Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Mana wahine

This essay looks at mana wahine, the place and mana of women in tikanga Māori. It discusses the effect of colonisation, cultural imperialism and patriarchy on our tikanga. Tino rangatiratanga is not just about regaining control of our resources, it also means the freedom and power to make decisions that are right for us, and it includes the responsibility to behave as rangatira. Rangatiratanga is part of Māori law, tikanga Māori; to my mind, tino rangatiratanga can only be achieved with a return to tikanga Māori. An understanding of mana is fundamental, and this includes an open-minded consideration of mana wahine.

Some see a justification in tikanga Māori for exclusively male power and leadership. Too often, I have heard some of our men talk about women as if we are objects that can be collected and used to enhance their mana. I have seen men arriving at hui barely acknowledge the women present, while stopping to hongi every man. I have heard some men talk about children as if they exist only to enhance the father’s mana, as if mothers are just convenient caregivers, raising the children so the men can move on and have more. Is this what is meant by women being the source of mana? That our only mana is because of the children our whare tangata provide our men? Is this what our young people are learning? If this is true, what would tino rangatiratanga mean for women?

I will argue that this view of mana wahine is a recent distortion of tikanga Māori as a result of colonisation. European newcomers privileged one half of Māori society over the other; they brought their religion as justification for exclusive male leadership. For 200+ years, Pākehā leaders have behaved as if only men should have power, from the signing of Te Tiriti, to recent examples, such as Crown selection of all-male negotiators for the fisheries deal. Few Māori men are challenging this bias. It is as devastating to us as land thefts, because it has corrupted who we are and our relationships with each other, our tūpuna, and our whenua.

There is a common belief among Māori and non-Māori that women are secondary to men in tikanga Māori (Mikaere (b), p 7). This has been internalised by many Māori women, as expressed by Heni Brown: being a woman, I wasn't respected... I used to think, you're the eldest, you're the rangatira. No. Not in the Māori world. (Brown, p 48) It is difficult to assess the place of wāhine in tikanga Māori. Tikanga is based on the values handed down by our tūpuna, these values appear to have been distorted since the arrival of Europeans. Our creation stories which illustrate these values have also been distorted. However, who am I to determine what is authentic in tikanga Māori? I was brought up in a Pākehā family, I have spent more time in feminist and anarchist cultures than in Māori. When I look at tikanga Māori, I am personally invested in finding that women were not considered secondary to men, and that women's skills, knowledge and leadership were valued as much as men's. Instead of giving my uninformed and heavily biased analysis of the place of wāhine in tikanga Māori, I lay out the problems as I see them.

Tikanga Māori

Tikanga (Māori law) is based on whakapapa: Law was...'born' of whakapapa or 'arose' out of it (Jackson, p 61). Tikanga provide guidelines to manage our relationships so that we can protect our tapu and mana, and avoid diminishing others'; its purpose is to maintain the balance of tapu within relationships. Tikanga cannot be seen as a set of rules, but rather as the set of values (kaupapa) that underlie those practices (Ministry of Justice, p 10). These kaupapa, including manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, mana, tapu, noa, and ea, are the foundations of Māori society (Mead, pp 25-32).

Tikanga were established and developed by our ancestors. The values that were important are illustrated in the oral traditions that have survived across generations—the creation stories, waiata, haka and whakataukī show us which attributes and behaviours were adaptive and praised, and which were not (Mikaere (a), p 4; Mahuika, p 46). Understanding any aspect of tikanga Māori should then be as easy as finding the appropriate examples. Understanding the place of wāhine in tikanga Māori should be easy. The creation traditions are full of females: Papatūānuku, Hine-ahu-one, Hine-tītama/ Hine-nui-te-pō, Taranga, Mahuika, Muriranga-whenua; Te Pō is seen by many to be female. It should be as simple as examining their roles in those stories.

