived. Rights in the hapū of the other parent could be activated within three generations if descendants went there to live. After that, rights were extinguished or said to have gone ‘cold’.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tribal organisation - The significance of iwi and hapū', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005