The Concepts of Mana and Utu: Status and Reciprocity in Traditional Maori Society


Conflict among Maori and between the indigenous people of Aotearoa and the early European colonisers usually had a basis in mana and utu.

Both mana and utu are ingrained in Maori culture and character. In traditional society both concepts were integral parts of all matters of social interaction, judgement and justice. To offend mana or invite utu was to expect a response that would surely come. In their Polynesian form both concepts were alien to Europeans, and utu in particular came to be misunderstood. Its negative connotations associated with revenge have tended to override a more general meaning.

The Maori People and Mana

To the Maori, mana is vested in the individual by the supreme being of the universe. In cultural terms it has a number of meanings. It signifies status, authority, prestige and honour, and can be gained in different ways. Birthright bestows a degree of mana according to ancestry and the deeds, skills and reputations of one’s forebears. Mana is further enhanced or weakened by the individual’s own conduct in the course of life. The whole family group and the wider tribal community also contributes to the mana of its members, from courage in battle to hospitality on the marae.

Revenge is Part of Utu

In the modern vernacular, utu is usually associated with revenge, a Polynesian equivalent of the Biblical ‘eye for an eye’. That is just part of its meaning, which Major Terrence Johanson interprets in his 2009 U.S. Army Command and General Staff College thesis on Maori Warfare as ‘repayment, restoration or reward’. Utu could simply require the return of a favour. If the food supply exceeded a family’s needs the surplus would be passed on to another. Utu was thus invoked, and the gift would eventually be repaid. Importantly the reciprocal gesture was expected to exceed the value of the original gift.

Certainly a wrongdoing, real or perceived, would invoke utu, and much of the historical warfare of the Maori was a direct result. Mana and utu were inextricably linked. Any offence against one’s mana, however slight, could expect utu in the revenge sense, sometimes out of all proportion to the original deed. That would often lead to a vicious cycle developing, tribes dealing with the ‘debit and credit account’ as Johanson puts it. A series of conflicts between neighbouring tribes would often erupt. While very real, these events tended to be sporadic in nature. Utu could be deferred for long perods

In colonial times, a famous incidence of utu occurred when in 1809 the Boyd was attacked in Whangaroa Harbour. The Boyd Massacre as it is commonly known as came about when Maori chief Te Ara was flogged while travelling as a passenger from Sydney. In the eyes of the Europeans of the day, the harsh reality of ship life meant punishment for wrongdoing on board. To Te Ara’s tribe however, it was the grossest of insults that demanded swift and culturally appropriate retribution.

Utu’s Different Forms

Utu was a complicated matter, and if the victim could not seek retribution directly there was an obligation on his family and tribe to extract it. It could also be used as a ‘mark of respect’ for someone who suffered an accident where no person was at fault, or who died a natural death. Friendly tribes would take utu on the victim’s own that was appropriate to the circumstances, as the culture required some form of ‘payment’ for the misfortune. Deep-seated in this application of utu was the knowledge that the act would create a reciprocal obligation on the part of the unfortunate’s tribe, for use at a future date.

Utu began to wane with the influence of Christian missionaries and has been superseded in modern New Zealand society by Western concepts of justice. Mana however remains very important to all Maori people, and for those who interact with them. A solid understanding of both concepts gives all parties a better cultural appreciation.