The Maori tribe is the largest social unit within traditional Maori society. Legend has it the first Maori that came to New Zealand did so in twelve large canoes each carrying a different tribe. Even today most Maori people can tell you which original tribe they are descendants of. The settlers created a tribal society based on East Polynesian customs. The Maori tribe is called Iwi in the Maori language and each of these groups is divided into smaller sub-tribes of approximately five hundred people called hapu. The hapu is the main unit in the Maori social structure. Each sub-tribe consisted of several extended families called whanau. Within a settlement each sub-tribe has its own area that is independent from other sub-tribes. The sub-tribe divided the area among the various extended families.

Every member of a Maori tribe had a specific role and a specific place within the social order. An individuals place within society was often signified by their garments and tattoos. People of high social status were always tattooed where as tribesmen with no tattoos were considered worthless. At the top of the sub-tribe was the chief refereed to as ariki in the Maori language. The chief had "mana" (Prestige) which was inherited from his predecessors.

Although the chief maintained power over the tribe Maori society did have a certain level of democracy. When important decisions were to be made a tribal meeting would be arranged. This meeting would be held on the villages main plaza (called "marae" by the Maori) which was in front of the tribal meeting house (called "whare runanga"). At this meeting all families were invited to give their opinion. The chief of the Maori tribe would listen to the opinions and then come to a final decision. The chief would always be the first person and the last person to speak.

Maori tribe members who had great skill in a particular craft such as woodcarving were given the title "Tohunga". These individuals would not only be highly skilled in their craft but also highly knowledgeable in the rituals of the craft.

The indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand had no concept of land ownership. Land was only obtained by conquest and then had to be settled or used by the conquering tribe to truly be considered theirs.