Iwi Citizen or Tribal Member

Iwi Citizen or Tribal Member

The terms ‘tribal member’ and ‘hapū member’ are colonial terms with a number of detrimental connotations. Many Indigenous Peoples of the world have suffered the same fate with colonial and derogatory terms to describe them.

The definition of the word ‘tribal’ includes a division of a barbarous race of people.

The definition of the word ‘member’ is not exclusively for humans, it also includes animals, plants that belong to a particular group. In computer networks a computer or a user is a member of a group. Membership is optional and Iwi is not a mere group of things.

The etymology and definitions of the two words ‘tribal’ and ‘member’ do not infer whakapapa to an Iwi. It does infer a colonial state definition that describes us as barbaric natives who belong to a Westminster style organisation.

Iwi citizen

The term iwi citizen is a post colonial term reflecting a bilingual and bi-cultural country that empowers people of an iwi by recognising the rights and treaty obligations of our treaty partner. Ideally one would replace the word Iwi with the name of their Iwi. For example, I am a citizen of Ngāi Tahu.

We don’t say I am a member of New Zealand, so why do we say we are a member of an Iwi? Perhaps this was intentional by the colonising government of the day to ensure that Māori would know that they were citizens of the British Empire and only members of their tribe? Then like the word Māori, it has become common and not offensive.

The term citizen is much more powerful and mana enhancing. Citizen infers that the person has status, rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

As Māori, we do not have to apply to an Iwi to become associated or to belong to to Iwi. We are born with a natural right to belong to our iwi and that is defined by whakapapa, not by application. Unlike Native American’s who must prove a certain blood quantum to be able to legally identify with their people. Under New Zealand law, anyone can self identify as being Māori.

An Iwi structure is likely to ask for proof of your whakapapa when adding you to their systems and for voting. Much the same way we need to prove our whakapapa to being born in New Zealand when we enroll to vote and for other government systems and  benefits.



The term Māori was originally used to describe anything normal, but came to be the term used for tangata whenua by the colonisers. In 1947 the term was used to replace the word ‘Native in legislation by the New Zealand government as Maori were uself in the World War II.

Maori is a term that we all identify without any thought, a minority the exception. Māori leaders such as Sir Apirana Mahuika, Sir Tipene O’Regan et al described themselves as being of Ngāti Porou and Ngāi Tahu, not as Māori or as Iwi members. It would be highly unusual to introduce yourself at a hui on the marae and say you are Māori. Instead, you say I am and state your Iwi name. Just as it is curious to say “on behalf of Māori” or “think like a Māori” as we are all individuals with whānau and  hapū traits first and foremost, then Iwi traits. Then you could argue why we don’t use the term Māorikore for non Māori?


Definition of Iwi

Legal and western definition of Iwi.

Iwi was originally an abstract term denoting a strong reinforcing structure. By the early 19th century it was analogous to the English notion of ‘a people’ or ‘nation’. In more recent times it has taken on the sense of a socially and politically cohesive kin group or ‘tribe’. Iwi has acquired these recent meanings partly due to its extensive use by government officials in the classification of kin groups for administrative purposes http://www.legalmaori.net/dictionary?omni=iwi#.

Traditional definition

The term iwi (bone) was brought into current use to include all the hapu descended from common ancestors and thus related to each other by blood tie. To denote the groupings in English, the iwi has been termed tribe and the hapu a sub tribe. Coming of the Maori. Sir Peter Buck 1949, pg 333.


Terminology of Iwi names usually consisted of applying a prefix Ngati, Ngai, Ati to a family groupings ancestor with shared genealogy and waka. In most tribal names, the eponymous ancestor is a male, but instances occur in which the ancestor selected is a female, as in Ngātu Ruanui in Taranaki. Coming of the Maori. Sir Peter Buck 1949, pg 334.



“status, rights, privileges, and responsibilities of a citizen,” 1610s, from citizen + -ship.

