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This chapter will examine the role of utu in Maori society and how it affected the relationships between individuals and groups. Utu was concerned with the maintenance of relationships and balance within Maori society. It acted as an effective form of social control governing people s behaviour in relation to each other.

Utu pervaded both the positive and negative aspects of Maori life, requiring some sort of response to given situations. The ensuing response was governed by the particular circumstances, and often involved mana and tapu.

The Role of Utu in Maori Society

Nau te rourou, naku te rourou, ka ora te manuhiri;
Nau te rakau, naku te rakau, ka mate te hoariri
Your food basket and my food basket will satisfy the guest;
Your weapon and my weapon will dispose of the enemy.[198]

The traditional concept of utu pervaded the Maori social, legal, political and economic order. To understand the practice of utu it is necessary to see it as operating within the Maori conceptual system. In cases where utu is sought, the conventions of mana and tapu are necessarily present as utu governed relationships when a breach of tapu occurred or where mana was increased or lost through the actions of an individual or group.

Utu has frequently been cited as revenge, but that is only one aspect of utu. Utu was also a reciprocation of kind deeds from one person to another. The degree and form in which utu was applied depended on the circumstances, and varied according to a number of factors including the parties involved and the action or actions of the parties. The response to an action would sometimes require revenge, other times it would be a reward, a transfer of goods or services, or an insulting song.

While particular actions deemed that a response was necessary, it was not necessary to apply utu immediately. There would be an appropriate time and place for utu. The utu could be deferred, sometimes for a few generations, but it was not forgotten. The party applying utu was required to restore the balance by responding over time.

It was common when applying utu to do or take more than was done to or taken from you. Inappropriate responses or a lack of response resulted in the party required to apply utu losing mana. However, the assessment of what was required for accord and satisfaction was left to the receiving side, be it kin, the party that did the wrong, or the donee tribe.[199] It was not a case of trusting to the receivers goodwill, for in the Maori way, no other course of action was open to them.[200]

"Reciprocity is how we survive. We may not be doing it as well as we should in 1999, but I think it's still the basis of our culture. I don't think it's changed really. It may have changed in terms of its lavishness, but in terms of its philosophy, it's still very much part of Maori thinking. You know if you come to my marae at some stage, I expect you to ask me to come to yours... The time frame doesn't matter, but at least you should have acknowledged the fact that you've been my guest at one time. . ."[201]

If a response did not ensue and the balance was not restored, then the party that initiated the utu process had to seek utu against the receiving party. The tradition within Maori society has always been to maintain balance.

The interests of the individual person often had to give way to those of the tribe, because the mana of the whanau, hapu and iwi in utu proceedings was paramount. Because of the collective nature of Maori society, even if one particular individual had initiated the utu process, it was not necessarily applied to that particular individual. The individual was simply a unit of a wider group.

Utu and Mana

"I think generosity was one of the most laudable features of our society, traditional society. The more generous the person, the greater his or her mana. . ."[202]

Utu is very closely linked to mana. It may be arguable that in some senses mana is reliant on utu. Often individuals and groups were prepared to make personal sacrifices to uphold their mana because the mantle of mana embraces the people, and when worn demands and provides far more than just prestige and status.[203]

To fail to give or receive utu diminished the mana of both parties and placed the relation in jeopardy. So too did giving in excess, since it made it difficult for the receiver to make a worthy return.[204] To leave any matter as it stood meant that one could be seen as lacking mana. Edward Wakefied on a visit to Taupo noticed what he described as legal proceedings for damages .