There are two problems in examining Māori creation stories to understand the importance of wāhine in tikanga Māori. The first should be minor: creation stories, like specifics of tikanga, vary among and within iwi. The reason this is not a minor problem in relation to the place of wāhine, is because the variation starts from the very beginning. Some authorities have Io-matua-kore existing in the void of Te Kore as the male creator of the foundations of the universe, including Te Pō, and Ranginui and Papatūānuku (Marsden, p 16; many authorities are skeptical of the authenticity of the Io tradition, but others are confident of it; it is therefore impossible to dismiss it outright). In the traditions of Kāi Tahu (the iwi to which I belong), Te Pō is the female element from which life emerges (Tau, p 73). While other traditions explicitly have the female Papatūānuku and male Ranginui as the first beings, created equal: Kotahi ano te tupuna o te tangata Maori ko Rangi-nui e tu nei, ko Papa-tua-nuku e takoto nei (Grey, 1953 cited in Mead, p 309). So, either males have primacy in creation, females have primacy in creation, or there is balance between males and females from the beginning. This is not a trivial detail. If these stories serve to show us the ultimate reality and our place in the world (Marsden, p 56), it is surprising there is not more agreement on such an important issue.

This introduces the second problem. When Pākehā came to these islands, they brought with them two things that have affected the Maori world-view and tikanga: 1) pens and 2) a missionary belief in their own superiority. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, all that was worth knowing was embedded in the oral tradition. Tohunga ahurewa, those chosen to ensure the spiritual and physical well-being of an iwi or hapū, maintained the accuracy of the 'sacred lore', traditions and whakapapa (Marsden, p 15). However, Europeans colonising this land trusted the written word for storing information; they very quickly began recording details about the people here. Decades before Elsdon Best and Percy Smith began researching Māori culture at the end of the 19th century, words were already being written and read, and repeated (e.g. George Angas in 1847, Shortland in 1856). It is unlikely that these writers, or the many that came later (and continue to come), understood what they were seeing and hearing. However, once written down, even doubtful material has a tendency to out-compete and corrupt oral literature.

If something as neutral and passive-seeming as a person with a pen trying to truthfully record information can have such an effect on our culture, what then of the missionaries and 'civilisation'. The purpose of the missionaries was to convert Māori people to christianity, convincing them to leave behind their old ways and beliefs (Mikaere (b), p 68). Although many were converted, they also held onto Māori traditions, some of which seem to have changed to become more in line with christianity. There are incredible similarities between some Māori creation stories and biblical stories. Buck diplomatically describes the discovery of Io, a supreme christian-like god in Māori creation, as a surprise to Maori and Pakeha alike (Buck, p 526). Likewise, Mikaere comments that the account of the creation of the first woman, Hine-ahu-one...[is] uncannily similar to the biblical myth of Adam creating Eve (Mikaere (a), p 7).

The relevance to mana wahine of this foreign influence on Māori creation traditions is obvious when we consider the overwhelmingly patriarchal bias of early European colonisers. If their ideas infiltrated our stories, we can expect a distortion of the gender roles: a diminishing and pacifying of the female roles, and an inflation of the male roles. Mikaere gives a detailed account of exactly this, particularly in relation to Best and Smith (Mikaere (b), pp 68-78). Contrast this with the creation traditions explained by Rose Pere, a woman who grew up in Ngāi Tūhoe culture in the mid-twentieth century: her accounts have male figures as less dominant, and females playing a more active role, even while acknowledging Io as the supreme influence (Pere (Ako), pp 7-15).
…[T]he first human was a woman. She was not formed by Tane, or any male god. She was from Papatuanuku... My old people said the reason why the first human was a woman is because it is women who give birth to children... All of us have sprung from the very beginning from the womb of a woman. (Pere (The Mother Energy), p 167)

There are many possible reasons why Pere’s stories are different from those that Best and Smith report, but it is interesting that they are different in such a predictable way. Men from a patriarchal world-view interpreted Io stories as showing a male supreme god, with other male figures as dominant. A woman raised in the culture from which these stories originated describes a genderless supreme god, a balance of power between the genders, and stresses the importance of females.

If the accounts written by Best and Smith do represent a distortion, then there are huge implications. The majority of accessible, english-language material on Māori cosmogony is either written by them or draws heavily from their work. Even tohunga writing on their own experiences and understanding of tikanga Māori have been influenced. For example, Teone Taare Tikao has clearly added Io to Ngāi Tahu traditions in order to fit with Te Whatahoro’s telling (Prendergast-Tarena, pp 28, 61). If our creation stories have been corrupted, then where can we look for guidance?

