Story: Ngā tuakiri hōu – new Māori identities

Page 1. Early Māori identities

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Māori terms for Māori

The word ‘Māori’ is thought to be a post-European-contact term for the first inhabitants of New Zealand. It originally meant ordinary or local. Only after another race of people arrived in their country did the original inhabitants need a term to define themselves separately from the new arrivals. Māori also adapted the term ‘tangata whenua’ (people of the land), referring to local iwi or hapū, to define themselves as distinct from non-Māori. This also means ‘those who were here first’ and ‘host people’. It is still widely used among present-day Māori.

Māori used many other terms among themselves to define where they belonged in relation to each other. Those words are still used today for the same purpose. They include ‘whānau’ (family), ‘hapū’ (sub-tribe) and ‘iwi’ (tribe), together with the specific names of their own hapū and iwi. Māori also identified themselves (and still do) by referring to the marae, maunga (mountain), awa (river) and waka (ancestral canoe) with which they are affiliated.

Non-Māori terms for Māori

The first non-Māori visitors used a variety of names for the people they found occupying New Zealand. They referred to them as Indians, aborigines (meaning original inhabitants), natives or New Zealanders, as well as Māori. Some of those early terms to identify Māori dropped out of use or changed their meaning over time, sometimes reflecting tension or conflict between the two peoples. As more non-Māori arrived to live permanently in New Zealand, the term ‘New Zealanders’ ceased to refer to Māori alone. Government officials preferred to deal with large tribal groups rather than individual sub-tribes, so Māori became identified with their iwi rather than their hapū.

Mixed-race people

As Māori intermingled with the new people arriving in their country, a new term, ‘hawhe kaihe’ (half-castes) was coined to refer to those of mixed Māori and non-Māori parentage. The influence of Christian religions, and the evident ill-will displayed between missionaries of rival denominations, was another new source of self-identification, as Māori came to regard themselves in terms of their chosen religious faith.

From native to Māori

Until the mid-20th century the term ‘native’ was still officially used to refer to Māori. Many Māori objected to this description, regarding it as patronising. In 1947, in response to the Māori contribution during the Second World War, the government changed the official designation to ‘Māori’. The Department of Native Affairs, for example, became the Department of Māori Affairs.

How to cite this page:

Rawiri Taonui, 'Ngā tuakiri hōu – new Māori identities - Early Māori identities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 11 August 2020)

Story by Rawiri Taonui, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jun 2017