Story: Tūranga i te hapori – status in Māori society

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

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Rāpata Wahawaha, military leader

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Status by birth

There were three main groups of people in Māori society: rangatira (chiefs), tūtūā or ware (commoners) and taurekareka (slaves captured from other tribes). First-born children were of higher status. Although rangatira were a higher rank than other groups, tribes were democratic.

In the story of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother), their children – including the gods of the sea, the forest and food – fought one another. Tūmatauenga (god of war and men) defeated his brothers, proving that his rank was due to his deeds rather than his birth.

Siblings could be of high or low ranking depending on the status of their mothers – a child born to a slave would be of low status.

Changes in leadership

When land was sold to the New Zealand Company in the 19th century there was a plan to set aside a tenth of town plots and rural land for Māori of rangatira rank. Māori commoners would work for rangatira, and for land-owning wealthy Pākehā, and in time might buy land of their own.

Māori became in general a class of labourers. Many were denied access to a good education.

In the 20th century numbers of Māori became lawyers, doctors, teachers and professionals in other areas. In the late 20th century there was a growing Māori middle class. Divisions between rangatira and other ranks lessened.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Tūranga i te hapori – status in Māori society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011