Kaitiakitanga Program and Network
Kaitiakitanga - Safe guarding our Future
Research by Andrée Mathieu
New Zealand is all nature! Imposing, generous, extravagant nature! It looks as if the Creator had made this land into a vast workshop where He would have built a sample of all that we can find on this planet: never ending beaches, mountains of all sizes, plains as far as the eyes can see, volcanoes among which some are still active, glaciers, rain forests worthy of the most beautiful cathedrals, cheerful rivers, abyssal gorges and spectacular lakes nested in wonderful massifs. And what about the vegetation? All tones of green are delicately punctuated by seasonal flowers. When the sun comes down on the horizon, nature seems lighted from within. It's magic! Its no surprise that the environment dwells within my thoughts...
For Maori, protecting the environment takes on another dimension; they are the kaitiaki of their land. This Maori concept of kaitiakitanga should inspire anyone who is interested in sustainability. But to really understand the meaning of this word, one must understand the holistic world view of the Maori. For them all is interrelated: the divine and the human, the living and the inanimate. It is impossible for me to describe their vision in its fullness within these few lines, and I certainly don't claim to do it on their behalf, but I will all the same try to tell you how I understand that concept of kaitiakitanga after three months in New Zealand. We must first go back to their founding myths, but here I should make a point. The Maori I met don't like anyone referring to their gods using the word “myth”. Speech originates in Io, the supreme god, and the Maori consider that their history was told to them through oral transmission since the beginning of times.
The divine origins
There seems to be as many versions of the founding myths as there are Maori iwi (tribes) in New Zealand, which is not surprising in an oral tradition. Here I present the main lines found in most of the books that I have read and from most of the Maori I have met.
The supreme god is Io. Before Io there was nothing. Io was reigning in the loneliness of “the great void” called Te Korekore that He fertilised with the seeds of all possible creatures belonging to the domains of light, sky, earth and oceans. Because they are daughters and sons of the same creative principle, Maori see themselves as sisters and brothers of the stars, the mountains, the waterways as well as all the living. Io named each of the potential creatures and they took shape (“In the beginning was the Word...”). Words are crucial in Maori life. Human beings were granted with language and it is through their korero (stories), their waiata (songs) and their karakia (prayers) that they participate in the unfolding of the universe.
Io created the first gods: Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, Mother Earth, the male and female principles of all the creatures. The Tawhito (Ancestors) were born from their divine embrace, namely Tu Ma Tauenga, god of war, Ruaumoko, god of volcanoes and earthquakes, Tawhiri Matea, god of winds, together with Tangaroa, Tane Mahuta and Tane Nui a Rangi. But Ranginui was embracing Papatuanuku so tightly that the light could not enter between them. Their children were prisoners of the darkness. After conferring they (the Tawhito) decided to part their parents so that their universe could be flooded with light. Only Tawhiri Matea disagreed with that decision. Finally Tane Mahuta braced himself between his two parents and separated them.
They say that rain is Ranginui's tears over Papatuanuku and mist comes from the Earth crying for the Sky, her husband.
Tawhiri Matea, who had not accepted his parents' separation, blew winds of anger on his brothers and sisters. So started the war between the gods. Their fury caused the eruption of the natural elements over the world: earthquakes, tidal waves, violent storms, fires, etc. Rongo Marae Roa, the guardian of peace, alerted her brothers that they were terrifying the creatures of the earth who had no protection against the scourge caused by their wrath. Then the Tawhito had all the creatures chose a kaitiaki (protector) amongst them. Whales, dolphins, eels, trouts and all the aquatic creatures chose Tangaroa, guardian of the seas, the lakes and the rivers. Tane Mahuta became the god of the forests, the plants, the birds, the human beings and all the living who cherish light and freedom.
Tane Nui a Rangi, the god of life beyond this realm, shaped the first human being from the clay of the whenua (the earth) of Papatuanuku. Her name was Hine Ahu One (“daughter of the dust”). Tane brought her to life by breathing into her nostrils. The Maori greeting called hongi is a reminder of that event: they exchange their hau (breath of life) by breathing nose to nose. Hine Ti Tama was born from the union of Hine Ahu One and Tane who joined with his own daughter to father human kind. Learning that her husband was also her father, Hine Ti Tama, in despair, changed her name to Hine Nui Te Po and became the goddess of the death so that she could accompany all her childrens across the threshold of the other realm.
The myths of the origin of New Zealand
The “Song of Waitaha”1, tells how the gods had made a majestic waka with two hulls one of which was called Aotea Mai Rangi and the other Aotea Roa. Each year, the Maori ancestors expected the coming of “the Waka of the Gods”. But it ceased to come back. They asked their wise ones to look for it “in the mist of the past”. They saw some angry stars gathering around the moon and giving birth to the “tides of chaos” [the Flood…]. The Waka of the Gods was surprised by the wild ocean and Aotea Mai Rangi was flooded by an immense wave whipped up by violent winds. As the hull was ripped open, the commander of Aotea Roa was obliged to cut the bonds linking the two hulls so as not to sink both. Aotea Roa was blown south by the storm for thirteen days and thirteen nights.
