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Rangatira ([ɾaŋatiɾa]) are the hereditary Māori leaders of hapū, and were described by ethnologists such as Elsdon Best as chieftains (p. 88). Ideally, rangatira were people of great practical wisdom who held authority on behalf of the tribe and maintained boundaries between a tribe's land and that of other tribes. Changes to land ownership laws in the 19th century, particularly the individualisation of land title, undermined the position of rangatira, as did the widespread loss of land under the colonial government.
The word "rangatira' means "chief (male or female), wellborn, noble" and derives from Proto-Central Eastern Polynesian *langatila ("chief of secondary status"). Cognate words are found in Moriori, Tahitian, Cook Islands Māori, Tuamotuan, Marquesan and Hawaiian.
Three interpretations of rangatira consider it as a compound of the Māori words "ranga" and "tira". In the first case, "ranga" is devised as a sandbar and the "tira" a shark fin. The allegoric sandbar helps reduce erosion of the dune (or people). The fin reflects both the appearance of the sandbar, and, more importantly, "its physical and intentional dominance as guardian"(Gray-Sharp, 2011, p. 195). Rangatira reinforce communities, cease to exist without them ("for what is a sandbar without sand?"), and have a protective capacity.
Ethnographer John White (1826-1891) gave a different viewpoint in one of his lectures on Māori customs. He said Māori had traditionally formed two kahui who came together to discuss history or whakapapa.
This interpretation fits well with a second translation where "ranga" is an abbreviation of rāranga (or weaving) and "tira" signifies a group.
A third interpretation fits equally well with this translation, interlinking concepts related to the identity of the ‘tira’. In the first instance, the conditional hospitality presented in the form of weaving created for the ‘tira’ of guests. In the second instance, the collective intentionality "enacted in the weaving" of the ‘tira’ of hosts. Together, these concepts highlight the value attached to the "personal relationship" between the leader and their group. This type of relationship is similar to the mahara atawhai (endearment or "benevolent concern") offered in the Treaty of Waitangi’s preamble by Queen Victoria, reflecting the pre-nineteenth century "personal bond between the ruler and subject" (McHugh, 1991, p. 177).