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Tribal organisation

by  Rāwiri Taonui

Generations ago, canoes sailed by Māori ancestors set out from East Polynesia and landed in New Zealand. From these founding peoples came the iwi (tribes) that form the structure of Māori society. Within each iwi are many hapū (clans or descent groups), each of which is made up of one or more whānau (extended families). The bond that holds them together is one of kinship, both with a founding ancestor and with the many members of their iwi, hapū and whānau today.

The significance of iwi and hapū


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 iwi and hapū emerged

Waka origins

Tribal groups formed in different ways. Originally people identified themselves with the waka (canoe) on which their founding ancestor arrived from Hawaiki. The earliest iwi (tribes) and hapū (clans or descent groups) formed as the descendants of waka groups expanded over succeeding generations.

Some of the tribes formed in this way trace descent from a single waka. For example, the Waikato tribes descend from the Tainui waka; tribes from the Rotorua lakes district and Lake Taupō are from the Te Arawa waka; and the Ngāti Kahungunu tribes between the Wairarapa and the south of Gisborne belong to the Tākitimu waka.

Other tribes descend from several canoes. For example, Ngāpuhi in Northland traces its origins to the Matawhaorua, Ngātokimatawhaorua and Mataatua canoes. Other tribes living in separate regions trace descent from the same canoe but have different accounts of that canoe’s history.

Iwi and hapū descended from the same canoe would sometimes act in opposition to each other. But if tribes from another waka region invaded their domain, the waka bond would be used to form an alliance against the intruders.

Reasons why new iwi and hapū formed

New groups also continuously split off as populations increased. Pressure on such resources as crops, forests, rivers, lakes and sea fisheries was an especially important factor causing larger hapū to break into smaller ones. New groups could also form through forced migration, defeat in war or other disagreements such as breaches of custom, loss of mana (status) or land, and family infighting.

Sometimes separate groups merged with each other to form new groups. Alternatively, very large and strong whānau (extended families) might develop into hapū in their own right. Recognition by other groups as a separate and new hapū was important. New sub-tribes were recognised if, for example, they had a leader with mana and skill in diplomacy, if they were able to strengthen the identity of the hapū by political marriages, or if they were known for their fighting prowess.

How iwi and hapū were named

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.


The whānau, an extended family group spanning three to four generations, continues to form the basic unit of Māori society.

Pre-European whānau

Before Māori came into contact with Europeans, whānau comprised the elders, the pākeke (senior adults such as parents, uncles and aunts), and the sons and daughters together with their spouses and children. A whānau generally numbered between 20 and 30 people. Depending on size, they could occupy one or more sleeping houses, known as wharepuni. Large whānau had their own clearly defined compound in the papakāinga (village settlement) or fortified . Whānau also had their own plot in the kūmara field, and their own fishing and hunting places, eel weirs and berry trees. The small size of the whānau and the close nature of its internal ties made it an efficient group for subsistence activities. The whānau was self-sufficient in most matters except defence, when it usually depended on the iwi (tribe) or hapū (sub-tribe).


Tamariki (children) and mokopuna (grandchildren) were particularly important to whānau. When parents were away, engaged in food gathering or other activities, all other adults in the vicinity cared for and disciplined the children. Children were therefore used to receiving attention and affection from many people besides their parents. In the security of the whānau, the loss of a parent by death or desertion was not such a traumatic matter. Orphaned children (pani), or children from families that were too large to support them, were adopted out and known as whāngai.


The whānau looked after any aged or debilitated members. Older people were revered for their wisdom and their nurturing of the young. They were also valued for the useful tasks they performed for the livelihood of the group. Light tasks, such as rolling taura (twine and rope), weaving, or the time-consuming job of grinding an adze could be done by elderly people.

In whānau today, male and female elders (kaumātua, mātāpuputu) head the family. Koeke, koro, kokoro, koroua, koroheke, kauheke and poua are the male elders, and kuia and taua, the female elders. Elders are the storehouses of knowledge, the kaiārahi (guiding hands) and the minders and mentors of children.

Social rank

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).

The history of Māori social organisation

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tribal organisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 September 2021)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005