Generally hapū range in size from 350 to 500 persons, although there is no upper limit. A Māori person can belong to or have links to many different hapū.
Pre-history and history
Before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand the normal day-to-day operating group in Māori society seems to have been the smaller whānau (extended family). By the 1820s Māori had learnt the economic benefit of working in larger groups - especially when it came to trading with ships. The larger hapū could work more effectively to produce surplus flax, potatoes, smoked heads and pigs in exchange for blankets, tobacco, axes and trade muskets. In warfare the hapū operated as the standard grouping for warriors during the period of the Musket Wars (1807-1842). Hapū would unite politically under their own chief, to form much larger armies of up to several thousand warriors, although it was common for hapū to retain independence within the larger group.
Each hapū had its own chief and normally operated independently of the tribe (iwi) group.
Te Maire Tau noted in his study of Ngāi Tahu migrations that hapū size and names were volatile, with hapū splitting into sister groups when they grew in size or when migrating. New hapū often adopted names from events associated with the migration. Likewise the same group of people would change their name according to different circumstances. Name changes primarily asserted rights to resources given to a named hapū, or emphasised a link to an ancestor with mana in a particular area. Tau states that hapū names and locations have become more stable in more recent times.
Missionaries such Henry Williams (1792-1867) noted that even in times of war against another iwi, hapū usually operated independently. In the period of the Musket Wars (1807-1842) many of the battles involved fighting between competing hapū rather than different iwi. It was not uncommon for two hapū from the same iwi to clash.
Hapū frequently were the political unit that sold land to the Europeans. In the 20 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, according to Native Affairs Minister Chris Richmond, different hapū or comparatively small groups of individuals sold half of all the blocks sold under the Treaty of Waitangi. Richmond said that hapū or small groups sold all the land sold north of Auckland, some in Hawke's Bay, in the Wairarapa valley, in the Waikato at Raglan, and sales by Te Āti Awa in Wellington and Taranaki.
The word hapū literally means "pregnant"; the usage in a socio-political context expresses a metaphor for the genealogical connection that unites the members of the hapū. (Similarly, the Māori word for land, whenua, can also mean "placenta", metaphorically indicating the connection between the people and the land, and the word iwi, for a Māori tribal group, can also mean "bones", indicating a link to ancient ancestors.)
- "Tribal organisation", Te Ara
- rt-1-traditional-maori-concepts "Traditional Maori Concepts", Ministry of Justice
- "How iwi and hapū were named", Te Ara
- "Tribal organisation", Te Ara
- Ngāi Tahu, A Migration History. Editors Te Maire Tau and Atholl Anderson. Bridget Williams. Wellington 2008, pp. 20–23
- Appendix to Journals. 1861, E-01, page 26, supplementary to Governor's Despatch.
- "...hapū means both pregnant and clan...", Te Ara