Citizenship: early 14c., “inhabitant of a city,” from Anglo-French citezein (spelling subsequently altered, probably by influence of denizen), from Old French citeien “city-dweller, town-dweller, citizen” (12c., Modern French citoyen), from cite (see city) + -ain (see -ian). Replaced Old English burhsittend and ceasterware. Sense of “inhabitant of a country” is late 14c. Citizen’s arrest recorded from 1941; citizen’s band (radio) from 1947. Citizen of the world (late 15c.) translates Greek kosmopolites.


1 : an inhabitant of a city or town; especially : one entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman
2 a : a member of a state
b : a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it She was an American citizen but lived most of her life abroad.
3 : a civilian as distinguished from a specialized servant of the state Soldiers were sent to protect the citizens.


Etymology of the word ‘tribe’ of which ‘tribal’ is used to describe characteristics of a ‘tribe’.

From Latin tribus “one of the three political/ethnic divisions of the original Roman state” (Tites, Ramnes, and Luceres, corresponding, perhaps, to the Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans), later, one of the 30 political divisions instituted by Servius Tullius (increased to 35 in 241 B.C.E.), of unknown origin.

In the Biblical sense, which was the original one in English, the Latin word translates Greek phyle “race or tribe of men, body of men united by ties of blood and descent, a clan”. Extension to modern ethnic groups or races of people is from 1590s, specifically “a division of a barbarous race of people, usually distinguishable in some way from their congeners, united into a community under a recognized head or chief” [Century Dictionary], but colloquially of any aggregate of individuals of a kind.

Dictionary definition.

1 a : a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers

b : a political division of the Roman people originally representing one of the three original tribes of ancient Rome
c : phyle
2: a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest
3: a category of taxonomic classification ranking below a subfamily; also : a natural group irrespective of taxonomic rank the cat tribe the rose tribe



late 13c., “sex organ”, also, “body part or organ” (in plural, “the body”), from Old French membre “part, portion; topic, subject; limb, member of the body; member” (of a group, etc.),” 11c., from Latin membrum “limb, member of the body, part,” probably from PIE *mems-ro, from root *mems- “flesh, meat” (source also of Sanskrit mamsam “flesh;” Greek meninx “membrane,” meros “thigh” (the “fleshy part”); Gothic mimz “flesh”). In English, sense of “person belonging to a group” is first attested early 14c., from notion of “constituent part of a complex structure.” Meaning “one who has been elected to parliament” is from early 15c.


A person, animal, or plant belonging to a particular group.
A constituent piece of a complex structure, especially a component of a load-bearing structure.
A part of the body, especially a limb (penis)

Other Indigenous Peoples with colonial names.

Māori are not alone with having new colonial terms applied to them in place of original names, with those colonial names then becoming normal.


The term Eskimo is a colonial term that has been internationally accepted as a work for the Native Peoples of Alaska. But, the word is derogatory to the Inuit people the colonial term describes. Eskimo is a term for a man eater of meat.

The following from Alaska Native Language Center.

Although the name “Eskimo” is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yupik people of the world, this name is considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean “eater of raw meat.”

Linguists now believe that “Eskimo” is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning “to net snowshoes.” However, the people of Canada and Greenland prefer other names. “Inuit,” meaning “people,” is used in most of Canada, and the language is called “Inuktitut” in eastern Canada although other local designations are used also. The Inuit people of Greenland refer to themselves as “Greenlanders” or “Kalaallit” in their language, which they call “Greenlandic” or “Kalaallisut.”

Most Alaskans continue to accept the name “Eskimo,” particularly because “Inuit” refers only to the Inupiat of northern Alaska, the Inuit of Canada, and the Kalaallit of Greenland, and it is not a word in the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia.


Other cations of colonial terms used for Indigenous Peoples can be found here https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indigenous-peoples-terminology-guidelines-for-usage 


The following two people were not consulted with the article above, but did inspire my thinking.

  1. Why we have to be careful with language  https://medium.com/@amscraig/why-we-have-to-be-careful-with-language-d361bd04ad7a
  2. Sandra Cook for discussing Iwi matters and terminology at an Iwi meeting in 2017

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