"Pakau, the brother of E Kuru, complained at each settlement which we visited of his wife having been formerly stolen by a Taupo man, who was now dead. He in consequence claimed before the assembled population utu, or 'compensation', from all the relations of the offender, and by this means claimed large damages. No objection was ever raised to his claim, though some of the mulcted relations wept, as they parted with a favourite musket or axe rather than bear the disgrace of refusing to make amends for their kinsman's misdeeds. Pakau carried back to Wanganui three muskets, fifteen axes and tomahawks, three cartridge-boxes, two kegs of powder, and a mat as damages."[205]

Rangatira were required to enhance the mana of their people at any opportunity. Whanau, hapu, iwi and waka would work hard together to keep their mana intact in dealings with people outside their kinship group. In 1844 the Waikato chiefs held a paremata at Remuera. There was a long bank of potatoes, seven feet wide, four high, stretched for 400 yards across the ground, above it, thousands of dried dogfish hung.[206] Waikato were hosting their enemies Ngati Haua in response to a paremata Ngati Haua had hosted the year before. The paremata was a way of restoring the balance of utu between Waikato and Ngati Haua, invariably enhancing the mana of Waikato.

Rangatira were also required to defend their tribe s mana and anything that tended to reduce it was resisted.[207] Patterson argues though that under the collectivist view of mana, no response was necessary where an individual increased their mana at the expense of another related individual s mana of the same kin group because the tribal mana remained unchanged.[208] However, if an individual damaged the mana of the whole tribe then the tribe would be required to restore their mana through any means necessary. Similarly, if an individual damaged the mana of someone from another kin group, that kin group would seek utu because their mana would be also be affected.

Gift Exchange as a Manifestation of Utu

A major component of utu was gift exchange. Social dealings were maintained through reciprocal exchanges of kindness and hospitality as well as the exchange of tangible goods and services. There was a continuing obligation to give, return and receive, not only between individuals and groups, but also between human beings and the natural world.[209]

The standard contract in Maori society was a gift with the expectation of a return in due course. It was not the transfer of rights for a prescribed consideration or immediate return.[210] Gift exchange created reciprocal, social, political and economic obligations on the parties involved and established permanent and personal relationships. Gifts and counter-gifts served to bind different groups or individuals. The taonga acted as the tohu, the tokens or material symbols of the social ties that provided the link between the groups.[211]

"It was always better to give, because you know that... they would come back. There's that philosophy you give somebody a piece of greenstone now and probably when your time comes they'll put it back on your coffin or something like this. . ."[212]

In some cases tikanga required that when gifts could be, they were returned when they were no longer needed for the original purpose. One claimant in the Rangiteaorere Land Claim[213] cited the following whakatauki, "ki a koe to taua koti" - to you our coat which emphasises that such a gift was not forever. The understanding was that because a storm had blown up and the recipient had not brought a coat, it was a covering, which the donor expected would be returned in the future.

Exchanges within communities or intra-communal exchange was limited principally to the transfer of goods or services between specialists within the community, for example the services of the tohunga were exchanged for choice fish. Exchanges between communities or extra-communal exchange were more common and involved mainly foodstuffs and tools. Coastal dwellers exchanged fish, shellfish, shark oil, karengo, paua shells and the like, with inland people, who responded in turn with preserved birds, eels, rats, cakes made from the meal of the hinau berry, feathers, bird skins and various forest products.[214]

Reciprocation in the repayment of obligations was usually more lavish than the original gift for the reason of enhancing a group s social reputation and prestige or its mana.[215] By giving there was an absolute trust that the other party would reply with a gift or gifts of equal or higher value, either immediately or at a later date. However, the donor did not stipulate how the gift was to be repaid. A bountiful feast or gift beyond the recipients ability to reciprocate could humiliate them, place them in your debt or even subtly subordinate them.[216] Thus the more one gave, the greater one s mana, and an unequal response meant loss of mana.

If the original gift was outdone, the balance of mana changed again so that obligations were kept current. Gift exchanges were thus repeated time and again until the parties were so close and accepting of one another, that each could rely on the other to be generous in times of local privation, and to expect no immediate response.[217] Failure to respond at all could result in reprisal.

