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According to Williams' definitive Dictionary of the Māori Language, tangata means "man" or "human being", whilst tāngata (with the long ā) is the plural meaning "people"; tangata (without the macron) can also mean "people" in reference to a group with a singular identity. Whenua means both "land" and "placenta" (again referencing Williams, who lists five definitions). It is an ancient Austronesian word with cognates across the Malayo-Polynesian world, from Malay benua to Rapa Nui henua. Unlike European thought where people own land, in Māori the land is regarded as a mother to the people. The relationship to land is not dissimilar to that of the foetus to the placenta. In addition, there are certain Māori rituals involving burying the afterbirth of a newborn in ancestral land, which may further shed light on the use of the word whenua for both land and placenta.
- In the context of tribal descent and ownership of land, tangata whenua are the people who descend from the first people to settle the land of the district, whereas the actual mana may reside with later arrivals.
- At a particular marae, the tangata whenua are the owners of the marae, in contradistinction to the manuhiri or guests. After the welcoming ceremony on a marae, the guests may be afforded the temporary, honorary status of tangata whenua, and may even be invited to participate as locals as the ceremonies continue.
- In the national context of New Zealand, Māori are the tangata whenua, and in this sense the term is equivalent to 'indigenous'.
- Tangata whenua has also become a New Zealand English term with specific legal status.
Law and custom
The indigenous peoples of New Zealand may be divided into three levels of kinship, on which traditional governance was based.
The numerically smallest level, whānau, is what Westerners would consider the extended family, perhaps descended from a common great-grandparent. Traditionally a whānau would hold in common their food store (their forest or bush for hunting birds and gathering or growing plant foods, and a part of the sea, a river or a lake for gathering eel, fish, shellfish and other foods). These food stores were fiercely protected and when one's resources could no longer support the growing whānau, war with a neighbouring tribe might eventuate.
The next level, hapū (sub-tribe) is a group of several related whānau, and traditionally was the primary governance unit. In war and when decisions needed to be made in negotiations with outside tribes, the whānau leaders would gather and the hapū would make the decisions.
But several (or many) hapū can trace their ancestry, usually on the male line, back to a particular waka, the ocean-going canoe upon which the common ancestors of that tribe arrived in New Zealand, and this unified level is called the iwi. Until the British arrived, the iwi was not a governance unit, but among other things, a way to establish kinship and commonality, part of a "who's who" which forms the formal greeting ceremony of "pōwhiri" when one group visits another.
However, under British and subsequent New Zealand law, typically an iwi forms itself into a legally recognised entity, and under the Treaty of Waitangi these entities are accorded special rights and obligations under New Zealand law... when they are recognised as tangata whenua They must have a provable relationship with a specific area of geography, and if this is acknowledged by the national or local authority, they become the legal tangata whenua. (Some areas may have several groups given tangata whenua status, which can make the process more complex).
When, for example, a major real estate development is proposed to the territorial authority, the tangata whenua must be consulted, although the mere fact that "consultation" take place does not mean that the views of the tangata whenua will necessarily be listened to. When bones are found, the tangata whenua are supposed to be called. In addition to these sorts of legally mandated requirements, when a person wishes to have land blessed, or when an untimely sudden death occurs, an elder (kaumātua or tohunga) of the tangata whenua may be asked to perform a cleansing ritual.
The notion of tangata whenua is sometimes contrasted with that of tangata tiriti – literally, "the people of the Treaty". Tangata tiriti refers to non-indigenous New Zealanders, who are in the country by virtue of the Treaty of Waitangi. It is close to, but not necessarily synonymous with, the term Pākehā. As used notably by Judge Edward Taihakurei Durie, the notion of tangata tiriti underlines partnership and acceptance. Unlike tangata whenua, the term tangata tiriti is not in frequent or common use among New Zealanders.
- A. Salmond, Hui, A Study of Maori Ceremonial Gatherings. Reed, Wellington, 1975.