Iwi (pronounced ee-wee) are the largest everyday social units in Māori society. In pre-European times, iwi was synonymous with nationality; it described fully the people to whom a person belonged and owed allegiance. With the development of the country now called New Zealand, a much bigger social unit, the meaning became analogous to that of tribe or clan.
Iwi groups can trace their ancestry to the original Māori settlers that arrived from Hawaiiki, at least according to tradition. Māori who know their iwi connections typically value them highly and place great pride in knowing their genealogy. Their origin is among the first things they mention when introducing themselves.
Bones or roots
In the Maori language, iwi also means bones. The Maori author, Keri Hulme, named her best known (1985 Booker Prize) novel The Bone People, a title linked directly to the dual meaning of bone and tribal people. Returning home after travelling or living elsewhere is known as "going back to the bones", literally to where the ancestors are buried. Many societies would use the word roots.
Many iwi cluster into super-groups based on genealogical tradition, known as waka (literally: "canoes", i.e. the original migratory canoes). Each iwi can be divided into a number of hapu ("sub-tribes"). (For example, the Ngati Whatua iwi consists of the hapu: Te Uri O Hau, Te Roroa, Te Taou, and Ngati Whatua ki Orakei.)
Despite migration within New Zealand and intermarriage with non-Maori over a couple of centuries, most iwi groups still exist and have significant political power, which they exercise to recover land and other assets taken from them over the last 150 years. A notable example of this is the recent settlement between the New Zealand Government and the Ngāi Tahu, compensating that iwi for various losses of the rights that were guaranteed in the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840. Iwi affairs have a very real impact on New Zealand politics and society. A current claim by some iwi that they own the seabed and foreshore in their areas has polarised public opinion (see New Zealand foreshore and seabed controversy).
Problems with identification
The following extract from a recent High Court of New Zealand judgment (discussing the fishing rights settlement process) illustrates some of the problems:
- "... 81 per cent of Maori now live in urban areas, at least one-third live outside their tribal influence, more than one-quarter do not know their iwi or for some reason do not choose to affiliate with it, at least 70 per cent live outside the traditional tribal territory and these will have difficulties, which in many cases will be severe, in both relating to their tribal heritage and in accessing benefits from the settlement. It is also said that many Maori reject tribal affiliation because of a working class unemployed attitude, defiance and frustration. Related but less important factors, are that a hapu may belong to more than one iwi, a particular hapu may have belonged to different iwi at different times, the tension caused by the social and economic power moving from the iwi down rather than from the hapu up, and the fact that many iwi do not recognise spouses and adoptees who do not have kinship links."
In the 2001 census, 32.6 per cent of the 604,110 people who claimed Maori ancestry did not know their iwi, or only stated a general geographical region or merely gave a canoe name. It seems that the number who "don’t know" has remained relatively constant over the last three censuses, despite measures such as the "Iwi Helpline".
Challenge from Urban Māori
In recent years, "Urban Māori" have challenged the established tribal (iwi-based) Māori power base. Urban Māori form groups of people that, while unashamedly Māori, either choose not to identify with any particular iwi, or are unable to (typically because they do not know which iwi they are descended from). A particular Māori person may decide to support non-tribal structures because they believe the existing iwi do not give significant value to them, or that they believe that iwi are unable to understand their point-of-view.
They are typically urban bred, and probably identify with European culture to a much larger degree than traditional Māori, and often feel that a non-iwi group best represents their needs. How the traditional iwi groups respond to this remains to be seen. (As yet, some appear dismissive of these notions.) Notably, one such group has been created believing that Urban Māori are not getting their fair share of "treaty settlements" between the Māori people and the New Zealand government.
Well-known iwi groups
Prominent iwi include:
Note that each iwi has its own territory (rohe), and that no two iwi have overlapping territories. This has been of assistance in the long-running discussions and court cases about how to allocate fishing rights, because the length of coastline was one factor in some of the suggested formulae and the final (2004) legislation.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04