Maori Policy: Whanau, Hapu, Iwi Mythology

Maori policy is based largely on ideology rather than evidence, and that ideology is often pure mythology. The whanau-hapu-iwi construct and the way it is promoted in policy is pure myth..

The Basis of Some of the Mythology

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the early history of Maori in Aotearoa. Much of it stems from historical accounts written by Pakeha in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of these early “experts” were poorly educated men who set themselves up as experts and became authoritative sources. All of them set out to situate Maori history and Maori culture within simple fixed frameworks that would make complex migration and settlement history easily understood, and complex relationships between groups simple. It is doubtful that they themselves ever fully understood the reality of Maori before European settlement, and not much more post settlement.

What they did do was collect a great deal of still valuable oral history including whakapapa and stories of the ancestors and they recorded it in writing. They also had access to written accounts by Maori, which they translated and recorded. Most often however they applied their own interpretations to that information and constructed their version of our history and their version of our social, economic and political lives. The big picture they constructed was often wrong, but the detail they collected remains a valuable resource.

The early ethnologists sought to discover and promote a Grand Design within which they might conveniently posit all of Maoridom and all of our history. As part of this grand design they collected volumes of whakapapa hoping to create a single forty or fifty generational whakapapa for all Maori everywhere linking us all back to our single origin. Some of them even constructed such a grand whakapapa, making alterations and interpretations where the evidence didn’t fit the grand design.

A glaring example of mythological construct is the Great Fleet of migration waka from the Pacific Islands to Aotearoa New Zealand. This myth says that the seagoing migration vessels or waka, sometimes called canoes, Aotea, Arawa, Kurahaupo, Mataatua, Tainui, Takitimu and Tokomaru, all departed and arrived together. It’s a great story but pure fiction. There were many more waka than those seven and their arrivals were spread over a long period.

Buying into the Myths

The problem for Maori is that advanced learning about our own history was confined to the Whare Wananga, houses of learning, and to those few adepts accepted into their curricula. They were usually only rangatira or chiefs and those gifted individuals destined to become tohunga or priests. As in all pre-Enlightenment societies worldwide before the introduction of mass schooling, information and education were restricted to the ruling class and to those who served to protect their power. The people relied entirely for their information on those who held the information.

Thus it was that with the demise of the power and influence of old time rangatira and tohunga, and with the rise of the missionaries and other European “experts” as the holders of knowledge, Maori themselves were introduced to the Pakeha version of our history and reality.

Once you displace the holders of one version of knowledge it is easy to impose an alternative version of knowledge. Disastrously we came to believe it. And so in my grandparents’ generation right down to my children’s generation these myths were believed and passed on. The Great Fleet is perhaps the most outstanding example that has hopefully almost been expunged from the record in the last twenty or thirty years.

Social, Economic & Political Structure

The chiefly authority of the Maori was direct, but the descent of that authority was just narrowed to the one hapu and it may even be to one whanau.”  –  Sir Apirana Ngata

A huge misconception is the whanau-hapu-iwi construct in which Maori society is perceived as a fixed hierarchy with each iwi consisting of a number of hapu and each hapu of a number of whanau. The model can be more complex when some hapu might consist of a number of smaller hapu and they in turn have a number of constituent whanau.

The early European commentators then ascribed the names tribe (iwi), sub-tribe (hapu) and family (whanau) to this neat and tidy hierarchy. Whanau could also be described as (simple or basic) whanau or extended whanau. This model of Maori social structure provides a simple and easily understood framework.

It is however too simple and does not reflect either past or present reality. The problem is that the model has become widely accepted by both Maori and Pakeha, including Maori academics and scholars. The model is used by politicians and policy makers and is one of the bedrock assumptions upon which Maori policy and Maori affairs are based. Much modern Maori policy is aimed at “iwi” with resource allocation, programme delivery and claims settlement made through a modern construct that I and others have labeled corporate iwi.

The iwi-hapu-whanau construct is just another myth. I have to acknowledge that I too have often used this model as a lazy short-cut way to describe Maori society.

The Reality

Firstly in most instances the concept of a unified iwi was and is not possible to sustain in reality. For reasons of distance, travel time (by waka or on foot), and communication, the hapu was the largest workable social, economic and political entity with up to 1000 people but usually less, most often much less. It could contain less than 100 people. The only exceptions are those iwi which were quite small and confined to a relatively small area. In the past each hapu was entirely autonomous acting within its own boundaries containing its own food and other essential resources, under its own leadership and acting in its own interests, especially in its own interests. It might or might not join forces with related and neighbouring hapu, or go to the aid or support of related hapu descended from a common eponymous ancestor. But that was never guaranteed. There often had to be something in it for them to do so.

There are no early records at all to indicate that hapu ever thought of themselves as being subordinate to an iwi in any social, economic or political sense. They would of course acknowledge common descent and regard themselves as being identified with other hapu of common descent in the sense that they were “iwi” or “bones”. But they never functioned as a corporate iwi entity in any sense at all.

The “hapu” was the “tribe”, rather than a sub-tribe. By labeling hapu as “sub-tribe” in the English language the early Pakeha ethnographers and policy makers altered forever our perception of ourselves. Hapu were autonomous “tribes”, not “sub-tribes”. Some hapu functioned as autonomous sub-tribes of other hapu – hapu matua. Clusters of hapu also functioned together in cooperation.

