Story: Tribal organisation

Page 6. The history of Māori social organisation

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The early 19th century

Māori social organisation changed upon contact with Europeans. Some tribes migrated to coastal regions in order to benefit from trade. Those groups able to reap the greatest benefits came to dominate others. The musket wars of the 1820s and 1830s caused further disruption. Some tribes migrated long distances, resettled and displaced other tribes. For instance, Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Mutunga, Te Āti Awa and Ngāti Tama migrated from Waikato and Taranaki to settle in the lands bordering Cook Strait (Te Moana-a-Raukawa).

The impact of colonisation

The arrival of European settlers after 1840 resulted in more change. With the encouragement of missionaries, some dispersed communities congregated in new villages in order to benefit from closer contact with Europeans. But between 1840 and 1900 dubious government land purchases, the New Zealand wars, land confiscation and the operation of the Native Land Court resulted in large-scale loss of land by Māori. The effect was to destabilise Māori social organisation. Some groups dispersed or departed from their homelands. Destruction, disease and despair caused the Māori population to shrink: it was estimated at 70,000 to 90,000 in 1840, but by 1891 had dropped to just under 42,000. This further undermined communities. Some groups ceased to exist, while many others were severely weakened.

The growing political power of iwi

During the 19th and 20th centuries, iwi (tribes) began to replace hapū (clans or descent groups) as the main political body. From the mid- to late 19th century, Māori had increasingly sought pan-tribal unity in order to oppose government measures that were not in Māori interests. Government policy actually favoured the shift from hapū to iwi, as the Crown preferred to deal with a small number of regional iwi groups rather than numerous hapū. After 1945, tribal trust boards were formed on an iwi basis in order to settle historical Māori grievances under the Treaty of Waitangi. This process continues today. Many tribes have formed regional iwi groupings to lodge claims with the Waitangi Tribunal. The 1992 fisheries settlement was with iwi rather than hapū. Today most Māori tribal organisations are formed at an iwi rather than hapū level. Usually they are legally constituted tribal trust boards and rūnanga (managing bodies).


Urbanisation has also changed the shape of Māori social organisation. In 1936, 83% of Māori lived in rural areas and 17% lived in urban areas. After this time the percentage of Māori living in urban areas rose dramatically: by 1945 it was 26%; by 1966, 62%; and by 1986, 80%. Most urban migrants were young single Māori escaping landlessness, poverty and a lack of opportunity. During the 1950s and 1960s they filled a demand for low-skilled workers in the cities.

Māori identity has been undermined by urbanisation. Many Māori have lost contact with their original hapū and iwi. The 2001 census reported that 20% of Māori people no longer knew which tribe they come from. Many other Māori who can name their iwi cannot name their original hapū. However, the institution of the whānau remains intact in many places. Many urban Māori retain links with their homeland iwi and hapū, and some tribes also have marae in urban centres or taurahere (urban) groups. Some iwi and Māori organisations have programmes to reconnect urban youth with the tribes of their ancestors.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tribal organisation - The history of Māori social organisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 October 2017)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005