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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 1

Tikanga Māori Pre-1840

Tikanga Māori Pre-1840

Had any body of law or custom capable of being understood and administered by the Courts of a civilised country been known to exist, the British Government would surely have provided for its recognition.

Prendergast CJ Wi Parata v The Bishop of Wellington (1877) 3 Jur (NS) 72 (SC) 77-78

Pre-1840 Māori customs, rules, values and ideologies (tikanga1) did not fit neatly into Western notions of law. Tikanga was not codified into express laws or enforced by an external authority such as a Legislature or Judiciary. As a result, it was viewed by incoming British settlers as lacking in fairness, morality, certainty and reasonableness. Tikanga had none of these characteristics. Tikanga was constructed over centuries of practice and was underpinned by core values and principles which governed Māori political, legal, social and spiritual behaviour. It was flexible, adaptable and could be interconnected to fit with the demands of the moment or as new circumstances arose.

The first part of this paper describes the nature and scope of pre-1840 tikanga by setting out the core principles, goals and values which underpinned tikanga and its fluid, flexible and interconnected nature. It also provides some insight into how these core principles governed pre-1840 Māori communities’ social, legal, spiritual and political behaviour.

The second part of this paper highlights the ability of tikanga to govern the collective behaviour of pre-1840 Māori communities. It provides specific examples of tikanga governing pre-1840 Māori communities’ behaviour in relation to social norms, war and land. In conclusion, this part also describes how tikanga was enforced.

Part One: The Nature and Scope of Pre-1840 Tikanga

The concept of ‘tikanga

This paper deliberately refrains from describing Māori customs, rules, values and ideologies as ‘Māori customary law’. The term ‘Māori customary law’ is a scholarly and legalistic term, which was first used by early settlers to describe Māori customary practices and rules (Boast et al 2002:24). The notion of law does not fit well with pre-1840 Māori customs, rules, values and ideologies. Law is fundamentally expressed in written form and is designed to be certain and rigid. It is often linked to the state and enforced by an external authority. These characteristics of law were not present in pre-1840 Māori day-to-day life. This paper uses the term ‘tikanga’ to describe pre-1840 Māori customs, rules, values and ideologies.

Tikanga has been defined in many ways. Judge Eddie T. Durie defines it as the ‘values, standards, principles or norms to which the Māori community generally subscribed for the determination of appropriate conduct’ (Durie 1996:449). Dame Joan Metge describes tikanga simply as ‘the right Māori ways’ (Metge 1995:21). Chief Judge Jo Williams describes tikanga as ‘the Māori way of doing things – from the very mundane to the most sacred or important fields of human endeavour’ (Williams 1998:2). No one definition is completely correct or wrong.

The word tikanga originates from the two words ‘tika’ and ‘nga’. ‘Tika’ can be defined as right, correct, just or fair. ‘Nga’ is the plural for the English word ‘the’. Therefore, in this context tikanga may be defined as ‘way(s) of doing and thinking held by Māori to be just and correct’ (NZ Law Commission 2003:16).

This paper suggests that there are three levels of tikanga. The essential principle underpinning tikanga at the highest level is the notion of what is right and moral, and what is wrong. Below the principle of what is right and wrong are the core values which underpin this notion. The final level of tikanga was the practice and application of these core values.

The Fundamental Principles Underpinning Tikanga

As suggested above, at the highest level, the essential principle underpinning tikanga was the notion of what is right and moral, and what is wrong. In this way tikanga displayed general guidelines for acceptable behaviour and compensated for unacceptable behaviour. The notion of right and wrong is evident in all pre-1840 Māori communities’ behaviour.

Under the highest level of tikanga there are a number of core values that underpin the totality of tikanga Māori. They include: whanaungatanga; mana; tapu; manaakitanga; and utu. This is not an exhaustive or definitive list.2 Each iwi would have its own variations of each of the core values, and therefore the above list must be seen as a general list which can be subjected to reconfiguration. It also must be noted that none of these core values stand alone; rather they are closely interwoven, much like a koru (Durie 1994:4-5). To understand tikanga, one must understand the core values because it is these core values which provide the primary guide to behaviour.

