Whakapapa is the bedrock of Māori society.

In mid-1995 a hui of kaumatua from throughout Aotearoa considered commonalities and differences between tribes in matters of tikanga regarding customary rights to land, fisheries and forests.  They were unanimous about whakapapa: 

Whakapapa was paramount to everything in the lives of the tupuna (forebears, ancestors) of Māori.  It was the determinant of all rights, and the mechanism by which membership to any particular, and/or to a number of kinship groups, was determined.1


Rauparaha. Chief Capiti. [Coates, Isaac] 1808-1878 : Principal chief of all New Zealand. [1843?], Alexander Turnbull Library, A-286-012 [permission must be sought from ATL for further use of image]

Whakapapa underpinned creation stories, especially the genealogical progression from Te Kore, through countless aeons of Te Pō to Te Ao Mārama, to Io-matua-kore , which established descent lines to Rangi and Papatūānuku.  Rangi and Papatūānuku's offspring were the gods, with specialised powers over the natural and spiritual world; Tāne, eldest son of Rangi and Papatūānuku created humankind.  The relationship to the gods by whakapapa determined the tuakanatanga of contending chiefs which, within iwi communities "mirrored the mana and tapu" of those of most direct descent from the Gods, "as being greater and more intense that those of the teina lines". Thus, tuakanatanga determined rangatiratanga.

Groupings within tribes were also determined by genealogy.  The whānau was the family which, over time, grew to include several generations.   Lateral relationships formed through marriage, and the whānau could become a hapu.  Whanaunga were the genetic members of such groups, linked by whakapapa to each other and sharing descent from a founding tupuna, preferably one of high mana.  That tupuna might become the group's eponymous ancestor - i.e. his/her name could be taken by the iwi, whānau or hapu.2

Rank and status within kin groups was determined by whakapapa, although in rare instances individuals of great personal prowess might attain mana above their genealogical station.  Te Rauparaha was one such:  although fifth-born of his father's second wife, by his prowess, strength, intelligence, cunning, single-mindedness and determination, skills of diplomacy, and strategic marriages, Te Rauparaha rose in rank to tuakana fighting the chief of his tribe, Ngāti Toarangatira.

Each whānau had distinct territories and boundaries;  this was their mana whenua, manawa, mana moana,  and their tūrangawaewae.  Within these localities rights and responsibilities of occupation, use and protection of specific resources and assets was determined by whakapapa.  Tauiwi or rāwaho had no such rights, unless granted, usually temporarily, by the mana whenua group or its rangatira.  In-laws were whanaunga but their rights still belonged to their spouses' core group.

Whanaungatanga often extended beyond one's immediate kin-group through ancient marriages between rangatira of tribes now distantly separated.  Although it may be rarely invoked, such whanaungatanga "never grows cold ... rather it is always there, and it comes alive when it is exercised".3  Initial exchanges on meeting strangers often involved searches for linking ancestors, the outcome of which might determine subsequent relationships, negotiations and partnerships.

Whakapapa determined marriage partners, more often arranged by the couple's kaumātua than the couple themselves;  choices were made to strengthen ties within the hapu, to establish or strengthen ties to outside hapu or iwi, or to ensure land and other resources remained within the whānau/hapu and were not dissipated to outsiders;  thus many marriages were between second-, third- or fourth- cousins.  Whakapapa often determined whangai relationships for similar reasons.

Customary beliefs and practices regarding whakapapa are as strong today as in 1840.  Board members of iwi authorities, land trusts, incorporations and other Māori organisations invariably whakapapa directly to the resources they administer.  As in the past, members can attain responsibility through special skills and knowledge, but most positions of authority, though filled by democratic vote of members, are still determined by whakapapa.


Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Mahuika, A T (1995) Tikanga and Fisheries. In Proceedings of Kaumatua Hui, August 1995. Te Ohu Kai Moana Archive, Wellington, p.2
  2. Names of iwi, hapu and whanau are usually prefixed by "Ngāti", "Ngā", "Ngai", or "Te", all meaning "The (people) of";  e.g. "Ngāti Tumatakokiri" - "The people/followers/descendants of Tumatakokiri
  3. Mahuika, p. 5

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Further sources - Whakapapa




  • Mahuika, A T (1995) Tikanga and Fisheries. In Proceedings of Kaumatua Hui, August 1995. Te Ohu Kai Moana Archive, Wellington.

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