18 May 2014

Maori elders hold on to powhiri custom

8:28 am on 18 May 2014
Leigh McLachlan

Leigh McLachlan Photo: RNZ

Maori elders say the tradition prohibiting women from speaking in powhiri doesn't have to modernise to suit peoples' western perceptions.

Some Maori and politicians believe the custom forbidding females from speaking in powhiri is out-dated and sexist and want the culture to adapt to modern society.

Generally, the women led the first welcome call, the karanga, and the front row of seats, the orators bench or paepae, was reserved for the men.

But on Waitangi Day this year three women spoke during the powhiri at Te Tii Marae; they included a young girl, the lawyer Annette Sykes and the Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei.

It's a stark contrast to the events at Waitangi in 1998, when the future Prime Minister Helen Clark was stopped from speaking during the powhiri by kuia Titewhai Harawira.

Ms Turei, who was also allowed to speak in powhiri at the annual Ratana celebrations in January, said women speaking on both occasions proved the Maori cultural process was ever evolving and was meeting new ways of thinking.

Greens Co-leader, Metiria Turei, spoke during a powhiri at Ratana

Greens Co-leader, Metiria Turei, spoke during a powhiri at Ratana. Photo: RNZ

Many iwi make provisions to enable women to speak in powhiri either in the wharepuni or in special areas of the marae where women are seen to be protected.

In some tribes, such as Ngati Porou and Ngapuhi, women can whaikorero in the same area the men would, but in most iwi, there is strict kawa prohibiting it.

That's the case for Rotorua iwi, Te Arawa, where women traditionally sit on the floor and must take their shoes off inside, while men can keep theirs on.

Prominent kaumatua Sir Toby Curtis said he did not believe modernisation was an answer to change, but was about doing away with being Maori and all becoming Pakeha.

"It's very difficult to argue intellectually that women shouldn't speak, but it's far more difficult to bring about a change in terms of custom and tradition," he said.

"Despite all the arguments to say women should stand, my stomach doesn't feel right. My ngakau and wairua hasn't reached that level of real acceptability."

But he did not believe women were missing out, and said the paepae wasn't a decision making process.

"Decisions are made with full discussion, and women are taking the front line more and more when we're having a hui to make a decision about something."

He said the showpiece did not run the tribe, the engine room did that.

A supporter of traditional roles.Te Arawa leader, Sir Toby Curtis, speaks at an education conference.

A supporter of traditional roles.Te Arawa leader, Sir Toby Curtis, speaks at an education conference. Photo: US EMBASSY NEW ZEALAND

But a former community advisor at the Human Rights Commission, Marama Davidson, said she's just returned from the Ngapuhi hearings in Northland where tribal leaders spoke of not having enough men to man the paepae.

For her, it was time for Maori women to be given primary speaking roles on marae.

"I often hear and agree with the frustration from Maori women who are forced to sit there and listen to our designated kaikorero, who in their eyes have not represented the kaupapa or our tikanga well," she said.

"Meanwhile you've got a whole background of amazing wahine Maori who can do a far better job."

Marama Davidson.

Marama Davidson. Photo: SUPPLIED

"Times are changing, and if we're going to keep our culture a living evolving entity, we need to recognise that we need to use everything we can and that includes our wahine talent."

But according to an experienced karanga teacher, Raina Ferris, if women learnt about the art and depth of karanga they wouldn't have to whaikorero.

"Wahine today have lost the value of the karanga. When the kuia started dying and left us they took away the sacredness and depth of the art form.

"Karanga has been narrowed down to this little moment in time to say whatever you say with as little words as you can, but it's so much more than that. It's our opportunity to have a say."

The pohiri process was a strategically well balanced set of activities that is designed to achieve kotahitanga (unity) by bringing manuhiri and tangata whenua together and bringing the living and spiritual worlds together, Ms Ferris said.

"That ritual can't be broken. It stays this way to maintain our identity and is not to be changed to suit someone's perspective."

Others agree with this perspective.

A Maori lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology, Hone Sadler, said the karanga was the most important role of the welcome ceremony, because it set the tone for the hui.

Those wanting change were looking at Maori traditions from the wrong perspective, Mr Sadler said.

"The lens they look through is dominated by something that doesn't belong in the Maori world, so that the roles that women play seem to be diminished roles, but they aren't."

Mr Sadler has written a book to be launched in June called Tautoro, Te Pito o Toku Ao. A Ngapuhi narrative, which explores the role of Ngapuhi women.

He said they had never been restricted from speaking in powhiri, but they weren't taking up the roles because of founding colonial and Christian values, which to some extent regarded women as chattels and influenced Maori.

Hone Sadler predicted there would be more women taking on speaking roles in the future, but it would be a resourcing issue, with fewer men able to speak Maori on the paepae.

A powhiri to welcome guests for the annual Ratana celebrations in 2014

A powhiri to welcome guests for the annual Ratana celebrations in 2014 Photo: Diego Opatowski/RNZ

Parliament is in the process of reviewing its protocol after complaints by some senior female MPs that their status isn't reflected in the current kawa or protocol.

The House uses the kawa of local Wellington iwi, Te Atiawa.

An iwi representative and chair of the Wellington Tenths Trust, Morrie Love, said any drastic changes to protocol to allow women to speak in powhiri are not for Parliament to lead.

"If that were the case, we should review our role in Parliament'

Mr Love said if changes to protocol were happening generally in Maoridom, then the iwi would look at it but he said he did not think it was yet time for change.

"I believe Maori are comfortable with their gender roles".

No date has been set on the release of the Parliamentary paper.