Maori Naming Conventions

When searching for whakapapa you need to be aware that there are three different types of Maori naming conventions, depending on the year the person was born. You need to understand this to be able to find people who could be known by alot of different names. Here is an explanation of how each one works.

Pre 1800’s
Prior to the arrival of the Pakeha, Maori did not use surnames. However, because of an oral society where whakapapa was paramount, it was the norm for people to know the relationships or everyone within the hapu and iwi.

Names were given at birth, often due to an event or circumstances. Sometimes, later on in life, a person was given another name, again, usually due to events or circumstances. For example, Tamatea Ure Haea was also known as Tamatea Pokai Whenua and Tamatea Pokai Moana.

Ngati, means descendants of, so Ngati Tuwharetoa are the descendants of Tuwharetoa. Be aware that sometimes when talking iwi and whakapapa to a whakapapa person, if you mention, in this example, Tuwharetoa, they will think you are talking about the person. If you are talking about the iwi, get into the habit of using the Ngati in front.

If you search an a genealogy site, put the single name in the surname box.

1800’s – early 1900’s
With the arrival of the Pakeha, they introduced surnames.

However, in the 1800’s to the early 1900’s, Maori developed their own system, and that was for their surname they would take the first name of their father.

This happened for a few generations, in the 1800’s, so in order to find your tupuna, always look for the firstname as a surname.

The following example shows how the surnames could change over time.

NOTE: The following example is not a known whakapapa, it has been created to show how the naming conventions work. Each line represents a person, a child of the previous person on the line above.

Ariki (born in 1700’s – only one name)

Maunga Ariki (born in early 1800’s takes father’s name as surname)

Waiora Maunga

Te Awa Waiora

Waipapa Te Awa

Hone Te Awa * (born in mid 1900’s)

Changing of names also still occured because of events and circumstances.

For example, the brothers Nene and Patuone who were born in the 1700’s did not have a surname. Nene was baptised after Thomas Walker a local trader, but kept his name and became known as – Tamati Waka Nene. His brother, Patuone, kept his name and was baptised as Eruera Maihi Patuone. Both born of the same parents, but with different last names.

During this time also, some Maori started having a Pakeha name, as well as the Maori version of that name and their own Maori name.

If we take Hone Te Awa * in our whakapapa example above, he could also be known as

  • John Te Awa
  • Hone River
  • John River
  • Hone Waipapa Te Awa
  • John Waipapa Te Awa
  • Hone Waipapa
  • John Waipapa

All of the above applies also to women. Women also kept their “surnames” and did not change them when getting married. When we are talking in our whanau about whakapapa, and talk about our grandmother (born in the 1800’s) we refer to her by her “maiden name” and never with the surname of our grandfather.

1900’s to Date
From the early 1900’s Maori had been “mainstreamed” to follow the pakeha practice of using Surnames and to not swap them around as we did in the century prior.

However, many whanau still swap between a Pakeha surname and an transliterated version of the name in Maori, for example, Wirihana / Wilson.

Within many Maori whanau are also nicknames that a person is known by all their life. How many of you have an Aunty Buba or an Uncle Boy?

Also, many Maori born before about the 1960’s also have a Maori and transliterated first name, for example, Mere / Mary. These days, many people are also taking a Maori name in addition to their pakeha name, and not necessarily a transliteration.

Another practice is for a person to be known by their second name, or middle name.

While many whanau are all related, be aware that if someone has the same Maori whanau name as yourself, they may not be your relations, for example there is a Herewini whanau from north and a Herewini whanau from the east coast, as well as a Selwyn whanau from Dargaville. As far as the writer is aware, these whanau are not related through the Herewini / Selwyn lines.

Another thing to be aware of is that a name like Te Ingoa is not necessarily the same as Ingoa by itself and are often two very different whanau. When looking for names like Te Ingoa, in the NZ White pages it will be under Te as is right, however, there are some lists that file the name under, in this case, I for Ingoa. The Kinder library is an example of this, but after discussion, they are correcting this and will update their site to reflect the corrections.

To help you find other name variations go to our Maori / English Name Translations list.