Other sources of information

Tikanga Māori is based on the values that have survived our tūpuna, handed down through oral literature. Our creation traditions are not the only literature that contain information about these values. Mahuika offers waiata, haka, whakataukī, as well as the names of hapū and whare tupuna as alternative sources of information (Mahuika, p 46). Interpretation of waiata, haka and whakataukī requires a competency beyond mine in te reo, and understanding of the cultural context and symbolism used. I am therefore unable to use these primary sources of information for this essay. The naming of hapū and whare tupuna is less problematic for me.

Buck claims Māori society privileges men over women to the extent that Leadership...was exercised by males, and primogeniture in the male line was the deciding factor in succession to chiefly rank. (Buck, cited in Mahuika, p 42). If so, then we can expect to see the names of these men, from whom hapū have inherited their mana, celebrated to the exclusion of women who offer them no such mana. Buck and Best admit there is the odd exception to naming after men (cited in Mahuika p 46), but Mahuika says the majority of Ngāti Porou (the iwi to which he belongs) senior hapū are named after women (Mahuika, p 47). Would Buck and Best see that whole iwi as an exception? Of the three iwi to which I whakapapa, one is named after a man (Kāi Tahu from Tahu-pōtiki) and one a woman (Kāti Māmoe from Whatu-māmoe) (I am ignorant of the gender of the eponymous Waitaha tupuna, Waitahanui). Is the naming of Kāti Māmoe another exception? The problem is, there are so many exceptions that immediately come to mind. When do we discard the rule? The fact that this idea persists for so long, in spite of obvious evidence to contradict it, shows that there is a desire to maintain it. Why?

My family knows of no Kāi Tahu rangatira wahine (despite Kāti Māmoe being named after a woman), while the books I’ve read give only the vaguest hints that Kāi Tahu women had any power at all. My rūnaka (Awarua) must have a male upoko-rūnaka (Morgan, 2009). Only one publication I have read claims Kāi Tahu women had power, Beattie’s Lifeways of the Southern Maori. Beattie was a Pākehā man who began recording Kāi Tahu stories as a boy. He conducted extensive ethnographic interviews with Kāi Tahu kaumātua in the first half of the twentieth century and his manuscripts were edited and published in 1994 by Anderson, a Kāi Tahu historian. Beattie states that the upoko-ariki of a tribe could be either male or female according to birth (Beattie, p 95). If this is true, why does Awarua allow only men to be upoko-rūnaka? Compare this with the text written by Carrington, another Pākehā ethnographer, published in 2008 (that Anderson co-edited), which contains several statements that only men had political power in Kāi Tahu (eg, Carrington, in Tau & Anderson, pp 32, 59). The editors give no indication that there is evidence disputing this, whereas they point out other areas where they believe Carrington is wrong. Anderson at least must be aware of Beattie’s statement. Why have Kāi Tahu historians not investigated this question more? Did they miss the importance of Beattie’s statement for an iwi that seems to have lost all memory of female political power?

I feel confused that, even while historians acknowledge this is an area where so much knowledge has been lost, there is not more interest in gender roles in tikanga Māori. Why isn’t there more questioning of the idea that women had no political power, more curiosity about why evidence of female leadership is often ignored by men writing about our traditions? I understand how European writers get it wrong, but what about Māori writers? Why have so many men writing about their own iwi or pan-Māori traditions ignored the contradictions and perpetuated these ideas? Are there other examples that show a similar effort by our own people to ignore or downgrade the importance of women?

Case study: the place of women in pōwhiri

The pōwhiri has in many ways come to represent the traditional in tikanga Māori, where compromises will not be permitted. The ritualistic observance of marae protocol ensures avoiding the wrath and retribution of the gods (Marsden, p 30). Rangihau says that Ngāi Tūhoe will make no concessions whatsoever in things that happen on their marae...if we keep this place absolutely sacrosanct then it will never lose its aura...its ethos (Rangihau, p 186). Perhaps here we should expect the place of wāhine to be most obvious.

