Kaumātua, both male and female elders, were the leaders of the whānau. Leadership was focused on the oldest members of the whānau, often as patriarch or matriarch possessing the wisdom and experience to guide the younger generations. Kaumātua made the decisions concerning the working of family land, the control and use of family property, and the rearing and education of children. They were the spokespersons for the whānau in rūnanga (tribal councils).
Role of kaumātua in rūnanga
Kaumātua played a significant role in rūnanga. John Savage, a surgeon, travelled to New Zealand in 1805. He spent two months in the Bay of Islands before returning to England in 1806 with a Māori named Moehanga, the first New Zealander to visit England. He observed: ‘The elders have great weight in the councils of the chiefs, and in all affairs, excepting those of a military description, they decide independently of them, though the authority of the chiefs would undoubtedly enable them to prevent the elders from carrying any projected measure into execution, should they feel disposed to exert this authority.’1
Taumau – betrothal
Kaumātua were often involved in arranging appropriate marriages. In some cases they might stand up to betroth an infant grandchild during a function, particularly where such a union might be politically advantageous to the whānau, hapū or tribe. In other cases a young man or woman might first talk to his or her kaumātua of their desire to marry someone. The kaumātua would arrange the marriage rather than the parents, if the match was acceptable.
Kaumātua also played a prominent role in social control and dispute resolution. Parties in disputes drew on the wisdom and guidance of kaumātua, and in most cases deferred to their judgment. Merimeri Penfold commented on her elders dealing with misdemeanours during her childhood in the 1930s: ‘Every Sunday they would have this gathering of elders and bring up elements that need to be addressed by them – like these guys who had been tampering with Māori tapu or raiding the hen run … this is the talk around the family, everybody knows about [the family member involved] and he was brought to meet the elders after church and that was sort of punishment, too.’2