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The tekoteko of a marae against a blue background with koru designs added and a scalloped border
The tekoteko on the wharenui of Pariroa Pā (Photo: Airana Ngarewa; additional design by Tina Tiller)

ĀteaAugust 2, 2023

What wānanga means to Māori

The tekoteko of a marae against a blue background with koru designs added and a scalloped border
The tekoteko on the wharenui of Pariroa Pā (Photo: Airana Ngarewa; additional design by Tina Tiller)

In essence, wānanga is about open discussion, about gathering together to discuss differing thoughts, opinions and experiences. It’s a very Māori kind of knowledge, explains Airana Ngarewa.

Wānanga is a kupu that is multifaceted and unique to te reo Māori, without any equivalent in English. It is a method of sharing and acquiring knowledge, a more traditional term for mātauranga Māori and in more recent history, it’s been used to describe tertiary institutions such as Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and Te Wānanga o Raukawa. In A Dictionary of the Māori Language, one the oldest dictionaries of te reo Māori edited by a Māori that is still available, Herbert William Williams (known also as Wiremu Hapata) used wānanga as a kupu for instructor or expert. So in essence, wānanga is a Māori method of learning and teaching, what is learnt and what is taught this way, a place where this kind of learning and teaching happens and those who lead this kind of learning.

The first reference to wānanga in the Māori creation stories – which are by no means a single narrative but a collection of stories from different whānau, hapū and iwi – are ngā kete o te wānanga: te kete tuarua, te kete tuatea and te kete aronui. These kete are more commonly known as the three baskets of knowledge but as detailed above, the translation from wānanga to knowledge is crude so may not capture how these baskets were understood by our tūpuna.   

In one account of this story, these three baskets once rested in the 12th heaven, Te Toi o Ngā Rangi, the highest of all heavens. They lay inside a whare wānanga known as Rangiātea which belonged to Io, the supreme being, and was under the care of the Whatukura and Mareikura, Io’s attendants. Some groups tell that Tāne climbed to Te Toi o Ngā Rangi to claim the baskets either by right of his completing this journey or by sneaking inside the whare wānanga to steal them. This is how he earned the names Tāne-nui-a-rangi and Tane-te-wānanga, both references to these events. Others instead say that Tāwhaki was the one who claimed these baskets in much the same way, hence Te Ara a Tāwhaki, a name that references the journey he took to reach these kete.

Once these baskets were claimed, they were brought to te ao tūroa and soon reached humankind, where their contents were taught in whare wānanga. These are the foundations of the many meanings of wānanga, each referring to the kete themselves, the places where their contents were shared, how they were shared and by whom they were shared. The baskets serve also as an example of how highly valued education is held in te ao Māori, wānanga being understood to have its origins in the highest possible place, the 12th heaven, Te Toi o Ngā Rangi.

In recent times, wānanga is most commonly used as a verb to describe a coming together of a group to discuss something. Many whānau, hapū and iwi have their own interpretation of wānanga but broadly speaking, wānanga is about open discussion, where the group is encouraged to bring their own thoughts, opinions and experiences about a particular topic or set of topics to the whare, to talk through their differences and seek to come to a deeper understanding of the matters discussed. In some cases, wānanga are practical. When the waka was discovered at Kuranui in May, a wānanga was held at our marae about how we would move the waka, who would perform karakia and karanga and what waiata was most appropriate to sing at different stages of the move. 

The Putoetoe whare at Pariroa Pā (Photo: Airana Ngarewa)

In other cases, wānanga is more about the kōrero and there is no necessary outcome or consensus that needs to be reached. Over the weekend, we held a wānanga at Pariroa Pā, a short drive out of Pātea, which was about gathering all the hapū of the marae together and talking through the different stories and histories that have been passed down through different whānau. Photos, videos, whānau manuscripts and kōrero were shared by many. Other resources like Paper’s Past and Retrolens made an appearance, the former recounting when Kīngi Mahuta, the third Māori king, visited the papakāinga in 1899, and the latter showing aerial imagery of the pā at the beginning and the end of the urban Māori migration, when local Māori left the papakāinga in search of work in the cities.  

Aerial views of Pariroa Pā in 1951 and 2021 (Photos: Retrolens)

It is not uncommon in wānanga that differences of opinion or understanding manifest, but the unique thing about wānanga is these differences are welcomed. Each difference serves to further anchor our place on this land, kōrero braiding like roots beneath the soil bolstering us against the wind and cementing our place here as mana whenua. This is the importance of this process to Māori. It is not simply about more traditional forms of knowledge but about connection to te tai ao and to each other, a very Māori kind of knowledge: te wānanga.   

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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