Before defining the core values underpinning tikanga, it must be noted that a perfect picture will never be painted when trying to give Māori concepts an English definition.

(a) Whanaungatanga

Whanaungatanga captures the all-embracing relationships of pre-1840 Māori society. Pre-1840 Māori relationships were between people; between people and the physical world; and between people and Atua (spiritual entities) (NZ Law Commission 2003:30). Most relationships were based on whakapapa (genealogy). Whakapapa was also the basis for social constructions, that being whānau, hapū and iwi.

Whakapapa was an effective social tool. In pre-1840 Māori society an individual was never seen purely as an individual; rather the individual’s identity was defined through that individual’s relationship with others. Put another way, individuals were expected to support the collective group, and the collective group was expected to support the individual, (Mead 2003:20) (whakapapa being the basis for the relationship). Whakapapa could also be used to define mana in the collective group. For example, significant people within the collective group would often make reference to senior lines of whakapapa to earlier celebrated leaders of the community or/and Atua. In this way it created an inherent hierarchical system, and defined the nature of relationships between members of the collective group.

Whakapapa was also a very effective political tool. Well developed whakapapa could give an individual an entry to numerous communities, and allowed the communities to claim the adherence of widely scattered persons (NZ Law Commission 2003:30). In this way allegiances were created in times of war and peace, and assisted in maintaining positive relationships.3

Finally, whakapapa was also used to maintain relationships with the land. For example, mountains, rivers or lakes were often named after significant tupuna of the collective group to inform and affirm whanaungatanga between people and the land (NZ Law Commission 2003:31). A whakapapa link to the land formed the basis for rights to use the land.

(b) Mana

Mana is defined in the William’s Dictionary of the Māori Language as authority, control, influence, prestige, and power on one hand, and psychic force on the other (Williams 1979:172). There are three aspects of mana: mana atua – God given power; mana tupuna – power handed down from by one’s ancestors; and mana tangata – authority derived from personal attributes (Boast et al 1999). The triadic nature of mana is important because it explains the dynamics of Māori status and leadership and the lines of accountability between leaders and their people.

Mana tupuna was acquired from birth as mana handed down by one’s ancestors. The mātaamua (the eldest child of the sibling set, or in some iwi the first born male child) acquired the greatest share of mana tupuna. The shares would then decrease in order of birth. In the traditional sense it meant that those with senior whakapapa lines had a head start in the expectation of leadership positions (NZ Law Commission 2003:33). However, mana tupuna alone was not sufficient enough to claim a role in tribal leadership.

Mana tangata (achieved through feats of bravery, skill or knowledge) was also important if one wanted to be a leader. If one had mana tupuna but not mana tangata, then he or she could be expected to be bypassed for someone who had both. In this situation whakapapa could be tailored to show a link to the senior lines of descent (Boast et al 1992:38). Mana tangata allowed for class mobility, and was often judged not from the perspective of personal achievement, rather the ability to benefit the collective (Durie 1994:6).

It is important to mention at this stage that rangatira were still required to affirm the consensus of the people in public forums (NZ Law Commission 2003:34). This notion can be best described by the whakatauki (proverb) –

Ko te kai a te rangatira, he kōrero.

The art of rhetoric is the food of chiefs.

The final segment of mana is mana atua. Mana atua emphasises the tapu nature of the leadership role and the respect which the community owes its chosen leaders (Williams 1998:12). It governed individual and community behaviour and conduct, in that a rangatira who wore the mantle of mana atua and mana tupuna in abundance would be treated with awe and respect (NZ Law Commission 2003:35).

(c) Tapu and Noa

Tapu and noa are complementary opposites, which together constitute a whole. There are many meanings and conditions associated with tapu and it had many purposes. On the one hand it can be linked to a code for social conduct based essentially on keeping safe and avoiding risk. On the other hand, it has political purposes in terms of protecting the sanctity of certain persons, such as Rangatira, Ariki and Tohunga, thus ensuring appropriate levels of respect for hapū leadership (Boast et al 1994:26). Tapu came from the gods and therefore, if an individual broke tapu then they would expect to suffer spiritual interference, thus providing an incentive to obey the tapu.

