What does the word ‘Māori’ actually mean?

image of maori dictionaries

The other day I messaged our dear friend and kaiako, Tamiaho, about the kupu ‘Māori’. Because what does the word ‘Māori’ actually mean anyway?

Wrap your head around this question and answer session we had, as he responded to my query.

I’ve left our conversation in its raw form because I can not explain this any more clearly than Tamiaho did.  And I hope the unfolding of this discussion will have the same impact on you as it did me. (In this discussion, I am the seedling🌱 and Tamiaho is the tree🌳.)


🌱Hey Tami, I was just wondering what your take is on the origin of the word Māori?  I’ve heard different versions of its root and I’m curious.

🌳Maori means aboriginal. Given to us by pakeha whalers and sealers in around 1791-2. It was then formalised through the Treaty in 1840. What the word actually means to Maori though is much different. Hence it has been used out of context since 1791.

🌱I heard a wahine break it down and describe how it meant the enlightened ones. Is that the actual root of the word?


🌱Why did the whalers choose that word to use?

🌳Whalers were asked what the word for aboriginals & natives was. Maori was one of many results.

🌱ok, so Māori used it to describe themselves as opposed to the whalers?

🌳*Dialectical, the response was supposed to be Mauri not Maori

*(I had to check on my understanding of dialectal here so I thought I’d add it in incase it is you helpful for you too. Dialectic: The art or practice of arriving at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments.  In other words, if we weigh up all the information and knowledge we have the assumption is that when Maori were asked who they were their response was Mauri as that is the only thing that logically makes sense.)

🌱ohhhh, so Māori is essentially a mispronunciation?

🌳No. Maori called ourselves Tainui, Kai Tahu, Maniapoto… according to our tribal identity. Maori is a random word taken out of context purely by a pakeha person grasping at definitions in a random conversation he had. Maori was never a term used ever all the thousands of years prior. It’s a random english definition

🌱I’ve also heard it was a mispronunciation of Maui.  That is from Professor Matamua.

🌳Yes that is correct

🌳In the far north Maori means to be sick or diseased

🌱Ok, so it is a Maori word, but it doesn’t describe the people in any way?  Unless you’re sick.  And Māori most likely was a mispronounciaton of the word Maui or Mauri?  Have I got that right?  

🌱And Professor Matamua’s description of Māori calling themselves Maui is relevant to his iwi specifically I would assume?

🌳Yes, the tribal name of Tuhoe was also Ngai Maui (in reference to Professor Matamua’s korero).

Only the north refer to Maori as meaning sick.

🌱Ok. So Maori is not a word in any other dialect?

🌳In other parts Maori is pronounced exactly in that way, it just isn’t used to describe us as a people

🌱So it doesn’t actually mean ‘normal, usual or ordinary’ as the dictionary says?

🌳No, not at all.  The word can mean:  Welcoming, Earth, Nature.

More specifically we used the word to express inferior or unimportant things, like:

Dog is maori, an inferior creature.

Small tree as opposed to the large one, or

Whetu maori are unimportant stars.

🌱oh my heavens, so it’s completely derogatory!


This is why my grandparents hated the word & refused to say it, ever.

🌱Yes, absolutely!  I wonder if it was a mispronunciation than or if it was completely intentional?

🌳A bit of both.

But certainly a sign of conscious bias in those days.

🌱Oh that makes me so sad!

oh man, you’ve once again blown my mind.

🌳Ka pai tuahine  pastedGraphic.png pastedGraphic_1.png

Is your mind blown to? What other questions does this revelation bring up for you? How does it make you feel?  Trust me, there is more mind blowingness where this came from. Wait till I share with you what I have learnt about the origins of mihi.  That conversation actually made me cry. I’m still trying to digest it.  But I am getting ahead of myself. All in it’s own time eh. 

Because I have been asked the question of who this person is and why we should listen to what he has to say here is the answer before the question is asked.  Tamiaho is a dear friend and mentor of ours who was brought up by his grandparents, who passed on to him the wisdom and knowledge of all their tupuna before them.

If you need more than that, these are some of his credentials;

Masters of Indigenous Knowledge

Educationalist 20 years

Iwi Leader –  Tainui Waikato, Maniapoto

TWoA Author of Ako Whakapapa & Kaitiakitanga Biculturalism

Go well whānau and, as always, considerate discussion is welcome. ✌🏾

Morganne rāua ko Timoti

⭐️EDIT: ⭐️

After I put this blog out in to the world one patai that came up time and again from Pākehā was;

“What would ‘Māori’ prefer to be called so that we don’t cause offense?” 

So I began a very informal survey on that patai and here are the very unscientific results for you.

By far the majority of people I questioned said that their answer depended on who was asking it, or what their knowledge base was, to start with.  

If the person in question was a Pākehā (New Zealander of non-Māori descent) and/or had some knowledge of iwi then the majority of Māori asked said that they were prefer to be communally referred to by their iwi group. For example, if Tim was asked what ethnicity he was he would reply Ngati Mahuta.

