18 Oct 2021

The essence of Te Ao Māori

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 18 October 2021

We say kia ora and come together for pōwhiri, but we don't always understand the meaning and spirit behind Māori words and traditions, says Māori linguist Keri Opai.

He believes respecting Māori people begins by showing respect for the culture and language.

Opai offers a guide into the reasons behind Māori customs, practices and values in his book Tikanga: An Introduction to Te Ao Māori.

Politicians were welcomed with a pōwhiri at Te Whare Rūnanga on 4 February, 2021.

A pōwhiri at Te Whare Rūnanga on Waitangi Day in 2021. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

While Māori share values, Opai wants to showcase they are not exactly a homogeneous group, with differences in tikanga between each iwi, hapū and even whānau.

"I think it’s quite easy to say 'they’re Māori people, they do this', but actually there’s some quite big differences there.

"There are some places that have so many marae that have developed their own set of tikanga for that marae and it’s different down the road."

Keri Opai

Keri Opai Photo: Supplied

The concept of atua is important to understanding tikanga, he says.

“From our perspective, atua are the elements, so on one hand we are related to them, they’re related to us, we are part and parcel of the environment.

"But I wanted to get across that it’s not Tāne, a beautiful man with abs standing at the side of the forest with his taiaha or something and with Tangaroa, with this king Neptune trident or something like that.

“Some people have those ideas that it’s the Greek gods type of concept, but they are what you can see, feel, hear, touch.

"So last night, I spent just a little bit of time listening to the rain and connecting with the atua Tāwhiri-mātea, as my kaumātua used to say some people hear what the rain has to say, and some people just get wet."

The book is not just an introduction to Māori world views and philosophies but concentrates on the reasons behind practices and customs.

"You sort of look at books, there are plenty of academic texts even manuscripts that talk about when, how, what often but very few that really delve into why, and I thought it’s sort of a timely subject."

While Māori have clear and seen practices – like – they are all embedded in deeper values that the people live by, he says.

"But right now, there’s a groundswell, there’s I think a bit of a push amongst the nation to feel out what it means to be Aotearoa in this day and age and into the future pretty much a lot of our uniqueness is down to te ao Māori – Māori language, culture and world views."

Learning to pronounce te reo correctly means you are acknowledging the mana of Māori, he says.

“I believe that it’s something that everyone can choose to do, choose to respect, if you can work on your pronunciation … you are showing respect for it, and implied in that is a respect for the tikanga, for the culture, for the thinking, for the world views.

"Being a teacher of te reo for many years, I’ve encountered probably thousands of people over the years that were Māori and couldn’t speak their language and always felt a deficit, always felt something was missing in their lives.

"It’s hard to talk about your own world views in a language that isn’t necessarily your own."

Opai gives guidance in his book on avoiding potentially embarrassing situations and causing offense as well as explaining why Māori do things like wash their tea towels separately to other towels, and smokers turn off their cigarettes when a hearse passes by.

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Photo: Aotearoa Books

"It’s easier to remember when you have a knowledge and acceptance of why those things are from Māori worldviews, it’s hard to remember if you have a fairly monocultural look at the world."

Māori worldviews also encompass mental wellbeing, he says, and that’s one of the many areas people can learn from te ao Māori.

"Death and life have great mana … There are many whakataukī, traditional proverbs, that say really the only way to heal from the arduousness of death and anguish is to be together and support each other and let the tears flow.

"They literally have whakataukī, proverbs, that say you have to let the emotions out, it’s not ‘stiff upper lip boys’, it’s not ‘get hard’, it was actually when it’s time to cry, you cry with all your energy and when it’s time to laugh you do the same thing, and you do that together."

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