Māori society had three main groupings, loosely described as classes: rangatira (chiefs), tūtūā or ware (commoners) and taurekareka (slaves). Tohunga (priestly experts) were also sometimes included as a separate grouping.
Māori anthropologist Peter Buck refered to these groupings as social ‘grades’ which allowed people to determine status and rank – for example, rangatira of one hapū could be considered senior to rangatira of another hapū if they descended through a senior line.
Rangatira status was determined by birth. The first-born of the most senior family in an iwi was ariki. The most senior family descended through the first-born descendants of a founding ancestor. Seniority through birth was expressed by the tuakana–teina (older sibling–younger sibling) relationship. A person who was senior through birth to his brothers or his cousins was tuakana. A teina sibling or cousin was expected to defer to tuākana.
Women held ariki status when a number of senior descent lines from founding ancestors, and ultimately from the gods, met. Often a woman's authority would be exercised by her husband or by male relatives. However in some cases women themselves took leadership roles. Elder Āpirana Mahuika gives the examples of Hinematioro and Mihikotukutuku of Ngāti Porou as women who were recognised tribal leaders.
Christopher William Richmond, the first minister of native affairs, complained of the social equality among Māori tribes, describing their communal ties as the ‘beastly’ communism of the natives.
The largest group in Māori society was tūtūā (commoners). Terms referring to commoners were considered pejorative, but the dividing line between this group and rangatira was not sharp – all members of a hapū or iwi could trace their descent from a common ancestor who was a recognised rangatira. The genealogical connections through male and female lines to founding ancestors meant that even those quite junior in rank were able to show they descended from important rangatira, and ultimately from the founding ancestors of hapū and iwi. Ethnographer Elsdon Best once wryly observed that he had yet to meet any Māori who admitted to being tūtūā.
Māori society was described as democratic. Commoners did not act subserviently to rangatira.
One distinction between rangatira and tūtūā is described in the proverb ‘Ko tā te rangatira kai he kōrero; ko tā te ware he muhukai.’ (The food of chiefs is debate, the food of commoners is inattention.)
Tāngata – serfs
Scholar Angela Ballara identifies a group in traditional society she calls tāngata (serfs). When a hapū owed allegiance to another more powerful hapū, they were expected to pay tribute to its chiefs in exchange for protection. The people of the dependent hapū were considered the tāngata of these chiefs.
Taurekareka – slaves
Slaves were people of an enemy tribe taken captive during battle. It was acceptable for free people of a hapū or iwi to marry slaves, and their children would be considered free.
Because of this no hereditary class of slaves developed. Slaves were not prevented from escaping, as generally they were not wanted back by their own people because their mana was thought to be lost, and their gods were seen to have abandoned them.