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Māori identity

This chapter examines the history of Māori identity and its central features.

History of identity

Over 1,000 years ago, the first tangata whenua, or people of the land, arrived in New Zealand from East Polynesia (Henare, 2000). This indigenous group, now known as Māori, presently constitutes 15 percent of the New Zealand population (Statistics NZ, 2014a). Māori have wide-reaching influence on the social, political, and cultural context of New Zealand. However, it was not until the arrival of Europeans in 1769 that the term and identity of ‘Māori’ emerged, to distinguish Māori from the European Pākehā.

Māori culture and society is traditionally understood to be organised around the principles of kinship – as reflected through the whanau, hapū, and iwi groupings. Whanau is the extended family, consisting of several generations, while hapū is a grouping of whänau connected by a common ancestor. Iwi is a grouping of many hapū and whänau that serves as a source of identity for many Mäori today.

[Note: We’ve added macrons within quoted text to make it consistent with other text.] 

By 1,500 AD Māori people were organised in terms of three main corporate groups: the whanau, the hapū and iwi. The iwi or tribe was the functional macro-political entity. (O’Regan, 2001, p43).

The tribe is that collection of people of shared descent and belonging to a definable rohe who are recognised by other such groups as distinct tribes…‘Iwi’ in this sense of ‘tribe’ are comprised of constituent hapū, or subtribes. The whakapapa is the thread that weaves the hapū together to form the ‘iwi’. (O’Regan, 1992, p4).

Collective, tribal identity is very important for Māori people and is often placed above individual identity. Personal identity takes second place to collective identity. (Walker, 1989, p38).

In Māori society today, how people chose to identify and on what basis they do so is of critical importance to the survival and development of collective ethnic identity. (Thomas, 1986, p372).

Most often iwi is defined as tribe and hapū as subtribe; however, these definitions of tribal groupings are not universally accepted and discussion remains around the definition of hapū. Ballara (1998) considers hapū to be clans or tribes rather than subtribes, and regards these groups as being both corporate and conceptual. In other words, they are people who think of themselves as a group because of their kin links through descent. But they also combine in concrete ways to perform various functions for their defence and self-management, as well as to conduct relations with the outside world and in many of their economic affairs.

Some scholars (eg Cox, 1993) consider hapū to be the original, pre-colonisation tribal group, and therefore a more authentic grouping than iwi. Accordingly, these scholars consider iwi to be a grouping that gained importance during colonisation times.

At a political level, Māori operated and functioned as independent and autonomous hapū; this served to impede development of a national body politic among Māori. (Cox, 1993, p42).

These scholars argue that iwi is a Pākehā construct, emerging in the 1850s to unify Māori and make dealing with native people easier for government. The main support for the claim that hapū is the authentic grouping is that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 on behalf of hapū, not iwi. Although hapū are generally understood to be smaller kinship groups within iwi, the boundaries between these concepts are not clearly defined. Regardless, in contemporary New Zealand, iwi groupings appear to be more visible, for reasons that include settlements relating to Crown breaches of the Treaty.



A central feature of tribal identity is whakapapa (genealogy), which links a person to their ancestral lineage and to the natural environment. Professor Whatarangi Winiata (2002) of Ngāti Raukawa explains whakapapa as the ability to ground oneself in something known. ‘Whaka’ he explains as ‘to make as’ and ‘papa’ as the earth or ground. He describes whakapapa as foundational to understanding the Māori world view. Whakapapa is a unifying concept for all tribal groupings – whanau, hapū, and iwi – indicating the intertwined nature of these groupings and the fact that none is more significant than another.

Whanau, Hapū, and Iwi were bound by the common thread of whakapapa. Whakapapa linked the individual to the wider world and guided his or her behaviour within that world. (O’Regan, 2001, p50).

As a symbol of identity, whakapapa was unsurpassed. It told a person who they were and where they came from, clearly establishing their relationships with those around them and the world in which they lived. (O’Regan, 2001, p50).

Often iwi and hapū are mentioned together when authors talk about whakapapa or tribal groupings. These terms are connected rather than being distinct and simply reflect two different means of social organisation based on whakapapa. Affiliation to a certain iwi or hapū differs from person to person and can also change over time.

Unlike a realisation of being Māori, which occurred relatively early in life, a realisation of belonging to a particular iwi or hapū happened differently. Collectively, participants mentioned an array of situations and events that helped to bring about a realisation of their iwi and hapū group membership. Many of the situations and events recalled were marae and hapū focused, that is, they were activities that facilitated, or provided the opportunity for a return to their marae in their iwi homelands. In a strict sense, these activities are more likely to facilitate and maintain whanau and hapū membership and identity. However, because of the interconnectedness of hapū and marae, it should not be considered unusual that participants in this study held such a focus. The curious aspect is the convergence of hapū and marae as the source of their iwi identity. (Nikora, 2007, p203).

Links to tribal groupings at different levels of tribal hierarchy are often mentioned in a fluid expression of one’s identity.

Like most Māori I am able to claim ancestral ties with many of the other Māori peoples of New Zealand. However, I lay claim to my descent line from Tainui waka as a preference. Of the many groups that can claim Tainui origins I affirm my identity as a member of two iwi groups, namely Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto. Of these two larger groupings I belong to several smaller kinship groups or hapū within these, namely Ngāti Hourua and Ngāti Whare of Waikato and Ngāti Matakore and Ngāti Maniapoto of Ngāti Maniapoto. (Edwards, 2009, p19).

An identity is a sense of uniqueness and of difference from others. It is ‘knowing who one is, and who one is not’. (Harris, 1995, p1).

It is common for tribal members to claim a deep connectedness to a certain place. This place is a source of one’s identity and it is usually a geographical feature – a mountain, sea shore, or river. Another physical marker signifying connection to a group of related people is the marae (traditional meeting place). The marae has a very important place in Māori society and is a significant symbol of belonging and an identity marker for both traditional and non-traditional Māori groups. Nikora (2007) describes the importance of marae to the participants in her narrative interview study:

…many participants were able to identify as belonging to numerous hapū. Some of these hapū were within the same iwi group and reflected the descent lines of one parent, grandparent or other ancestors. Sometimes both parents were of the same iwi and belonged to various hapū in the one iwi. In the majority of cases, the parents of participants came from different iwi and a participant’s belonging to numerous hapū across these iwi regions reflected this. When participants thought about their hapū they usually had three anchor points: their marae, its symbolism and its environmental situation; the marae community, its people, their politics, social issues and their general characteristics; and the nature of their relationship or that of their parents or grandparents to the marae and its community. The marae and its structures typically symbolise the genesis of the hapū. (Nikora, 2007, p216).

Connections to iwi, hapū, and whanau are all important for Māori people. These groups are inextricably linked and are commonly discussed collectively. Ties can change over time and can be different for different people but these tribal groupings all have their place in the Māori world and play an important role in defining one’s identity.

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