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In New Zealand society, iwi (pronounced [iwi]) form the largest everyday social units in Māori culture. The word iwi means "people" or "folk"; in many contexts it may mean "tribe", "clan", or sometimes a confederation of tribes. Anthropological research[1] indicates that most Māori in pre-European times gave their primary allegiance to relatively small groups such as hapū (clans) and whānau (extended families).



In Māori, iwi literally means "bone". Māori may refer to returning home after travelling or living elsewhere as "going back to the bones" — literally to the burial-areas of the ancestors. Māori 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".

Many names of iwi begin with Ngāti or with Ngāi (from ngā āti and ngā ai, both meaning roughly "the offspring of"). Ngāti has become a productive morpheme in New Zealand English to refer to groups of people: Ngāti Pākehā (Pākehā as a group), Ngāti Poneke (Māori who have migrated into the Wellington region), Ngati Ranana (Māori living in London), Ngāti Tūmatauenga, "Tribe of Tūmatauenga" (the god of war) — (the official Māori-language name of the New Zealand Army).


Iwi groups trace their ancestry to the original Māori settlers who, according to tradition, arrived from Hawaiki. In turn, some iwi cluster into even larger groupings based on genealogical tradition, known as waka (literally: "canoes", with reference to the original migration voyages), but these super-groupings generally serve symbolic rather than practical functions. Each iwi has a number of hapū ("sub-tribes"). For example, the Ngāti Whātua iwi has hapū including Te Uri-o-Hau, Te Roroa, Te Taou, and Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei.

Iwi and politics

In modern-day New Zealand, iwi groups may exercise significant political power in the recovery and management of land and of other assets. (Note for example the 1997 settlement between the New Zealand Government and Ngāi Tahu, compensating that iwi for various losses of the rights guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840.) Iwi affairs can have a very real impact on New Zealand politics and society. A 2004 attempt by some iwi to test in court their ownership of the seabed and foreshore areas, polarised public opinion (see New Zealand foreshore and seabed controversy).

Each iwi has a generally recognised territory (rohe), but many of these overlap, sometimes completely.[2] This has added a layer of complication to the long-running discussions and court cases about how to resolve historical Treaty-claims. The length of coastline emerged as one factor in the final (2004) legislation to allocate fishing-rights in settlement of claims relating to commercial fisheries.


Iwi can become a prospective vehicle for ideas and ideals of self-determination and/or tino rangatiratanga. Thus the "Rules of the Maori Party" (Māori Party Constitution) mentions in its preamble "the dreams and aspirations of tangata whenua to achieve self-determination for whānau, hapū and iwi within their own land".[3] Some Tūhoe envisage self-determination in specifically iwi-oriented terms.[4]

Problems of identification

Increasing urbanisation of Māori has led to a situation where a significant percentage do not identify with an iwi. The following extract from a 2000 High Court of New Zealand judgment (discussing the process of settling fishing-rights) illustrates some of the issues:

... 81 percent of Māori 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 percent 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 Māori 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.[5]

In the 2006 census, 16 percent of the 643,977 people who claimed Māori ancestry did not know their iwi. Another 11% did not state their iwi, or only stated a general geographical region or merely gave a canoe-name.[6] The proportion who "don’t know" dropped relative to the previous censuses,[6] perhaps helped by measures such as the "Iwi Helpline".

Challenge from urban Māori

In recent years, "urban Māori" have challenged the established tribal (iwi-based) 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 do so (possibly because they do not know their ancestral iwi). Individual Māori persons or groups may decide to support non-tribal structures because (for example) they believe the existing iwi do not give significant value to them, or that they believe that iwi cannot understand their point-of-view.

Urban Māori, typically urban bred, may[original research?] identify with European culture to a much larger degree than rural Māori, and often feel that a non-iwi group may best represent their needs. It remains unclear how the traditional iwi groups will respond to this phenomenon. (Thus far, some appear dismissive of these notions.[citation needed]) Notably, one such urban group[citation needed] established itself in the belief that urban Māori do not get their fair share of "Treaty settlements" between the Māori people and the New Zealand government.


Some established pan-tribal organizations may also undercut the otherwise important iwi. The Ratana Church, for example. operates across iwi divisions, and the Māori King Movement aims to transcend some iwi functions in a wider grouping.

Iwi radio

Many iwi operate bilingual English and Māori radio stations targeting local members and others. Programming on these stations is funded by Te Māngai Pāho and include national and local news coverage, music, educational programming, comedy, drama and programmes which teach te reo. These stations update listeners on iwi news and events, and promote Māori language and culture.

The iwi stations are, from North to South:

Well-known iwi groups

Prominent iwi include:

See also


  1. ^ Ballara, Angela (1998). Iwi: The dynamics of Māori tribal organisation from c.1769 to c.1945. Wellington: Victoria University Press. ISBN 0-86473-328-3. 
  2. ^ Waitangi Tribunal - About the Reports
  3. ^ "The Rules of the Maori Party". The Māori Party. http://www.maoriparty.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1056&Itemid=94. Retrieved 2008-09-07. "The Maori Party is born of the dreams and aspirations of tangata whenua to achieve self-determination for whānau, hapū and iwi within their own land; to speak with a strong, independent and united voice; and to live according to kaupapa handed down by our ancestors. The vision for the Maori Party will be based on these aspirations [...]" 
  4. ^ Tahana, Yvonne (2008-08-09). "Tuhoe leader backs self rule". The New Zealand Herald (Auckland: APN). http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/1/story.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10526089. Retrieved 2008-09-07. "Calls from Maori activist Tame Iti for self-government arrangements for the Tuhoe tribe similar to those Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have in the UK have been backed by a leader likely to negotiate the tribe's Treaty settlement. ... While other iwi have focused on economic transfer of assets as a way of achieving tino rangatiratanga or self-determination, Tuhoe have spelled out their intention to negotiate constitutional issues." 
  5. ^ "Paterson J noted the changes in Maori society since 1840, and in particular urbanisation, which, it had been submitted, meant that an allocation to iwi would not deliver the benefits of the settlement to the beneficiaries. He said (at 320-321)", from 2000
  6. ^ a b Table 30, QuickStats About Māori, 2006 Census. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand.

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