Situations, people and objects could fluctuate between a state of tapu and noa. For example, a menstruating woman would be considered to be tapu, however once her cycle was completed she would be noa. Tapu was also a tool to reinforce personal mana and could be manipulated or accommodated to fit certain situations or relationships (Durie 1994:7). For example, if a rangatira could point a direct line to Atua, then he may have been considered tapu and could be treated with awe and respect. Tapu could also be used as a form of social control, for example, a tohunga could deem a particular place/resource to be tapu by placing a rahui (sanction). It was expected that the community would act consistently with the rahui.

Noa on other hand has been defined as safety and was a counter or antidote to tapu. Noa denotes a state of relaxed access, requiring no particular protective mechanism or restrictions – the value of everyday, ordinary relaxed human activity.

(d) Manaakitanga

Durie defines Manaakitanga as ‘generosity, caring for others and compassion’ (Durie 1994:6). Manaakitanga is a form of social control in that the individual was meant to conduct himself/herself with manaakitanga and would expect to receive it back. It reflects an expected standard of behaviour, an ideal that one should aspire to.

Manaakitanga was closely related and intertwined with every core value of pre-1840 Māori society. For example, whanaungatanga was used to establish relationships, but manaakitanga maintained those relationships. The amount of manaakitanga given could depend on the basis of the relationship. For example, a great deal of manaakitanga would be given to those who were tapu or had mana. In Pre-1840 Māori society manaakitanga was always important no matter what the circumstances might be. It was used in times of war and peace and if broken or disrespected could be the cause for utu.

(e) Utu

Utu is linked to the framework of take-utu-ea. That is, there would be an action (take), which requires an appropriate resolution (utu), which would hopefully resolve the matter and there would be a state of ea (restoring balance and thereby maintaining whanaungatanga) (Mead 2003:28).

Utu is often understood to mean revenge for wrong doing – this is partly correct. There were positive and negative facets of utu. For example, utu would be used in the return of goods (taonga and services) for ‘good’ gifts, and the return of ‘bad’ goods (insults, injuries, wrongs) for bad gifts (NZ Law Commission 2003:38). In this way utu helped to govern pre-1840 Māori communities’ social behaviour.

A fundamental element of utu was manaakitanga. Many famous stories exist that illustrate the exercise of manaakitanga by chiefs of great mana (Tau 2008):

  • the giving of the chief’s son or daughter to a vanquished enemy in order to make them strong again and restore their mana;
  • the transfer of extensive areas of land to a beaten enemy in order to ensure the survival of that tribe;
  • engaging in massive displays of generosity through hākari (traditional feasting) and hui (traditional gathering) in order to create obligations of reciprocity and confirm relationships.

In each of these examples, it is important to recognise that the gift was not unconditional, and in time an appropriate return would be expected: for example, off-spring, produce from the land and support in times of war. These examples highlight the nature of utu as a method to establish or reinforce on-going relationships.

The desire for utu could last for generations. Take were often raised as a reason to go to war, or gain support to go to war (Mead 2003:36).

The Nature of Tikanga

Tikanga extended to all parts of pre-1840 Māori society including political, social, moral, spiritual and economic matters. It embodies not only the method of conducting actions in Māori society but also the beliefs and underlying values, which accompanied the particular actions. Put another way tikanga comprises a spectrum with values at one end and rules at the other, but with values informing the whole range. The fundamental values underpinning tikanga have been discussed above.

Tikanga has its origins in the spiritual realms of the Atua (the gods) and was handed down from tupuna (ancestors) to the present (Mead 2003:12). This was important because it linked the livings’ values which underpinned their normal behaviour to the often heroic, moral, wise and noble Atua. Pre-1840 Māori had no form of written language. Rather these important values of the Atua were passed by one generation to the other, either by Whakatauki (proverbs), waiata, purakau, whaikorero, or through active participation in a particular act, which gave rise to the understanding of the value(s) associated with that act.

