The Historic Role of the Tribe

Jennifer Lee '99 (English 27, Spring '97)

Indeed, for Van Meijl, the reconstruction of Maori identity arises out of a need to "validate their pursuit of sovereignty in a culturally specific manner," or, more specifically, to validate their political existence by evoking long-lost tribal culture. It would follow, then, that the tribe has ceased to hold any traditional value now that it must be infused with Pakeha ideas disguised as Maori values in order to achieve any kind of purpose. But, any discourse concerning traditional values is bound to take many forms. Anne Sullivan, for instance, obviously believes that the tribe has a very relevant place in today's Maori society: "Tribal identity, whanaungatanga (kinship, collective development and loyalty) has enabled Maori to survive as a distinct and separate people in spite of the assimilation practices of previous governments and in spite of the loss of their land which is the very essence of Maori identity."

On the one hand, Van Meijl is talking about the political influence of the tribe on the modern Maori, and on the other, Sullivan is referring to the symbolic connotation of the tribe today. Both explanations, which on the surface appear contradictory, are perfectly cohesive when viewed within their respective spheres. In order to engage in this kind of activity, however, traditional values first must be examined in context so to determine where the passage of time has inevitably left its mark.

Historically, the Maori tribe, or iwi, was an independent political unit possessing tribal lands and autonomy within those lands. Thus, in spite of common Maoriness, tribes often existed separate from one another, developing individual histories and cultural variations over time. The tribe was a descent group in the broadest sense in that ideally, every member of the tribe was a descendent of the founding ancestor. It was the quality of the descent line, then, which was the determining factor of social status. Those who derived the greatest mana from their superior ancestors were the leaders, presiding over everything from ceremonial occasions to the more mundane aspects of everyday life.

Obviously, ancestry was a key consideration in Maori life, and it manifested itself most clearly at the tribal level. For instance, the study of descent lines, whakapapa, was very important for leadership purposes, but it entailed far more than a reciting of names. According to Metge, "The study of whakapapa is almost inseparable from that of traditional history, which recounts the doings of the ancestors named in the whakapapa." Indeed, in many cases, whakapapa books are sacred and whakapapa studies, religious. In James Ritchie's study of the Maori community Rakau, however, he found that no person knew the names of ancestors beyond six generations from his own, and that no such whakapapa books were kept. But generally, the fact that kinship and descent lines often crossed made for large but intimate communities of kin bound by common ancestry.

With the coming of the European, things were bound to change in Antorea and they did. By the late 50s and early 60s, when Metge conducted her research, the Maori situation had more or less stabilized and a division existed between those who lived in the country and those who had migrated to the city. In rural areas, tribal ties were generally stronger than those which existed in the city. The period between 1920-1950 has even been described as a rural Maori renaissance, in spite of hardships. Even at that point, though, the tribe had become a "largely abstract concept;" although, everyone had a sense of tribal identity and could recognize its value: "What then did tribal membership mean to Maoris living in Kotare? It gave them, first, a connection with important and exciting figures and events in the classical Maori past, and secondly, a defined place in the modern Maori social world."

In general, it can be said with some confidence that the country dwelling Maori were able to sustain more traditional aspects of their Maoriness than their urban counterparts, mainly because they were less directly affected by the Pakeha threat to their identity. Because today the vast majority of Maoris live in cities, to consider the role of the tribe in Maori society today requires an inspection of the urban setting, even if it is not as current as it could be. It is unfortunate that more recent resources are not available, so for our purposes, the country Maori will represent the "past" and the urban Maori the "present."

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