When the waters calmed, the crew cried for its brothers and sisters who had drowned. Io heard them and to end their suffering he uttered a magic karakia that turned the waka and its crew into stones. “The waka of the gods” is now the South Island (though the whole New Zealand is also called Aotea Roa). The mountains wear the names of the crew members who perished, and the rocks are the ancestors who bravely drove Aotea Roa before being petrified. That is why the Maori walk with deep respect by those mountains who hold the mana of their ancestors.
Among the half-gods who are descended from the god Tane and the human Hine Ti Tama, Maui is one of the most important. He is known for slowing the course of the sun in the sky to lengthen the days, and also for giving fire to human beings after requesting it from the goddess Mahuika. But his major feat is having fished Whai Repo, the sacred sting ray of Tangaroa, and tied it to “the Waka of the Gods”. This giant sting ray is the North Island of New Zealand.
One of the Maori fundamental values relates to whakapapa (genealogy). To determine the place of each individual in Maori society, we must understand how he is related to the other members of his whanau (family), hapu (sub tribe) or iwi (tribe). His situation in the family determines his behavior towards the other members of his community and draws the line for transmission of their knowledge. In the philosophical discourse of the Maori, called Whakapapa Korero, everything that exists is related to a family which itself relates to other families whose origins can be traced back to Ranginui and Papatuanuku.
Maori use the word tipuna to talk about their forebears. The translation of that word to mean “ancestors” leads to a misunderstanding of the Maori world view. While the word “ancestor” is confined to people only, the word tipuna includes all that allows an individual to exist: his ancestors, but also his land, the forests, the mountains, the earth, the sky, the waterways, the oceans and all their contents. In the stories of the forebears, the Whakapapa Korero celebrates the universal sanctity of life and describes how the families are tied to each other by their tipuna. At the heart of the Maori world view is their recognition that all the elements in nature have a sacred value because of their relationship in the spiritual realm. All share the same spiritual essence called wairua, which comes from the union of the sacred waters of Ranginui and Papatuanuku.
Tapu and mana
Each tribe has its own interpretation of the word tapu, which is often translated by the word “sacred”. Certain Maori writers use the word mana where others use tapu. I deliberately choose the interpretation of the theologist Michael Shirres2 because for me it allows a clearer understanding of the origin of the sacredness of people and land. While tapu stands for a “potential of power”, mana is the actualisation, the manifestation of this “potential”. The mana of the Tawhito is the source of the “intrinsic tapu” of a creature. We saw that each Tawhito is the protector of a part of the creation. The tapu of the sea and the fishes comes from the mana of Tangaroa. In certain cases, the source of the tapu is multiple; for instance, the tapu of a waka comes from Tangaroa, god of the sea, but also from Tane, guardian of the tree that the waka is made of.
Each human being owns his full tapu (potential) at his birth. This tapu doesn't depend on what he is, but on what it can become. But he will have his full mana only when his potential is enacted. Thus, the child who descends from a lineage of chiefs is born with the tapu of a chief, but he doesn't yet have the mana of a chief, his power and his authority. The mana of a person can be greatly reduced if he is prevented to act, for instance if he is prisoner or if he is totally dependant of others. But since his mana is the manifestation of his primary tapu coming directly from the mana of the god to whom his existence is dedicated, a human being must uphold his mana otherwise he commits a sacrilege toward his Tawhito. Losing one's mana is like reducing his god to silence. Fortunately, the mana can be restored.
A person's mana may take different forms, the three main ones being mana atua, mana whenua and mana tangata. Mana atua comes directly from the gods; by his intrinsinc tapu, a Maori is identified with the spiritual power of whom he shares the mana. Mana whenua comes from the earth of Papatuanuku; a Maori is identified with the land of his tipuna. Finally, mana tangata comes from belonging to a family; a Maori is not an isolated individual, he is identified with his community who encompasses living members as well as dead ancestors.
In this world where each creature has its own tapu, there are continuous meetings between tapu elements. To set a little order in this “sacred” dynamics, Maori have established a system of restrictions, also called tapu. Some still believe that if a tapu is violated, something very bad will happen. Human beings may be touched by many restrictions: for instance, in order to respect the tapu of a person, there are tapu times, tapu hands, tapu food, tapu objects, tapu places and tapu events, like birth, hair cutting, war or death.
A place or an object may be transferred from the profane area (noa) to the sacred one (tapu) after consulting and under the direction of the tohunga (priest) or the kaumatua (elders) of the community. This restriction mainly aims at protecting the place or the object. It becomes sacred not because it has a tapu of its own, but because of its relation with an intrinsinc tapu. For instance, a part of a river may be declared tapu after a drowning. A cemetery is the best example of a wahi tapu (sacred place). All profane use of these places or objects is a sacrilege. A tapu may be lifted with the appropriate karakia during a ritual ceremony.