Tikanga was pragmatic, open-ended and lacked rule-like definitions. This allowed tikanga to be flexible and adaptable to fit new circumstances or the needs of the community at a particular time or situation. Tikanga was able to adapt because it was unwritten and because precedent could be forgotten or disregarded if no longer convenient (Durie 1994:10). It is the ability of tikanga to change that accounts for its variations among iwi. Flexibility however, could not be so great as to allow a proposition to be advanced as tikanga where it is in conflict with core values handed down from the ancestors. This allowed for common tikanga not only within internal hapū but also at a regional level (NZ Law Commission 2003:28).

Tikanga also varied in scale. Some tikanga were large, involved many participants and were very public. For example, tangihanga or hakari could involve hundreds to thousands of people. Other tikanga however could be very small in scale and might be less public, for example individual karakia (prayers).

Māori social and political organisation

Before explaining the extent to which tikanga governed the collective behaviour of pre-1840 Māori communities, it is important to note the social constructions of pre-1840 Māori society. There were three group formations, whānau, hapū and iwi.

Whānau was used to describe immediate relatives, those descended from an ancestor some 3 to 4 generations back (Durie 1994:16). Whānau often lived and worked together, and through residence and expansion could form a hapū in their own right.

The major political and social group in pre-1840 Māori society was the hapū. Each hapū was named either from a common ancestor or, (less frequently) from a symbolic event (Durie 1994:17). Hapū came in many shapes and sizes, ranging from large, long established groups with small sub-hapū of its own, to small recently formed hapū of relatively shallow genealogical depth (Durie 1994:17). Hapū could waxed and fused depending on particular situations. For example, hapū could splinter from another hapū because of: growth in numbers; planned migration; lack of resources; or inter-kin disputes etc. On the other hand, hapū could fuse for many reasons, such as: war; regain strength if numbers were depleted from war or famine; consequence of an arranged marriage; or a willingness to link with an influential leader.

The process of division, incorporation, fusion and intermarriage allowed hapū to relate to numerous others near and far, and to join with others for any common venture. As Durie states, pre-1840 Māori society existed within the dual tension of upholding hapū mana and maintaining the wider whanaungatanga (Durie 1994:20).

Hapū lived under the influence of a ruling or principal rangatira and several less influential rangatira. The mana of a principal rangatira could lie over his territory (ancestral lands), and in some instances over other hapū living within his territory. Although a principal rangatira had the rights to gift mana to individuals/groups, he was ultimately controlled by the people whom he governed. Hapū would acknowledge his mana and comply with his rule, but only while he provided protection and secured wealth for the community. Individuals, whānau, and hapū (and the rangatira who led them), were free to leave their hapū if they were dissatisfied with the principal rangatira’s leadership. Therefore, hapū could increase or decrease depending on the principal rangatira’s influence.

Iwi is the conglomerate of numerous hapū who can trace ancestry to a common but remote figure. It was used as a general description for people of locality, district or region. It was only in the 19th century that hapū started to group into iwi, as a response to increased scales of war. Pre-18th century warfare were often between hapū or a number of hapū. However this changed, and the scale of war increased to a regional scale; hence hapū strengthening their forces under the umbrella of iwi.

Part Two: Tikanga governing the collective behaviour of pre-1840 Māori communities

This part of the paper draws heavily on the work of Eddie Durie’s paper Customary Law, to provide specific examples of tikanga governing pre-1840 Māori communities’ behaviour, in regards to war, land and social norms. It also provides a brief discussion on the enforcement of tikanga.

Tikanga as a form of social control

Social control was regulated by the fundamental principles of tikanga defined above. There was no notion of an individual in pre-1840 Māori communities. Therefore, an injury caused by one individual to another, would not only affect the mana of the victim but also the mana of the victim’s whānau/community. The whānau/community, as well as the individual would be subject to the muru (plunder to appease offences) or utu to appease a breach of tapu and/or taking of mana (Durie 1994:52). In this way, joint responsibilities made whānau/communities watchful of their disobedient members and offenders’ conscious of their whānau/communities (Durie 1994:53). In this way, reciprocity had an influential effect on governing pre-1840 Māori social behaviour.