Some gift exchanges were more ceremonial but the principle of utu still applied. Gifts at marriage and funeral ceremonies also had to be reciprocated. For instance on somebody s death their relatives would come to kawe nga mate and give the kirimate[218] taonga such as garments or greenstone. This process was then reversed and the taonga returned when someone belonging to the donor group died. Hence during a period of generations, taonga passed many times between related people. Further, their whereabouts, the circumstances of their transference, and the obligations still outstanding from them were kept in mind by the kaumatua of the tribe and the information passed down from generation to generation.[219]

An equivalent return was also required in the case of services. Services were usually provided by tohunga. They did not expect to be paid because of the tapu involved with their work and because they wanted to provide the best work they could. It was left to the receiver to put a value on the work and decide the most appropriate utu for the services.

Various mechanisms ensured reciprocity followed. Failure to deliver soon acquired notoriety and could result in exclusion from future deals and the loss of desired goods and services. Makutu[220] was also an influential tool in traditional Maori society because the hau of the kawai tipuna that accompanied each gift assured its return for fear of supernatural punishment, which was accomplished through the medium of the hau or the vital essence of the kawai tipuna.[221]

"If the hara was unintentional, it could affect the recompense or utu in that the utu could occur in the form of supernatural retaliation. I guess the custom there would be makutu. We don t want to put makutu down, but that would be the supernatural where thoughts would be conveyed and if a person had committed a slight or an offence that wasn t too bad, well that person could become suddenly ill. That occurred sometimes, not all the time, but it was that unseen power that was the utu..."[222]

Utu as a Result of Hostility

Na tetehi te tihe, na tetehi te tokomauri
If one person begins a quarrel, his enemy will retaliate.[223]

On another level utu required compensation if social relations were disturbed. Hostile relationships between parties could be created through insults or physical, mental or emotional injury.

"A basic philosophy of ours was blood spilt had to be avenged. It was always between generations. Even if it was two or three generations later it had to be avenged. All the waiata and the haka would remind you that you had not yet done your thing so that the seeing generations had no way of being able to say, well that happened when grandpa was alive not in my time so I m not responsible . Responsibility went from generation to generation..."[224]

War was waged to obtain utu (compensation), but the war always had to have a legitimate take.[225] Some of the take included breach of tapu, puremu, revenge against other hapu or iwi for past defeats or encroachment on territory, murder, or harsh treatment of a wife by her husband if they were of different hapu.

"Puremu, when it occurred between a woman and man of different tribes was looked upon as very serious and an insult to the innocent party Redress was sought by the injured hapu sending a taua party to confront the whanau and hapu of the woman who had transgressed her marriage. Reparation was made in the form of a prized taonga such as greenstone items and this was accepted by both parties as a just resolution to the dispute..."[226]

It was not always the case that women or their kin group were punished for puremu.[227] There were occasions were the male would be punished. One incident involved a brother following his sister and her lover into the bush and killing the lover. She was forced to participate in the punishment of her lover as punishment for her indiscretion. There were also occasions where neither party to the puremu were punished as in the well known story of Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine.

Utu through the mechanism of war regulated tribal relationships where territory and rights over the reproductive power of women were concerned. The whakatauki, "He wahine, he whenua i mate ai te tangata -women and land are the reasons why men perish" [228] emphasises that women and land were some of the major take for war. "Women, so you could guarantee progeny, and land, so that you could have mana at the turangawaewae."[229]

Enemies provoked utu and gained mana from insulting, misusing or abusing the tapu of those they were fighting.[230] Enemies kept a detailed reckoning of past insults and injuries and hostile relationships were marked by escalation, similar to the exchange relationships. Exchange relationships required that feasts increase in grandeur as they developed over time; similarly, it was expected that reciprocal acts of vengeance intensify. Each utu ideally eclipsed in degree of violence the affront that provoked it, and as a feud increased it engulfed an ever-widening circle of people.[231]

Hostile relationships did not have to endure indefinitely however. Often a tribe would offer their puhi to another tribe to secure the conclusion of hostile relationships.