Women clearly influence marae proceedings, both in the back and in the front. Women are as likely as men to fill most roles in the back (Mikaere (b), p 59). In front, women are responsible for karanga, they usually determine and lead the waiata, and have influence over the rest of the proceedings. Men are usually responsible for whaikōrero, and also have influence over the rest of the proceedings. But Mikaere states that the roles of men and women on marae seem to have become more sharply delineated and entrenched (Mikaere (b), p 113).

The pōwhiri begins with a karanga of a woman; the hui cannot proceed without this spiritual support and protection (Pere (Ako), p 26). Whereas karanga has been called the kōrero of women, and was often long and detailed (Jackson, 10/5/2008), this appears to have become the exception. Now, karanga are usually extremely short, covering the necessities and no more; it is not unusual for the karanga to be omitted altogether because no-one is willing or able. The karanga, the most potent sign of female power at pōwhiri, seems to have become desirable but unnecessary.

Waiata were usually chosen by women to suit the occasion and the speech, and they could also be used to cut a speaker off (Mikaere (b), p 63). Women skilled in waiata could compose pao on the spot to respond to a speaker. However, like the karanga, they no longer seem to be considered essential, with speakers sometimes finishing and sitting down without one (Mikaere (b), p 114), or leading their own waiata.

Whaikōrero is usually restricted to men.* The importance of speakers has been inflated with paepae; Sutherland talks about being upset when this special seat for the men appeared on her marae (Sutherland, p 126-7); some marae only provide chairs for the kaikōrero. The whaikōrero was traditionally restricted to skilled kaumātua, but there are now fewer men of this ability. When no-one appropriate can speak, whaikōrero rights are being accorded to men who would never have been able to speak in earlier times – young men, Pākehā men, men who are not fluent in the language – while Māori women continue to be excluded (Mikaere (b), p135). Contrast this with the karanga, which is simply left out if there is no-one appropriate to call. The message is that whaikōrero is an essential component of a pōwhiri, whereas karanga is not.

Of course power is not held by the speech-maker alone, he is only a representative (Mikaere (b), p 115). There are several obvious ways that women can and are heard at pōwhiri: kuia are sometimes clearly directing the speaker, and waiata and whakapohane can be used (Stirling, p 70). However, as well as the skill and knowledge needed (much of which has been lost), all of these require recognition of mana wahine (Smith, p 40). Many kuia still command this, but when these women pass, how many women will have the confidence to take their place, and how many men will be willing to acknowledge their mana?

It appears from this that even in pōwhiri, male roles have become inflated at the expense of female roles (Mikaere (b), p 114; Pere (Te Wheke), p 47). If there is no-one appropriate to karanga, the pōwhiri continues without one; skill, whakapapa and gender are all important in deciding who is appropriate. In contrast, I have never seen whaikōrero omitted from a pōwhiri (in my limited experience). When there has been no-one with appropriate skill or whakapapa to speak, the whaikōrero has still been given, in English, in German, by rangatahi or by Pākehā, as long as a man spoke. Clearly gender is considered the most important factor, more important than skill, mana or whakapapa. Is this because the whaikōrero is indispensable, so compromises are made, whereas the karanga is an optional add-on? Or is the whaikōrero seen as a formality with little spiritual significance, so ability and appropriateness of speaker is less important, whereas it would be dangerous to trust karanga to the unskilled? If so, why is the gender of the speaker so important in whaikōrero? If we can compromise on age, experience, language and whakapapa, why not on gender? I think our choices are simultaneously inflating and degrading the male role of whaikōrero. (Whereas the now common refusal of many Māori men to hongi women at pōwhiri is unambiguously degrading women; it can only be interpreted as a lack of respect for the mana of women (Ramsden, cited in Mikaere (b), p 135).)


It is clear that mana wahine has changed since European arrival. I am not qualified to unpack all that has happened and say what the rightful place of women is in tikanga Māori. The questioning and criticism of tikanga must come from an informed position and from within our own culture.
Maori leadership has got to work this through and deprogramme all that does not rightfully belong in our Iwi histories. Maori women... are the backbone of Maori society and that isn't only because of our ability to bear children. (Mead, cited in Mikaere (b), p 134-5)
I am hopeful that this will happen. But it is hard to ignore that, the effects of colonisation notwithstanding, the downplaying of mana wahine discussed in this essay has continued because some of us have allowed it to continue. Māori men cannot justify their oppression of Māori women on the basis that such oppression is traditional. They must...confront...that colonisation has made them collaborators with the colonisers against their own women (Mikaere (b), p 139). Whoever is unwilling to look honestly at what has happened to the mana and rangatiratanga of women in the last 200 years, has no right to talk about tino rangatiratanga.