If the person asking the question had no knowledge of iwi then the second preferred ethnic identifier was ‘Māori’.  Many Māori I asked had little to no knowledge of the origins of the word Māori.  And even those few who did said that the original meaning of the word had altered with time, moving away from its negative roots to now be understood worldwide as the kupu that refers to the indigenous people of Aotearoa.   95% of Māori I spoke to were happy to reclaim the word and use it in a positive light going forward.  

The third most preferred term was ‘Indigenous New Zealander’.  This again would only be used in explanation to people who had no knowledge of iwi groups in Aotearoa.  

So there you have it, from the people I spoke to in my informal survey, Māori would prefer to be described by their iwi if and when this is possible.  Second best option is ‘Maori’ and third ‘Indigenous’.

Best practise really is to ask yourself if you can.  From my experience people are always happy to help out those who are asking patai with genuinely good intent.  

And if you are Māori and would like to add your thoughts to this blog please do comment below.  We are all here reading this because we want to learn and be the best humans we can be to others and if using different kupu is the way forward then let’s begin!


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9 thoughts on “What does the word ‘Māori’ actually mean?”

  1. Thank you so much for this amazing piece. It made me think a lot about how we define ourselves culturally and how, when, and why, the edge emerges – the point at which external forces (usually colonising) force a people, peoples, complex lineages, rich cultural heritiges and community existences to have to name and define themselves in some codified way that meets the needs of the oppressor, in both labelling and subjugation. And how, through lack of care to learn about different iwi, the “conscious bias” Tamioho speaks of perpetuated the dreadful cultural undermining through the derogatory interpretation. Thank you so much for this learning. I hope I’ve understood it correctly. Thank you for the definition of dialectical – I was about to websearch! And for the hyperlinked words. I’m slowly building up a personal dictionary of words from your language, and their meanings.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and ponder on it Beccy. Great point about how we define ourselves and how those definitions are effected by external sources. It’s so important to think about these things and mull over all the different elements involved. Glad we can learn together!

  2. Hi, I just watched Scotty Morrison’s great documentary exploring the origin of the Māori people. He interviews Mike Tavioni in Rarotonga who tells him all about the meaning of the word “Māori”. The first part of the word means clean or pure, the second part “ori” means to move or migrate. He says it did not originate in New Zealand. Hope this information helps the discussion.

    1. Ohh, that is fantastic Judy! Thanks so much for sharing that with us. We are watching the new season ourselves so will catch that.

      These kupu are so interesting and teach us so much as we explore all the different answers and what they mean. We have found the kupu Pākehā to be just as intriguing.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond

      1. I thought I’d offer a different perspective on this kaupapa, if u look at our history through the British Empirical lense, and how they went about imposing their “Doctrine of Discovery” upon Indigenous peoples around the world, one of the many mechanisms they used was to wipe away ones identity, outlaw the language, cultural practices, replace schools of learning with their own etc, part of this mechanism was also to relabel the people of the land or alienate them from who they were, Tangata Whenua, we have the Eskimos and the Indians of the America’s, Aborigines in Australia and Māori here in NZ, regardless of the origin or what it means to us today, the term Māori has been enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi and The Native Rights Act 1865 which limited the number of owners to a block of land making it easier to aquire, this NR act also states “The Māoris shall be deemed natural born subjects of Her Majesty the Queen and to declare that the jurisdiction of the Queens Courts of law extend over the persons and properties of all Her Majesties subjects within the Colony”. So no matter what we all think Māori means, the British Empire only see Māori as their subjects, tenants on our own lands, like Aborigines, Indians etc. I prefer the term Tangata Whenua which returns Sovereignty to out people, I don’t identify as a British subject, but that’s only my conclusion

        1. Thanks Nate, that is really helpful and insightful. Reminds us to look at the bigger picture and consider the way we walk through life and be an influence for positive change around us. Appreciate you taking the time to read, consider and reply, helping us to grow. ✌🏾

  3. Usually the letter “R” in Maori = “L” in Hawaiian = “N” in Tongan.
    For example Rima = Lima = Nima for the number five.
    MaoRi = Ma’oLi = Ma’oNi (Mo’oni). Ma’oLi in Hawaiian means “really or truly”. This is also the case in Tongan for the word Mo’oNi meaning “truly”.
    Another example is a popular phrase in Hawaiian, “Kanaka Ma’oLi” meaning the “truly” indigenous/rightful people of a particular land. In Tongan, Kanaka Ma’oLi would be translated “Tangata Mo’oNi” meaning essentially the same thing.
    It is my proposal with the information I’ve given, that “MaoRi” is the equivalent of “Ma’oLi” in Hawaiian. This is also in line with the anecdote you’ve given of the whalers and sealers during the 1800s attaching the word “MaoRi” with those people “truly or really” indigenous/native to that land

    1. Kia Ora Wil, nga mihi for your input.

      We were reading about this recently too and it’s an explanation that makes good linguistic sense. When you consider the movements of our tupuna and the power of linguistics to paint an accurate picture of history this explanation seems a logical one. It can also work alongside the story of the whalers and the idea of the misuse of Māori for mauri.

      Importantly, the many contradicting ideas of what the word Māori means and where it comes from remind us to think critically about what we are told, to explore all the different avenues ourselves and to keep asking patai.

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, we are appreciating the korero with this patai and the many paths it is taking us down.

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