Whakapapa also limited conflict. Because communities were often based on whakapapa, one section of the community could have found it difficult to dominate another, as a person’s friend in one context could be an enemy in another, or some friends could be on both sides. Whakapapa could provide individual tapu and mana, and therefore could effect how individuals and the community related to a particular individual, for example, a rangatira or tohunga.

Pre-1840 Māori communities’ behaviour was also highly influenced by tapu. As mentioned above both people and objects could be tapu, and it was used to governed communities’ behaviour and adherence to people, such as rangatira and tohunga, and to situations, for example waahi tapu. A breach of tapu was feared not only because it could reduce the mana of a rangatira or tohunga who was tapu or had placed the tapu, and therefore would be subject to muru or utu, but also because a breach of tapu was considered to expose the person to spiritual interference and misfortune (Durie 1994:54).

In regards to pre-1840 Māori decision making, consensus decision-making was preferred to majority rule. Debate was encouraged in formal situations (such as rūnanga or marae), and proper protocols (kawa) was followed (Durie 1994:56). If one was to break kawa, then he or she would be scolded with verbal attacks and would lose mana as a result. Runanga meetings were open and non-exclusive and decisions were based on appeasement to the community, which allowed the rangatira to maintain support (and therefore mana) from the community.

Pre-1840 Māori communities traced descent from original occupiers and subsequent migrants (be it mythological ancestors or once living people) (Durie 1994:14). It was this link that connected the present people to the land they resided in, and thus provided them with mana over the land - the longer the line connected to the land, the greater the right (Durie 1994:15). This was important because pre-1840 Māori communities saw all things as derived from the ancestors, and to establish a link of this kind gave descendants a legitimate right to use and occupy the land. Individuals who did not have a whakapapa link could still be members of the community.

However, they would not be seen as fully fledged members. Therefore individuals would seek to marry someone from the group to ensure their off-spring has ancestral rights to the land. Because one had ancestral links to the land would not mean that he or she had full rights of membership. People were expected to reside in the group locality, comply with group norms, and when required participate in group activities (this principle is known as ahikaa) (Boast et al 1999:35). Thus, if an individual was absent for too long, then that person’s (or that person’s descendants) rights of membership could be lost.

Tikanga relating to Land

The spiritual, cultural and social life of the community was linked to the land (Durie 1994:61). As mentioned above, in the whanaungatanga section, pre-1840 Māori communities’ right to land was validated by whakapapa. Whakapapa linked the land’s occupiers to the earliest occupying groups, and to the Atua that formed it. The longer the shown link the stronger the right to the land. This was important because pre-1840 Māori communities saw all things derived from the ancestors, and to establish a link of this kind gave descendants a legitimate right to use and occupy the land.

Even when groups were forced to accompany other groups within their land, either through war, immigration or famine, the suppressed group’s whakapapa link to the land was still recognised, and visitor land rights could only be secured by inter-marriage, thus giving their off-spring an ancestral link to the land. In other cases visitors would use whakapapa to identify a distant common ancestor to provide a link to the soil. A link to the land by ancestral connection was referred to as mana whenua, a link by suppression of the original inhabitants was called mana tangata. It was highly desirable to have both. Ancestral links to land was remembered and portrayed by waiata, 'myths', whaikorero, waahi tapu and the naming of parts of the land after ancestors.

Pre-1840 Māori society had no concept of ownership in land, rather individuals and groups had rights in the land (Boast et al 1999:36). Interests pertained to resources, for example an interest to cultivate crops in a particular place, or to hunt a particular resource, however it would not be an exclusive right. Many people could have different and overlapping interests in any discrete area depending on their ancestral link to the land, and their mana within the community. For example, specific resources such as stranded whales, were for the rangatira alone (Durie 1994:69).

Political rights of interest in the land (that is the ability to give, remove, or recover interests in the land) were vested in hapū, as represented in rangatira, and extended to the collective resources of the territory over which the hapū had influence (Durie 1994:72). The political right of control was expressed in terms of mana. Put another way, only rangatira could give rights in the land, as they had the requisite mana to do so. Land interests were also linked to principles of utu. Continued interests in the land would depend on regular contribution to the community and acceptance of the community rules. On the other hand, interests could be given to other hapū to forge strong relationships, for example in times of war. Interests in other lands could express themselves on an individual level (through whakapapa) or at a hapū level (through whakapapa or utu) and it was not uncommon for a rangatira to have land interests in numerous hapū.

