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Whakapapa

The Māori story of creation gives us some sense of our beginnings, and while each culture has different versions of this – and even variations within cultures – there are also commonalities which bind us.

In the beginning was Te Kore (the void, the nothingness), from which came Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother. Ranginui and Papatūānuku held each other in an eternal embrace, which meant, for their numerous children, it was eternally dark, forever night (Te Pō).

They were surrounded by their children, namely:

Tāne Mahuta

Tāne was responsible for pushing his parents apart and letting in the light; thus from Te Pō came Te Ao Mārama (the world of light and dwelling place of humans). Tāne is also regarded by many as the starting point of our whakapapa, our genealogy, for it was Tāne who took earth from his mother, Papatūānuku, and shaped it, breathing life into it (hence the phrase, “Tihei Mauri Ora”), thus creating the first woman from which all humans were born; Hine-ahu-one. We are, therefore, descendants of Tāne, and ultimately, Papatūānuku.

Whakapapa is derived from these beginnings. It is about our recitation of genealogy, our link to the land, which is the core of Māori identity, fixing people as part of an extended family. It is how Māori identify themselves within the constructs of iwi (tribe), hapū (subtribe) and whānau (family), describing our familial structures and relationships with others. Whakapapa is at the heart of who Māori are as a collective.

Māori Society and Structures

The spiritual connection derived from whakapapa through our links with the various Atua (i.e. Gods, deities), lays the foundation for our physical connections, including our familial and social structures. The similarities between the words which describe these familial structures and the words relating to birthing or being born are no coincidence.

For example:

Iwi (Tribe)

‘Iwi’ is a tribal structure that incorporates multiple hapū and a multitude of different whānau. It also means ‘bones’ (koiwi), the structures that support and strengthen iwi Māori. Because one is defined by one’s whakapapa, belonging to an iwi requires commonality of descent from a single ancestor or literally ‘from their bones’. 

Traditionally, iwi only congregated for special occasions, festivities and in times of strife. Since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, many iwi have come together to recover and manage land and assets lost to them either through confiscation, war or legislation.

Contemporarily, iwi are recognised tribal groups which come together to pursue economic, social, political and cultural goals and aspirations (see for example explanations and information from Waikato Tainui and Ngāi Tahu) while adhering to cultural values according to tikanga.

Hapū (Sub tribe)

Hapū, which translates as sub-tribe, also means to be pregnant, to generate life. It expresses the idea of birth from common ancestors and incorporates the idea of growth. A hapū includes many whānau; indeed, membership to a hapū is based on familial ties and people may belong to a number of different hapū.

Traditionally, these extended family units formed closely for mutual benefit and familial allegiance. A lot of tribal resources were cared for by hapū who were given kaitiaki (caretaking) responsibilities for those resources; for example, mahinga kai (food gathering areas) and other resources such as pounamu (greenstone) may have been the responsibility of certain hapū.

Whānau (Family)

Whānau refers to one’s immediate or extended family, and also means to be born (i.e. the act of childbirth or being born into one's whānau). One is born into a whānau, which constitutes larger collectives known as hapū. Whānau also refers to descent from a common ancestor and it is within this smaller familial unit that certain responsibilities and obligations are both expected and upheld.

Membership to an iwi, hapū and whānau provide a sense of affiliation and belonging for Māori, as well as their tūrangawaewae (a place to stand). Given this, it is important to also note another dual meaning in the word  'whenua'.

Whenua (Land)

Whenua, the land that nourishes iwi, is also the name for the placenta, the organ that nourishes the unborn child. After childbirth, the placenta is often buried in a piece of tribal land, a process iwi Māori often refer to as, ‘whenua ki te whenua’, placenta returning to the land. This place has significance as the child grows, as it signifies a birthright, their tūrangawaewae.

All of these terms bind Māori as a group to the very structures which strengthen and sustain us, which ensure our survival, both spiritually and physically.

So, what does this mean for me as a staff member?
Given this, it is important to remember that people may belong to several iwi, and therefore, a number of hapū also. It is therefore important, when collecting ethnicity data, to provide opportunity and space for people to list their full iwi and hapū affiliations.

Introducing ourselves in relation to our whakapapa

As you will now be aware, whakapapa is about our connections to people and our relationship with these people.

When we meet others, we listen out for clues about where they are from; a common land feature (e.g.: Ko Aoraki te mauka/Aoraki is my mountain – linking that person to the South Island, and most likely, the iwi of Ngāi Tahu) or a well-known name (e.g.: Ko Brooking te ingoa whānau/Brooking is my last name – linking that person to the East Coast of the North Island, and probably, the tribe of Ngāti Porou).

People, and therefore relationships, are the cornerstone to the essence of being Māori. When we stand to introduce ourselves, we tend to recite our pepeha (an introductory ‘speech’ – based on whakapapa – recited during mihimihi), which relays information about where we’ve come from and to whom we affiliate, using our affiliations to place and people. Go to the Mihimihi/Pepeha part of the Te Reo Māori section for more information and to develop your own pepeha.