Story: Tribal organisation

Page 3. How iwi and hapū were named

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The importance of ancestors

Iwi (tribe) and hapū (sub-tribe) names were preceded by a clan prefix such as Te Kāhui (the assemblage), Te Uri or Ngā Uri (the descendants), Ngāti, Ngā, Ngāi, Aitanga or Te Āti (the people or offspring), Te Tini or Te Whānau (the family). The prefix was coupled with the name of an important founding ancestor. In some cases tribes simply took the name of the ancestor. Examples include:

  • Te Kāhui Roko: The Assemblage of Roko (South Island)
  • Te Uri-o-Rātā: The Descendants of Rātā (Bay of Islands)
  • Ngāti Tama: The People of Tama (Taranaki)
  • Ngāpuhi: The People of Puhi (Northland)
  • Ngāi Tūhoe: The People of Tūhoe (Urewera)
  • Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki: The Offspring of Māhaki (Gisborne, East Coast)
  • Te Āti Awa: The Offspring of Awanuiarangi (Taranaki)
  • Te Whānau-ā-Apanui: The Family of Apanui (Eastern Bay of Plenty)
  • Te Hāmua: Te Hāmua’s People (Lower North Island)

New groups with shared ancestry

New groups took the name of people who had been important in the course of their emergence as a separate people. In this way they distinguished themselves from the larger group. New iwi or hapū could emerge at each succeeding generation and take their names from several siblings of the same generation and from the wives of chiefs. This is particularly striking among Te Arawa tribes of Lake Rotorua. Names could be taken from both male and female ancestors. This also occurred on the East Coast of the North Island, where several iwi and hapū related to Ngāti Porou took their names from female ancestors.

New groups with different ancestry

Unrelated groups sometimes merged with each other to form new groups. In this case old hapū names might pass into disuse as the new group adopted a different name, usually from one partner of a significant intermarriage, or sometimes from the more dominant group.

Commemorating important events

Sometimes iwi and hapū names were taken in remembrance of specific events. Ngāti Manawa in the Hokianga were named after their ancestor who was killed with a spear through the heart (manawa). The people of Te Aupōuri (billowing smoke) took their name from an incident where their ancestors escaped siege under cover of a smokescreen.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tribal organisation - How iwi and hapū were named', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005