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Issues in contemporary Māori identity

This chapter offers some of the issues present-day Māori face in determining identity.

Iwi affiliation persists

Despite the weakening of whakapapa as a basis for iwi formation in the urban context, iwi affiliation still holds a strong presence in the lives of urban Māori, with 80 percent of Māori reporting they identify with at least one iwi in the 2013 Census (Statistics NZ, 2014b). However, it is clear that collectives operating within residential areas have gained importance in people’s lives when compared with Māori in traditional tribal rohe.

In more recent times, conventional Māori social organisational structures such as iwi, hapū, and whanau have changed and evolved from operating within the communal life of the kāinga in a rural setting to more modern urban-based co-operatives; corporate, commercial-orientated land incorporations; and family trusts. (Katene, 2006, p20).

Spiritual connection to one’s ancestors remained present in urban dwellers’ lives but more immediate and physical representation of their belonging to a collective of people outside their traditional rohe gained more importance in the lives of many of them. After the Second World War, when seventy percent of the Māori population migrated to urban centres in search of work, the meeting house as the most potent symbol of Māori identity and cultural pride was transplanted into towns and cities. (Walker, 1996, p50).

The marae which have been built in the urban centres are characteristically not the marae of the takata whenua, but of those Māori people who have left their tribal rohe to live in the cities and who use the marae as a base for their cultural activities. (O’Regan, 2001, p192).

The same pattern is evident in the later proliferation of urban marae across all major cities and towns in New Zealand from about the 1960s and 70s onwards. For example, Nga Hau e Wha in Christchurch, Kirikiriroa in Hamilton, Mataatua in Rotorua, Hoani Waititi in Waitakere, Te Kotuku in Te Atatu, Awataha Marae on the North Shore, Te Piringatahi o Te Maungarongo in West Harbour, Mataatua in Mangere, and Tira Hou in Panmure. While individual members of these urban hapū still retain both strong and sometimes tenuous links to traditional hapū and iwi their changing circumstances have demanded creative adaptations to new environments and situations. (Nikora, 2007, p67).


Urban collectives develop

Traditional tribes and new non-traditional tribes now coexist. Individuals can retain a traditional tribal identity while at the same time engaging in new urban communities. Establishing new urban collectives did not result in people substituting newly-found kinships for ancestral tribal connections, nor did it replace the tribes traditionally residing in those urban areas.

For example, James Ritchie (1992) recalls the membership in Ngāti Pōneke:

But I soon realised that no one left behind their tribal identity and that, within the structure of the club, tribal affiliation was one of the most important internal networks – one from which, by blood, I had to accept exclusion. However much accepted, I was still, in that sense, manuhiri. (Ritchie, 1992, p18).

There were long established Māori communities of Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa around which the urban environment had either grown around or displaced, for example, those kāinga of Porirua, Kaiwharawhara, Kumutoto, Nga Uranga, Pipitea, Piti-one, Te Aro, and Waiwhetu (Grace, Ramsden, & Dennis, 2001). Ngāti Pōneke did not displace these tangata whenua kāinga; rather, it would seem that Ngāti Pōneke developed as a city focus for all Māori and relied upon reciprocal relationships with, and the goodwill of, tangata whenua groups. (Nikora, 2007, p53).

We need a broader collective identification spectrum than iwi affiliation alone to fully understand the identity of Māori living in towns and cities. Generations of Māori have lived in urban settings. Although they may feel the spiritual connection to their ancestors, at the same time they are likely to affiliate with more physical markers in their proximity, such as urban marae, churches, or clubs.

Belinda Borell (2005) argues that urban Māori who become disenfranchised or disaffiliated from traditional tribal ties seek new ways of constituting a Māori collective identity that emphasises ethnicity, class, and locational interests over tribal allegiances. Again, this underscores the dynamics of identity formation and leads us to consider some of the more prevalent assertions.

Roger Maaka (1994) proposes that the tribe is no longer a valid organisational tool for Māori cultural identity in the 20th and 21st centuries. He believes a radical redefinition of the Māori tribal ideology is inevitable and necessary. His proposal is based on the numbers of Māori people living outside their traditional tribal territories (80 percent), and those who claim a pan-Māori identity without acknowledging any tribal affiliation. For Māori to function as a viable and competitive social entity, Maaka argues that Māori social organisation must be centralised and not ‘retribalised’. Maaka proposes redefining and constructing a new tribe, one whose membership is determined by factors such as location, association, and commitment. Traditional tribal structures, whose membership is determined by descent, should be confined to the function of managing and receiving communally owned assets (Maaka, 1994). Sinclair (1990) has a different perspective to Maaka and says:

To take the tribe away is to take away the core of Māori cultural identity: the significance of the connection to one’s land, tribal burial grounds and sacred places, one’s whakapapa and history, one’s resource use rights. To remove the tribe would mean a total deconstruction of the Māori cultural world view and the construction of a new world view based on ethnicity. It is perhaps for these reasons that tribal identities have been so durable and powerful throughout post-contact Māori history. (Sinclair 1990, p219).


Pan-Māori and/or iwi choice

O’Regan (2001) and Durie (1998) believe that pro-tribal voices are stronger than pan-Māori ones.

Although there are those who argue for a pan-Māori political approach, they would seem to be outweighed by pro-tribalists. Evidence for this can be seen by the number of tribal and hapū claims that have been put before the Waitangi Tribunal in comparison to pan-Māori claims. (O’Regan, 2001, p168).

Kai Tahu are still Māori, but we are Kai Tahu first. (O’Regan, 2001, p168).

For Māori, a cultural identity based on tribal origin has been more relevant than the notion of a homogenous ‘Māori’ identity. This is partly a reaction to the impacts of urbanisation but also a consequence of tribal claims against the Crown for breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. (Durie, 1998, p55).

O’Regan (2001) offers a solution to the identity debate.

The issue, therefore, is how these identities manifest themselves within Māori society as a whole. The legitimacy and rights of tribes to act as political, social, economic and cultural entities cannot be undermined if they are chosen by the constituent members as the best vehicle for representing them. On the other hand, if some Māori people choose to identify with and affiliate to a ‘Māori’ entity or collective whose membership derives from common ethnicity or, indeed, locality, then that must also be the prerogative of individuals to do so. The two groupings must, though, be dealt with separately and not just thrown into the same basket as Māori, as they represent two distinct types of ethnic affiliation. If ‘pan-Māori’ people choose to focus on their common historical experience, their shared ethnicity, language and urban marae for example, as core characteristics in their cultural identity, then they must be free to express themselves accordingly and to develop and promote those symbols. They should not be confined to tribal notions of identity, association to tribal lands and whakapapa. (O’Regan, 2001, p171–172).

O’Regan’s suggestion is a potential way forward to define and measure Māori groupings in the dynamic, heterogeneous Māori population that wants to accommodate various means of expressing one’s identity. Any approach in isolation (traditional iwi affiliation, Māori ethnicity only, new Māori urban associations) will not adequately account for the diverse connections that exist in Māori collective groupings. If one approach is taken, dissatisfaction is likely to arise in certain groups, due to conflicting opinions on what is considered a valid Māori affiliation today. In recent years, a growing demand has come from government, Māori organisations, and various service delivery agencies to measure, or at least better define, the urban Māori population (Statistics NZ, 2012).

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