As land was sold and confiscated, Māori moved en masse into a labouring class. In the early 1900s over half of Māori workers were labourers. In 1943, anthropologist Ernest Beaglehole observed, ‘there is a tendency to rank most Maori in a group equivalent in status to that of the lowest-class White group’.1 This type of identification altered as Māori society began to change in the late 20th century.
Professionals and academics
As Māori gained professional qualifications from the beginning of the 20th century a tension developed between traditional leaders, who inherited their roles, and leaders who had status in the Western world, such as lawyers, doctors, nurses and educators. This apparent conflict was tempered by the fact that often these professionals emerged from chiefly families. Early professionals formed the Young Maori Party, which saw valuing people by their merit rather than aristocracy as a key to the improvement of Māori.
Rangatira and ariki
The Kīngitanga (king movement) began in 1858 and has continued through to the early 21st century with an unbroken line of descent. The Te Heuheu dynasty, of the ariki line in Tūwharetoa, also continued from the mid-1800s through to the 21st century. In many iwi groups, people who took leadership positions in large land trusts and corporate iwi structures tended to come from traditional rangatira families. For example, Āpirana Mahuika has observed that within his sub-tribe, the Weka, Green and Manuel families, along with other chiefly families, continued to take leadership roles in the tribe in the late 20th century.
Hirini Mead has observed that the social divisions of the past have ‘flattened out and there is one class called Māori’2 – so all Māori now belong to the rangatira class. This is reflected in Māori oratory, where all assembled will be referred to as chiefs in the greeting, ‘Rau rangatira mā’.
Rise of Māori middle class
A larger Māori middle class began to form in the late 20th century. After the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, Māori lawyers and researchers worked on treaty claims. As iwi received settlements from claims, businesses and trusts were established and run by Māori professionals. There was also a greater Māori presence in the public service.
The tendency to see all Māori as an interest group engaged in this process often disguised the reality of class divisions. During the same period that large treaty settlements were negotiated, privatisation and corporatisation of government-owned enterprises had hugely negative effects on working-class Māori, many of whom lost their jobs.
One group of researchers at Massey university developed Te Hoe Nuku Roa which identified different groups within Māori society by measuring culture, language and socio-economic aspects.