Whenua, mana whenua and tangata whenua
Whenua is the name given to the earth, but the word also describes the afterbirth, the placenta. When a child is born, the umbilical cord (pito) and the placenta are generally buried or placed in a tree. This practice confirms the unbreakable tie that links the child with his homeland. After death his body is returned to the earth that gave birth (whaipo) to him and nurtured him.
The Maori traditional way of cooking food (kai) is called a hangi; it involves digging a hole in the ground, putting some heated stones at the bottom on which food is placed, adding water to produce steam and covering all with earth. This way of cooking is a reminder that the earth, Papatuanuku, is the source of all food. An important manifestation of the prestige of a iwi (tribe) is its hospitality. A community express its mana through its capacity to feed its guests. In the 1850s, when the chiefs of certain iwi were asked to accept the title of king of the Maori, one after the other they refused referring to their land and its food capacity. They didn't have the sufficient resources to manaaki, i.e. to grant their hosts the hospitality that would suit the function of the king.
The person or the community who belongs to a land (rohe) holds the mana whenua of that land. Mana whenua is like a delegation of power from the gods to the community belonging to a land. To honour this divine duty, the tangata whenua are obligated to continue the role of the Tawhito who delegate their power (mana) to them.
The assistants of the gods are kaitiaki. They can be spirits, like the taniwha who take care of the waterways, or the spirits of dead ancestors, and they can be living creatures like trees, animals and human beings. The role of the assistants of the gods is called kaitiakitanga. As we saw earlier in this text, the Tawhito are the protectors of the creatures of the earth. Thus the person or the community who holds the mana whenua of a land is responsible for it.
The kaitiaki must make sure that the mauri or vital principle of their taonga is healthy and strong. Living in a particular geographic area for centuries allowed the tangata whenua to compile a huge variety and quantity of detailed knowledge related to the land, its resources and its inhabitants. That knowledge has been transmitted to their grand children (mokopuna) by the grand parents (tipuna) along the generations. It allows a rigorous evaluation of the mauri of their ancestral lands. For example, during the construction of a shellfish cannery along the long shore of the Ninety Mile Beach, the kaumatua, on discovering that the shellfishes would be canned and sold, gathered, discussed and came to the conclusion that the mauri of the shellfish would depart from Ninety Mile Beach. There would not be any left within fifteen or twenty years. Their predictions proved to be perfectly accurate.
To sustain their mana, the tangata whenua must play their role of kaitiaki and do everything they can to preserve the mauri of their land. This includes restoring it to its original state if it has been altered by bad use.
Tikanga Maori and rahui
Over the generations, Maori established a system of rules and principles, or kaupapa, to guide their actions. Those principles are applied through a proven set of customs and protocols gathered under the name of Tikanga Maori. These provide a tested and reliable method of doing the “right” thing, thus ensuring the wellbeing of their iwi including not yet born descendants. The expression Tikanga Tiaki refers to the specific rules applying to the conservation and protection of the taonga of the land. According to their role of kaitiaki, the Maori instituted the use of rahui to assure the sustainability and the replenishment of their resources.
The rahui is a provisory ban, a kind of a moratorium prohibiting the access to a land or a part of a land to the hunters, fishermen, farmers and other types of users. The rahui aims at preventing the overexploitation, the degradation or the collapse of a resource as well as the pollution of the environment. The rahui can be lifted when the resource is replenished. The rahui should be declared by the kaitiaki after consulting with the kaumatua and be based on the best scientific information available.
As the indigenous people of New Zealand, many Maori are disillusioned by what our present systems are doing to our environment and are currently fighting to share and re-establish their rich concepts of kaitiakitanga. My next stories will be about those old and young people I met who are boldly and selflessly working to help safe guard a future for all our grandchildrens.
2. What is Maori Theology,
This reflection is her koha (gift in return) to the
Maori people of Aotearoa and in particular the Ngati Whare and other people
of Whirinaki, Te Urewera who have shared much with her. She has assigned
the copyright of this work to their home, the place Te
Whaiti Nui-a-Toi, the sacred store place of their ancestral wisdom
for around 1000 years. Here it will be safe guarded for all time by its
Ngati Whare kaitiaki and freely shared for the benefit of all the world's
future grandchildrens. With the permission of the author and inclusion
of the copyright statement [( c)2004 www.tewhaiti-nui-a-toi.maori.nz]
it can be freely published.
We thank our friend Andree for this story. We hope that it helps you understand
our rich connection with the Earth and all other species on it and that through
this you come to value your own indigenousness. Perhaps by learning a little
more about our Maoritanga you may discover your own Pakehatanga, Englishtanga,
Americantanga, Chinesetanga, Indiantanga, Arabtanga, Francaistanga, Scandanaviantanga,
Canadaintanga, Aussietanga or whatever.
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