4 Nov 2018

What Pākehā can learn from tikanga Māori: a panel discussion

From Writers and Readers Festivals, 4:06 pm on 4 November 2018

In her 2017 essay We’re All Māori Now, writer Emma Espiner explored why Pākehā need to understand and embrace tikanga Māori (Māori customs).

She joins fellow writers Māmari Stephens and Morgan Godfery for a conversation about the role of tikanga in 21st-century New Zealand.

Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are welcomed to Te Papaiouru Marae in Rotorua

Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are welcomed to Te Papaiouru Marae in Rotorua Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

According to Godfery Morgan, many Pākehā think of tikanga as something magical or esoteric, with scary aspects such as the concept of tapu.

He considers it to be simply the proper way to do things – the correct practice in any given situation.

Emma Espiner says that when you sit across two words you notice what could be done better in using the principles of the other.

She recalls starting in a new workplace – the first Māori organisation that she’d worked for. In place of a prosaic induction day, they held a mihi whakatau, which she brought her family to.

“There’s this really cool process where you get handed over, and then you have something to eat and a cup of tea afterwards and find out a bit more about your colleagues. And so you start work already knowing a bit about everybody, and I think that transitional thing was a lot better done rather than flailing around for a few months not knowing anyone.”

Paula Morris asks if the word kawa means something slightly different from tikanga - “my understanding is that tikanga is overall protocol, and kawa is how you might apply it in a specific place and marae.”

Espiner agrees, adding that “as each marae has its own kawa, in some places, it’s okay for a woman to speak, but in others, it’s not.”

For Māmari Stephens, tikanga's value is how it creates a framework upon which many social of these processes can and do hang.

Processes and events might differ from place to place, but the fact that tikanga is so uniformly understood in the Māori world means that there is no awkwardness, no silence, no time in which participants are unsure of what to do next.

A painting of a tangi by Robley

A painting of a tangi by Robley Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

That’s really useful at tangi, according to Espiner.

“When you have a framework,” she says, “it takes some of the pain out of dealing with some of our most dramatic and emotional social experiences because there’s a time for everything.”

“You know what to do next,” agrees Stephens.

Paula Morris points out parallels in Pākehā society, such as a church, where people understand there’s going to be a certain framework to follow.

However, she is ambivalent about the gender roles which apply to speaking in a powhiri or other formal situation in te ao Māori, the Māori world.

She recalls being galled at her father’s tangi that only the men could speak.

“I understand the reasons for it, and the historical context for it, and the tikanga behind it, but there were lots of bad things about the olden days, too.”

Espiner speculates on the role of colonialism here, and the changes wrought on te reo Māori in its transition from being a spoken to a written language, because there aren’t gendered pronouns in te reo Māori. 'Ia' can mean either 'he' or 'she'.

“Some of our warriors, our tupuna, our chiefs, could have been either male or female. But because it was an oral language and wasn’t written down until the early settlers arrived, they automatically interpreted all the chiefs as being men. There were things that were lost to us, and that has influenced the way that things are done now.”

Angela Lambert of the New Zealand Defence Force Māori Cultural Group started the Gallipoli Anzac Day service with a karanga.

Angela Lambert of the New Zealand Defence Force Māori Cultural Group started the Gallipoli Anzac Day service with a karanga. Photo: NZDF

Māmari Stephens is less concerned about this issue.

After a recent powhiri in which she was kaikaranga (calling the newcomers or manuhiri into the event), a Kai Tahu elder on the other side came up to her and offered his thanks for providing the voice that opened the way for everyone to be there on the day. “Because nothing would have happened had I not opened my mouth.”

Where it’s appropriate she embraces the notion of gender roles and doesn’t see it as exclusionary.

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And in the meantime, she cautions against looking at the symptom or the practice and evaluating the tikanga accordingly.

Instead, she advocates looking at the values and the whakaaro (intention) behind it "and the deep richness which feeds it".

“If we just look at the practice and isolate it from everything else, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But if we take a step back and look at what generates that practice, the framework becomes a bit clearer. Things still do change with the times, and that’s absolutely right, but it has to be the people of that marae who make that decision. We can’t go in and do it for them.”

This audio was recorded in partnership with 2018 NZ Festival Writers and Readers at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre. The next festival is scheduled for March 2020.

Further reading

About the contributors

Emma Espiner

Emma Espiner Photo: Arnia Appleby

Emma Espiner

Emma Espiner is a medical student at the University of Auckland. She comments on social issues, health, and politics for Newsroom, and contributed the essay 'We’re All Māori Now' for the 2017 Journal of Urgent Writing.


Māmari Stephens

Māmari Stephens Photo: NZ Festival Writers and Readers

Māmari Stephens

Māmari Stephens (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākehā) is a senior lecturer at the School of Law, Victoria University of Wellington. She is best known for her work creating He Papakupu Reo Ture: A Dictionary of Maori Legal Terms, a Māori-English a bi-lingual dictionary of legal terms. Her essay about the risks faced by marae was published in the 2017 Journal of Urgent Writing. She blogs at Sparrowhawk/Kārearea.


Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery Photo: NZ Festival Writers and Readers

Morgan Godfery

Of Te Pahipoto (Ngāti Awa) and Lalomanu (Samoa) descent, Godfery is a writer and trade unionist and political commentator based in Wellington. He is the editor of the 2016 BWB Text The Interregnum, was a 2017 election-year columnist for The Spinoff, and a non-fiction judge for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He also regularly appears on radio and television as a political commentator, has authored numerous academic chapters and journal articles on politics and law and sits on the board of the Centre for Legal Issues at the University of Otago Law School. He wrote about his Kawerau childhood in the 2017 Journal of Urgent Writing


Paula Morris

Paula Morris Photo: Mike Brooke

Paula Morris

Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whatua) is an award-winning fiction writer and essayist who teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland and is the founder of the Academy of NZ Literature. Her latest book False River is a collection of short stories and essays on the theme of secret histories.