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Tūranga i te hapori – status in Māori society

by Basil Keane

Excellence – in knowledge, service or leadership – was so prized in Māori society it could transcend rank and birth.

Class, status and rank


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.

Wāhine rangatira

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.

Devour it

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.

Tribal traditions of status and rank

Creation story

The importance of rank and status is illustrated in the Māori creation story. This shows the interaction between tuākana and tēina (older and younger siblings), and the role of tapu and noa (common).

Following the separation of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) their children fought. Tāwhirimātea, the youngest child, battled against his tuākana. The only brother to stand against him was Tūmatauenga, the god of man and war. As Tūmatauenga defeated his tuākana he became superior to them. He took away their personal tapu and made them noa. These brothers – Tangaroa, Tāne-Mahuta, Haumia and Rongo – all became food for Tūmatauenga, who is represented by humans. Tāwhirimātea kept his personal tapu because Tūmatauenga could not overcome him. This explains why the weather continues to assail people. This story shows that inherited status can be undone through deeds done by oneself or by others.

Kahutiaterangi and Ruatapu

Brothers could inherit very different rankings depending on their age and parentage. Kahutiaterangi and Ruatapu had the same father, Uenuku, but different mothers. Kahutiaterangi was older, and his mother was a senior wife of high status. Ruatapu’s mother was a junior wife who was a captured slave. When Ruatapu was caught putting Kahutiaterangi’s comb in his hair he was publicly berated by his father:

E hika, nāku tonu koe; he tama meamea koe nahaku; he moenga rau-kawakawa, he moenga hau!
Son, while you are mine, you are a bastard son, you were conceived on a bed of leaves, outdoors.

This greatly angered Ruatapu, who took revenge by taking all the leading young men of the tribe out fishing, and then sinking the canoe, killing them and himself. Kahutiaterangi called on his ancestors and they sent a whale, which he rode to shore and safety.

Earned leadership

Ngāti Toarangatira leader Te Rauparaha was not the most senior chief of the tribe. Yet through his leadership and strategic military skills he became a famous head of his iwi.

Tūtānekai and Hinemoa

Tūtānekai was a pōriro (illegitimate child). His mother, Rangiuru, was married to the chief Whakaue, but had an affair with Tūwharetoa. Whakaue treated the child of this liaison, Tūtānekai, as his own. However when Tūtānekai became attracted to a high-born woman, Hinemoa, her family was against the relationship, because of the circumstances of his birth. To prevent Hinemoa from going to Tūtānekai on the island of Mokoia in Lake Rotorua, her brothers removed the paddles from waka on the beach. However she fastened calabashes to her body and floated across the lake, following the sound of Tūtānekai’s pūtorino (flute). They were united and eventually the marriage was accepted.

Changes in leadership, 19th century

Undermining rangatira

European ideas impacted upon Māori notions of social organisation and class. Ngapora, a Waikato chief, wrote a letter to Governor George Grey in 1848: ‘The slaves of my village will not obey me. When I ask them to work they will not regard me ... You Europeans have effected this change ... Formerly our word had some weight, but now it is lost.’1

Christianity and class

Christian missionaries initially relied on the support of rangatira, and accepted their chiefly rank. As tribes converted to Christianity missionaries were accorded more mana. Slaves captured by tribes who converted were sometimes the first missionaries to their own tribes, leading to occasional clashes with tribal leaders.

New Zealand Company

The New Zealand Company was led by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Wakefield believed that land acquired from Māori should be sold to British settlers at a ‘sufficient’ price so the company could fund itself. A tenth of the land purchased was to be set aside for Māori, in both urban and rural lots. It would be held in trust for rangatira (chiefs) and their families. The company plan for Pākehā colonists was that the wealthy would purchase land and employ workers, who in turn could save money to buy their own land. It was assumed that ‘common’ Māori would work for their rangatira, or for colonists, and save to buy their own land, replicating European class structures.

Becoming gentlemen

Some Māori individuals and whānau did become reasonably wealthy and often imitated European gentry. Wealthy Wairarapa rangatira Tamahau Mahupuku became a benefactor of his community – he funded the Wairarapa Native Contingent, the Māori-language newspaper Te puke ki Hikurangi, and the construction of houses at Pāpāwai, Wairarapa.

The right to vote in the first Parliamentary elections was restricted to men who owned land of a certain value. In the 1853 election around 100 Māori men voted.

In 1893 James Carroll, of Māori and European descent, became the first Māori to win a European electorate.

Māori as a labouring class

Many Europeans felt the appropriate role for Māori was to be a labouring class which supported European endeavours. In 1862, Henry Taylor observed:

I do not advocate for the Natives under present circumstances a refined education or high mental culture: it would be inconsistent if we take account of the position they are likely to hold for many years to come in the social scale, and inappropriate if we remember that they are better calculated by nature to get their living by manual than by mental labour.2

However Te Aute College for Māori boys, which offered academic courses, produced graduates who became the first successful Māori professionals, including doctors, lawyers and teachers. It was told by the education department to focus on manual instruction as this would be more appropriate for Māori.

  1. Quoted in David Williams, ‘Crown policy affecting Māori knowledge systems and cultural practices.’ (last accessed 16 February 2011). Back
  2. Quoted in ‘The Wananga Capital Establishment Report.’ Wellington: Waitangi Tribunal, 1999, (last accessed 3 May 2011). Back

Changes in leadership, 20th century

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.

  1. Ernest Beaglehole, ‘Race, caste and class.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society, 52 no. 1, p. 9. Back
  2. Hirini Mead, Tikanga Māori: living by Māori values. Wellington: Huia, 2003, p. 39. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Tūranga i te hapori – status in Māori society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 December 2023)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011