Tikanga relating to Warfare

Unlike other countries, the use of warfare to acquire territory was considered improper in traditional Māori society4. Instead, warfare would be arranged from a desire to regain mana, and exact utu. It was a pragmatic event and varied in scale and velocity. It could involve individuals, families or hapū, and the declaration of war did not always mean that there would be bloodshed. For example, muru (plundering), gifts or interests in land could be given/received to regain mana and exact utu. The purpose was to protect whakapapa ties, ensure mana was intact and maintain enduring relationships. Because of this, the whole event could be more symbolic, as oppose to violent.

When violent warfare was conducted it was often the result of a serious breach of tapu, which had the result of injuring the mana of a rangatira and/or the hapū. For example, Durie notes a breach of rahui or a desecration of a waahi tapu could give rise to war (Durie 1994:43). Durie also notes that war was not spontaneous, and rangatira would often seek the advice of the community to ensure that it was ‘tika’ or morally justifiable to go to war. An unjust war could lead to a loss in mana within the community and allies. Tikanga could also limit violence to the first slain or personal and/or limited combat (Durie 1994:54). There could also be informal constraints on killing, such as that on a person of high mana to limit hostilities and utu from other kin groups.

Even if a hapū was conquered, in most cases they would still be allowed to reside on its land, as acknowledgement of their mana whenua over that land. In most cases the victorious hapū would inter-marry with the defeated hapū, their offspring being able to show mana whenua over the land, and helping to build relationships between each hapū.

Authority to administer tikanga

The final part of this essay explains the enforcers of tikanga. As mentioned previously, tikanga was not administered by an external authority, such as a police force. Rather tikanga was administered in a number of different ways and mediums.

Community accountability was the most effective mechanism for enforcing tikanga. Primary membership of the community was based on whakapapa, and it was this shared whakapapa which ensured that the individual acted in accordance, and in the best interests of the collective at that time. Individuals were expected to uphold tikanga and to contribute to the health of the community. If they did not, then the individual, and potentially their family, could expect to face retribution from the community.

Individuals could also administer tikanga, depending on their mana within the community. For example, a tohunga (expert in a particular field) played a significant role in the enforcement of tikanga through the establishment of a rahui (sanctions) and exacting punishment on those who breached the restrictions of rahui in the form of makutu (curse). Kaumatua (elders) were responsible for ensuring their whānau would uphold tikanga. Rangatira were responsible for displaying leadership within the realms of community tikanga. It is important to note however, that these individuals administering tikanga would only do so with the support (perceived or confirmed) of the community.

The atua were also enforcers of tikanga. Pre-1840 Māori tried to conduct themselves with the same values and beliefs of their mythologised ancestors, in this way they were a model for proper behaviour. Atua could also enforced tikanga on the basis of pre-1840 Māori belief’s that if they breached tapu, then they would be subjected to spiritual interference.


Pre-1840 tikanga was fluid, flexible and lacked rule-like definitions. It covered all areas of pre-1840 Māori society, including political, social, moral, spiritual and economic matters and was underpinned by fundamental values, which were passed on from generation to generation.

However post-1840, tikanga was eclipsed by introduced British laws and settler policies. As the quote above suggests, the judiciary simply denied that tikanga existed, the legislative suppressed aspects of tikanga, and together they altered the social structures of Māori in which tikanga existed, the overall effect being the social, economic, spiritual and political degradation of Māori society. To this day Māori society has still not recovered from this suppression of tikanga.

1 An explanation on the use of the term ‘tikanga’, as opposed to ‘Māori customary law’ is provided in the body of this paper.

2 For example, as well as the values mentioned above Eddie Durie's paper - 'Customary Law' - also mentions aroha, mana tupuna and wairua as core values of tikanga Māori (Durie 1994:4-5).

3 For example, a marriage would forge or strengthen ties between different collective groups.

4 Although this ideology changed considerably in the 1820s and 1830s.