Traditional Māori Society

Māori are descended from the great Polynesian sea-farers who swept across the Pacific Ocean, finally arriving in New Zealand about 750 years ago. These ancestors arrived aboard great voyaging waka (canoes), the names of which have been passed down through the generations.

Māori society was vibrant and dynamic from the outset. The ancestors were quick to adapt to their new homeland, a rugged and temperate environment very different to the small tropical islands they had departed. There were challenges, many relating to the cooler climate, but also some grand opportunities. 

The descendents of the Polynesian voyagers became tangata whenua, the people of the land, the indigenous people of Aotearoa (New Zealand). By the time New Zealand was “discovered” by Europe in 1642, Māori culture was vibrant and unique, tied to and inseparable from the land itself.

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Social Organisation

Māori society was organised into more-or-less autonomous communities, connected through complex networks of kinship ties and political alliances. Communities were loosely grouped into iwi (tribes) defined by descent from a common ancestor. The iwi was the largest unit of Māori society, however, there was no permanent office of “paramount chief” at the level of the iwi. Decisions were reached through negotiation among rangitira (chiefs) and kaumatua (family leaders). Formal hui (meetings) were held to discuss important issues, where people of sufficient rank would speak in turn. 

Personal status was strongly influenced by genealogy and gender. Males were superior to females, elder siblings superior to younger siblings. The status of a person was based on the level of mana they possessed. Mana is often translated as “prestige” but is also encompasses spiritual power, status, charisma and authority. Rangitira were defined by their possession of sufficient mana. Mana was inherited, however the mana of a person or a hapu could increase or decrease depending upon their successes or failures. In other words, leadership in Māori society was not determined through inheritance alone. A rangitira who failed to lead his hapu to success would suffer a loss of mana (and therefore power).

In terms of everyday life, the hapu (clan or descent group) was the most important social unit. Hapu were fairly small, their members numbering in the hundreds. Māori communities were formed by hapu (or several hapu), under the leadership of a rangitira whose mana offered them protection. Hapu were connected to each other to varying degrees through kinship ties and common ancestry. Intermarriage between high-ranking men and women was one way to strengthen kinship ties and promote friendly relationships.

The authority of a chief extended over a particular area (rohe), and it was here that his hapu built their houses, planted gardens and stored their food supplies. Members of the hapu would work together to carry out larger-scale projects, such as making a canoe, clearing land for cultivation or going on a fishing expedition. Each extended family (whanau) would share a sleeping house, and the grandparents would focus upon looking after the children while the parents worked. The kaumatua (eldest male) was the leader of his whanau, and his wife also had a great deal of influence.

In the absence of an overarching system of governance, Māori society was ordered and organised according to tikanga. Tikanga can be loosely translated as “customs”, but it really means more that that. Tikanga is the prescribed and correct way of doing things, and it governed almost every aspect of Māori life. 

The Spiritual World

Māori shared their world with a host of atua (gods, spirits and ghosts), inhabiting a supernatural realm entwined with and inseparable from the real world. Many atua are ancestral figures – the mana (prestige, status) of a chiefly person is derived from his descent from the atua.

The atua were easily offended and some of them were downright malevolent. The key to avoiding offence was to ensure that tapu was respected. The concept of tapu (sacredness, spiritual restriction) was central to Māori life. To breach or diminish tapu was a very serious matter, which had dire consequences in the real world. Many things were tapu, for example, to touch the head of a chief was a terrible breach. The tapu of a chiefly person prevent him from preparing food, because food was noa (ordinary, free from tapu).

Tapu could be breached or diminished, and it could also be created or enhanced. Tohunga (experts) in the religious realm were extremely important in Māori society, and this kind of authority was passed down through particular lines of descent. Tohunga performed special rituals to control tapu and other spiritual forces. Tohunga and rangitira had the power to create tapu – for instance, the birds on a certain lake might be declared tapu, which would prevent anybody from harvesting them until the tapu was lifted.

Land (whenua)

The spiritual world was entwined with the land itself. To the Māori of old, the land is Papatuanuku, the earth-mother goddess who gives birth to plants, animals and people. Some elements of the landscape were the personification of ancestral atua. Mount Manaia, a towering rocky formation at the entrance to the Whangarei Harbour is a good example:  the high rocky pinnacles are Manaia and his wives, who were turned to stone during a fight with the servant Paeko.  Paeko was also turned to stone, immortalised as a rocky outcrop partway down the side of the mountain.

Māori could not “own” land in the European sense of the word. Each hapu had strong spiritual and physical connections to certain places, the boundaries defined by special landmarks, posts or stones. However, for practical purposes New Zealand was not divided into land parcels with sharply defined boarders. For a start, home villages (kainga) were not continuously occupied. People moved with the seasons, from place to place, gathering and harvesting food along the way. Each hapu had rights to certain resources in certain areas, overlapping and entwined with the rights of other hapu. The rights to occupy or use a certain area were held by the group and not by individuals.

Garden plots were very valuable and required a lot of attention. Kainga were built nearby the gardens, and the people returned often in-between their trips away to gather food, visit friends or settle disputes. After two or three years of cropping, the garden plots were left to fallow for several decades. When it was time to move to a different garden area, the kainga was shifted as well. The early European settlers found very difficult to understand the Māori way of moving through the landscape in cycles. In European eyes, lands that were not obviously in use were thought to be abandoned and therefore available.

Moving around within the rohe was a perfectly normal aspect of everyday life. But mobility in Māori society went beyond that. It was fairly common for hapu to migrate and resettle in entirely new lands. A simple population increase was a possible motivating factor. A shortage of gardening land, stretched resources, or defeat in battle could drive a hapu to seek and entirely new place to live. In some cases, the newcomers were welcomed, especially if they were kin to those who lived there already. However, in many cases migrating hapu would expect a fight. Invasions and conquests had serious knock-on effects. A hapu defeated and displaced had to find another place to live, and so the upheaval would spread across many communities.

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