Hapu were formed and reformed all the time. Groups of people might split off and move away for a number of reasons including overcrowding, disputes over land and resources, personal and leadership disputes, or curiosity wanderlust and exploration. As they moved away, migrated and settled elsewhere they might at first just regard themselves as a splinter group of the old hapu and would eventually adopt a new hapu name to describe themselves. They might regard themselves as a new hapu from the very beginning.

If there were previous inhabitants in their new location they might have overcome them and absorbed them into themselves, they might have been absorbed into the other, they might merge with the others into a completely new hapu entity, or they might have co-existed as separate entities. There was no fixed process at all. In this way, as people dispersed, moved, migrated, settled and merged, hapu formation was happening all the time (generationally speaking) in a rather random fashion as circumstances dictated. Over time with strategic and non-strategic inter-marriage between unrelated groups many hapu were descended from two or more major eponymous ancestors – hapu aho rua.

On the other hand they didn’t all move away in order to redefine themselves. As hapu got larger, groups within that hapu might remain in place but name themselves after a closer eponymous ancestor, and be accepted by others as such. In so doing they would proclaim their autonomy.

This was an organic and continuous process with old hapu ceasing to exist and new hapu coming into existence throughout history, most but not all of them autonomous.

Maori society was a shifting and fluid system of contracts, alliances and power balances giving rise to that organic and continuous process. It involved territorial boundaries and the control and exclusive use of food and other resources within those boundaries. It involved agreements to share and allow access to some resources, and the exchange of foodstuffs and other goods such as stone implements. The whole system was governed by the principle of utu or reciprocity, peaceful or otherwise. Differences and disputes arose from time to time, sometimes leading to warfare which may have been an effective and conclusive solution for one side at least, but was often ineffective and inconclusive. Strategic arranged intermarriage, especially between the chiefly families, was effective as a deterrent to warfare and in peacemaking after warfare, at least for one or two generations, and was widely practised.

The protagonists in this fluid system were the chiefs, not iwi and not even hapu. These were arrangements, contracts, alliances and power balances between chiefs. The power behind the chiefs was the number of followers they were able to attract and hold through the ties of kinship, through their personal leadership qualities, through their dedication to the quality of life of their people, and their ability to provide that quality of life.

It is often said, “Ko te kai a te rangatira he korero”, but I maintain, “Ko te mahi a te rangatira he kai”.

Hungry people will find new chiefs. The better fed the people, the larger the hapu and the greater the power, influence and ability of the chief to maintain hegemony over the land and the people.

The local environment and the number of people the environment and its resources could sustain was a huge factor in the whole process, and often a constraint. It was not an entirely human process.

The need to feed the people and the fluid and shifting arrangements, contracts, alliances and power balances between chiefs largely accounted for the ebb and flow of hapu formation and dissolution, and migration and settlement, throughout the generations. That was not a fixed hierarchical society in which the iwi could function in any way, shape or form as a social, economic, corporate or political entity.

Within my own rohe identification as a distinct “iwi” did not occur until the 1830s when the musket wars and invasions by marauding bands into the rohe killed what has been estimated as half the population of Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa, and forced most of the rest of those descended from Kahungunu to seek protection and refuge at Nukutaurua on the Mahia Peninsula. There they came under the protection of Te Wera Hauraki from Ngapuhi in the distant north. He had the muskets to provide protection in return for a grant of land for himself of course. While there they traded to obtain muskets for themselves and eventually returned to their lands.

During that period at Nukutaurua a distinct Ngati Kahungunu iwi identity across the whole rohe was forged for the first time ever. The chiefs of the different hapu at Nukutaurua formed alliances and in many instances helped each other to repel the invaders. However they were independent and autonomous chiefs acting together rather than submitting to a common entity under an overall leadership. When they returned to their respective areas they continued to act autonomously. The “iwi” didn’t happen in reality until the era of the modern corporate iwi, greatly influenced by government policies requiring that Government deal only through “mandated iwi”.

The myth of the iwi became entrenched into mainstream Pakeha and Maori thought through the theories of the early Pakeha commentators, through the compliance and ambition of some Maori leadership, and through the judges of the Native Land Court, later the Maori Land Court, seeking to simplify their own understanding. The Department of Native (later Maori) Affairs also fostered the myth by seeking to lump disparate hapu into iwi in order to deal with and sometimes exert control or influence over larger entities. The myth found fertile ground in our own ignorance and compliance.

Mythology and Policy

The whanau-hapu-iwi construct is the prevailing perception and it has been applied retrospectively to non-existent iwi entities of the past. It is a bedrock belief upon which a great deal of Maori policy has been and is being based. Regardless of that it remains a post-colonial construct, a myth.

What is happening in the present however with the emergence of corporate iwi cannot be denied and is part of the ongoing transformation of tribal structure towards something perhaps that might eventually reflect the social structure of our mostly urban and increasingly global dispersion. Or it might not. There is a great gulf between present invented tribal structure and present social reality. There are no guarantees at all in this political evolution, and it is political rather than social or cultural.

I tend to think however that this whole impetus based on the whanau-hapu-iwi construct and other mythology is leading Maori policy down a blind alley where the Maori political and business elites are the main beneficiaries. Meanwhile the rest of us 810,200 Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia know that we are beholden to the wider global and national polity and economy for the unfolding of our futures. We know that Maori policy whether based on mythology and ideology, or on real evidence, will ultimately have little or no influence on those futures. Only the elites believe. The rest of us are getting on with our lives.

And while the Maori policy paddlers keep paddling, the waka is dead in the water. Indeed, if you look at Maori social and economic statistics you could be forgiven for thinking it’s going backwards.