Story: Tribal organisation

Page 5. Social rank

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Descent lines

Māori society before European contact was stratified into three social rankings: the rangatira or kāhui-ariki (leaders), tūtūā (commoners), and taurekareka or mōkai (slaves). Rank and leadership were based on seniority of descent from founding ancestors. Rangatira normally traced tuakana (senior) descent lines from the founding ancestors, while tūtūā were from teina (junior) lines. The same principle applied at the whānau level: the mātāmua or tuakana (first-born male and female) held the highest rank and were senior to all junior siblings of the same sex.

Rangatira and ariki

The chiefs of various hapū (clans or descent groups) within an iwi (tribe) regarded themselves as equals, although there was a hierarchy in terms of senior and junior status. The most powerful and high-ranking male chiefs were sometimes called ariki (paramount chief). Ariki were respected for the qualities of tapu (sacredness), mana (authority), ihi (excellence) and wehi (awesome power), which Māori believed were inherited from the ancestors and gods. These qualities could be increased by prowess in war, wise rule and generosity. But they could easily be diminished by unwise rule. Leaders who gained authority through ability rather than birth were called rangatira parapara.

High-ranking females

First-born females in the main descent line were esteemed as ariki tapairu or māreikura, and given the respect owing to a princess or a queen. In some instances a chief’s daughter was accorded the status of a puhi (ceremonial virgin). The marriages of such women were particularly important in forming political alliances between powerful groups.


Tūtūā or commoners were all other members of the hapū who could claim descent from the founding ancestor, but were of junior lines. Sometimes junior groups would split off from the main group to form their own hapū.

Taurekareka or mōkai

Taurekareka, also known as mōkai, were slaves taken or born into captivity, or groups that had been taken over by more powerful ones. They were not held in custody or under restraint but were often required to do most of the menial work such as preparing food, carrying firewood and paddling canoes. Children of taurekareka taken as wives or husbands by their masters were born as free members of the hapū.


In the past, tohunga (learned experts) were a special group of people. They were selected at birth, usually from the rangatira class, although particularly talented individuals might be selected from lower ranks. The most revered were the tohunga ahurewa who were trained in a whare wānanga (school of learning) and whare tātai (school of genealogy). They understood genealogy, oral history, astronomy, natural lore and a large repertoire of chants and karakia (prayers and incantations) for planting, felling trees, building houses and canoes, making war, healing the sick and farewelling the dead. Tohunga mākutu, trained in the whare-maire (house of learning), were believed to have the ability to mākutu, that is, cast spells to make people sick or to kill them. Other kinds of tohunga included tohunga whakairo (carvers), tohunga tārai waka (canoe builders), tohunga tāura (apprentice tohunga), tohunga tohiora (experts in birthing) and tohunga tā moko (tattoo artists).

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tribal organisation - Social rank', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005