Jackson, Moana, “The Laws of Ranginui and Papatūanuku”, Lecture given to Diploma of Māori Laws and Philosophy students. Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, Ōtaki, 10 May 2008

Beattie, James Herries, Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori. University of Otago Press in association with Otago Museum, Dunedin, 1994

Brown, Heni, “Heni Brown”, Ngā Mōrehu: The Survivors, edited by Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin. Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1986

Buck, Peter, The Coming of the Māori. Whitcombe and Tombs, Wellington, 1958

Mahuika, Api, “Leadership: Inherited and Achieved”, Te Ao Hurihuri: Aspects of Maoritanga, edited by Michael King. Reed, Auckland, 1992

Manihera, Te Uira, “Foreward: Learning and Tapu”, Te Ao Hurihuri: Aspects of Maoritanga, edited by Michael King. Reed, Auckland, 1992

Marsden, Māori, The Woven Universe: Selected Writings of Rev. Māori Marsden. The Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 2003

Mead, Hirini Moko, Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori Values. Huia Publishers, Wellington, 2003

Mikaere (a), Annie, “Maori Women: Caught in the Contradictions of a Colonised Reality”. Waikato Law Review 125, 1994

Mikaere (b), Ani, The Balance Destroyed: The Consequences for Māori Women of the Colonisation of Tikanga Māori. The International Research Institute for Māori and Indigenous Education, jointly with Ani Mikaere, Auckland, 2003

New Zealand. Ministry of Justice, He Hīnātore ki te Ao Māori: A Glimpse into the Māori World. Ministry of Justice, Wellington, 2001

Pere, Rangimarie Rose, Ako: Concepts and Learning in the Maori Tradition. University of Waikato, Hamilton, 1982

Pere, Rangimarie Rose, “The Mother Energy”, Kaupapa New Zealand: Vision Aotearoa, edited by Witi Ihimaera. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1994

Pere, Rangimarie Rose, Te Wheke: A Celebration of Infinite Wisdom. Akoako Global Learning, Gisborne, 1991

Rangihau, John, “Being Maori”, Te Ao Hurihuri: Aspects of Maoritanga, edited by Michael King. Reed, Auckland, 1992

Smith, Linda, “Maori women: Discourses, Projects and Mana Wahine”, Women and Education in Aotearoa 2, edited by Sue Middleton and Alison Jones. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1992

Stirling, Amiria, and Anne Salmond, Amiria: The Life Story of a Maori Woman. Heinemann Reed, Auckland, 1976

Sutherland, Heni, “Heni Sutherland”, Ngā Mōrehu: The Survivors, edited by Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin. Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1986

Tau, Rawiri Te Maire, Ngā Pikitūroa o Ngai Tahu: The Oral Traditions of Ngāi Tahu. University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 2003

Tau, Te Maire and Atholl Anderson (Editors), Ngāi Tahu: A Migration History: The Carrington Text. Bridget Williams Books in Association with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Wellington, 2008

Tremewan, Christine (Translator and Editor), Traditional Stories from Southern New Zealand. Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 2002

Jackson, Moana, “Whakapapa and the Beginning of Law”, Compiled in Law 1.6: Whakapapa and the Beginning of Law: Compilation of Readings and Resources. Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, Diploma in Māori Laws and Philosophy, Ōtaki, 2008

Morgan, Hana, Email interview with the author, November 2009

*There are accounts of women with enough mana speaking (Pere, Ako, p 27, Stirling, p 70), however this really does seem to be an exception. In the absence of men, one solution is for women to mihi to local groups (Sutherland, 128); in some areas during the World Wars women would whaikōrero, and some of those women retain the right to do so for life, but it is not extended to other women. (return to essay)


  1. Anonymous9:23 pm




  2. Anonymous7:48 pm

    Gold Kim, thanks :)

  3. Anonymous12:58 pm

    Ka Rawe!

  4. Tungane Kani2:58 pm

    Tena koe manawa hine. nga mihi