"[The puhi] was the tribal pawn the political pawn but she guaranteed that warfare would probably never recur because she, becoming the wife of the opposing faction would resolve that dispute between those two factions. . ."[232]

A marriage exchange of high-born members of tribes was seen as marking a peace settlement and as ensuring its permanence, as it brought the disputants together in close kinship bonds. This is reflected in the whakatauki: He whakahou rongo wahine he tatau pounamu Peace brought about by women is an enduring one.[233]

Hostile relationships could also be converted to friendly ones through gift exchange, entertainment, peace-making feasts, or the cession of land.[234]


The general principles that underlie utu are the obligations that exist between individuals and groups. Utu is concerned with the maintenance of balance and harmony within society, whether it is manifested through gift exchange, or as a result of hostilities between groups. The aim of utu is to return the affected parties to their prior position.

Utu is exercised in varying circumstances and to certain degrees. How and when utu was sought or received would depend on the actions that necessitated it. A strict system of obligation applied in an utu situation especially when the mana of an individual or group rested on the utu being sought or offered. Failure on the part of one party to give or receive utu required the other party to seek utu against the failing party. Mana required that the response to an action be somewhat in excess of equivalence.

The relationships between groups changed depending on the utu sought or given, when it was sought or given and how it was sought or given. The manifestation of utu through gift exchange established and maintained social bonds and obligations. However, if social relations were disturbed, utu would be a means of restoring balance.



198. Maori Proverbs above n 101, 16

199. Muriwhenua Fishing Report above n 4, 50-51

200. Will the Settlers Settle above n 142, 449, 455-456

201. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 9 April 1999

202. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 9 April 1999

203. Nga Tikanga me nga Ritenga o te Ao Maori above n 63, 21

204. The Maoris of New Zealand above n 15, 15

205. Edward Wakefield Adventure in New Zealand (London, John Murray, 1845) 108 quoted in Spiller, Finn and Boast A New Zealand Legal History (Brookers, Wellington, 1995) 125

206. The Pursuit of Mana above n 176, 140

207. Exploring Maori Values above n 14, 116

208. John Patterson Utu and Punishment (1991) 21 VUWLR 239, 243 [Utu and Punishment]

209. Te Roroa Claim above n 74, 24, 5 WTR 36

210. The Maoris of New Zealand above n 15, 15-16 and Will the Settlers Settle above n 142, 455-456.

211. Muriwhenua Fishing Report above n 4, 53

212. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 9 April 1999

213. Waitangi Tribunal, Ngati Rangiteaorere Claim Report Wai 32 (Brooker and Friend Ltd, Wellington, 1990) 14, 3 WTR 100

214. Raymond Firth Economics of the New Zealand Maori (Government Printer, Wellington, 1959) 409 [Economics of the New Zealand Maori]

215. Muriwhenua Fishing Report above n 4, 52

216. James Belich Making Peoples: A History of New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Allen Lane The Penguin Press, Auckland, 1996) 86

217. Will the Settlers Settle above n 142, 456

218. See Case Study 2 to gain an understanding of the kirimate

219. Muriwhenua Fishing Report above n 4, 53

220. See A Collection of Behaviours, Philosophies, Emotions and Cultural Influences for an explanation of makutu

221. Muriwhenua Fishing Report above n 4, 52

222. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 8 April 1999

223. Maori Proverbs above n 101 , 87

224. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 9 April 1999

225. The Maoris of New Zealand above n 15, 26

226. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 7 April 1999

227. See Case Study 3 for an example of what can happen when someone participates in 'puremu'

228. Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou above n 70, 69 70

229. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 9 April 1999

230. Erik Olsen and Marcia Stenson A Century of Change: New Zealand 1800 1900 (Longman Paul, Auckland, 1989) 15

231. Allen F Hanson and Louise Hanson Counterpoint in Maori Culture (Routledge and Keagan Paul, London, 1983) 133 [Counterpoint in Maori Culture]

232. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 9 April 1999

233. Maori Proverbs above n 101, 75

234. The Maoris of New Zealand above n 15, 15-16 and Utu and Punishment above n 208, 241