As named divisions of Māori iwi (tribes), hapū have membership determined by genealogical descent; a hapū comprises a number of whānau (extended family) groups. Māori scholar Hirini Moko Mead states the double meaning of the word hapū to mean pregnancy and a social unit emphasises the importance of being born into a hapū group. As a metaphor this is "the members being born of the same womb". And also "conveys the idea of growth, indicating that a hapū is capable of containing many whānau."
In the 1870 census the Whakatōhea iwi of the Bay of Plenty had five named hapū ranging in size from 51 to 165 people. Some of their hapū were apparently overlooked as an iwi register from 1874 showed two more hapū but these had small numbers: 22 and 44. The hapū of this iwi ranged in size from 22 to 188. In 1874, hapū still had a small male to female imbalance overall with six of the seven iwi having far more males than females. In the four-year period between the census and the register all the hapū had grown significantly at a time when popular opinion was Maori population was in decline. Ngāti Rua gained 8, Ngāti Patu gained 28, Ngāti Tama gained 63, Ngāti Ira lost 4, Ngāti Ngahere gained 17. These population gains were at a time when the iwi had land confiscated by the government for their support of various anti-government movements. Some hapū in other iwi were larger. 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. 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 – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- "Tribal organisation", Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- Mead, Sidney M. Tikanga Māori : living by Māori values (Revised ed.). Wellington. ISBN 978-1-77550-222-7. OCLC 936552206.
- Opotiki-Mai-Tawhiti.p 142-143. Ranginui Walker. Penguin. North Shore. 2007. ISBN 9780143006497
- 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