Te Rūnanga ā Iwi o Ngāpuhi chair Mere Mangu speaking at Te Whare Rūnanga, Waitangi 2020. (Image: teaomaori.news)
Te Rūnanga ā Iwi o Ngāpuhi chair Mere Mangu speaking at Te Whare Rūnanga, Waitangi 2020. (Image: teaomaori.news)

ĀteaMarch 13, 2020

The argument for Māori women speaking on the marae

Te Rūnanga ā Iwi o Ngāpuhi chair Mere Mangu speaking at Te Whare Rūnanga, Waitangi 2020. (Image: teaomaori.news)
Te Rūnanga ā Iwi o Ngāpuhi chair Mere Mangu speaking at Te Whare Rūnanga, Waitangi 2020. (Image: teaomaori.news)

There was a lot of kōrero at Waitangi this year about women’s speaking rights, both at Waitangi and around the motu. Dr Rawiri Taonui looks at the history.

The call for Māori women to speak on marae was reignited this year when Mere Mangu, the chair of Te Rūnanga ā Iwi o Ngāpuhi, welcomed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other political leaders to Te Whare Rūnanga at Waitangi. The male taumata (front row of speakers) tried to make her sit down. They have been deservedly admonished.

Māori and indigenous human rights lawyer Annette Sykes criticised their “kawa that said only Māori men can sit on the front row and speak’ but allowed National leader Simon Bridges, Green leader James Shaw and the Prime Minister to speak English over Māori women who speak Māori”. This echoed Titewhai Harawira’s stand in 1998 blocking then Labour opposition leader Helen Clark from speaking on Te Tii Marae: “You let Helen Clark speak but not Māori women”.

More broadly, Labour MP Willie Jackson has said Māori women should speak on the marae as many speak better Māori than some “idiot young men”. Similarly, Green Party MP Marama Davidson lamented the frustration Māori women feel when male speakers fail to deliver. Far North doyenne Mira Szaszy always advocated same.


Unfortunately, the ethnocentric Pākehā misconception that tikanga is archaic and childlike rather than subtle and complex often distorts this debate in the white media.

One assumption – that women sitting behind men at pōwhiri is discriminatory and sexist – is wrong. Physical placement varies at different stages of pōwhiri. Kuia karanga while leading groups onto marae, with men and all others behind. Kuia from tangata whenua stand in front of men and respond with their karanga. In earlier times karanga were a much longer equivalent to whaikōrero.

For whaikōrero, koroua speak from the taumata or paepae. Kuia sit behind them. Speakers must have their support. All other men and women are further back. Everyone is together in waiata. For Māori, the roles are equal: women in front for the karanga, men in front for whaikōrero, side-by-side for waiata.

Another misconception is that all men whaikōrero and all women karanga. Traditionally, the tikanga of tuakana (senior/eldest male or female) and teina (younger/junior male or female) dictated that older senior men spoke, and younger men did not, and that older senior women gave the karanga and younger women did not. Elders were held to be wiser and younger people perceived to require spiritual, cerebral and reproductive protection, especially te whare tangata (the womb). Metaphorically, older men and women shielded the people.

Read more: Waitangi Day without the politicians is the best Waitangi Day of all

A further fallacy is that women never speak. Once the harirū, hongi and/or hākari have lifted the tapu of the pōwhiri, business begins. Both genders speak, often kaumātua first followed by pakeke then rangatahi. Decisions and responsibilities are distributed according to skill, merit and respect. Women lead some tribes, others are CEOs. Most Pākehā who accuse Māori of sexism and discrimination do not witness this because they do not stick around to do the dishes.

Women have spoken on marae often according to circumstance, particularly at Waitangi. Te Pūea Hērangi, the great Waikato leader, spoke at the 1940 centenary of the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi. Whina Cooper lifted the tapu of the newly carved Te Whare Rūnanga that same year.

In 1997, at Te Kōpua, Sykes spoke as land rights leader Tuaiwa Eva Rickard was laid to rest, appropriately over the objections of men whom Rickard always challenged. In 2014, Green Party co-leader Meteria Tūrei spoke at Rātana and on Te Tii marae at Waitangi. This year, te hau kāinga at Te Tī marae asked Pania Newton to speak for Ihumātao.

Some tribes have recognised women with particular mana as speakers. Whaia McClutchie, Mataroa Reedy, Mihi Kōtukutuku and Niniwa-i-te-rangi of Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu were renowned orators. McClutchie always said that when she spoke it was ‘complementary to supporting men on the paepae’. In 1985, she spoke on behalf of a group of protesters she led to Waitangi. The taumata was clearly disconcerted until Whina Cooper stood and answered, restoring balance.

Whina Cooper speaking on Takapuwahia marae, Porirua on the landmark 1975 hīkoi. (Image: Evening Post, 11 October 1975/Alexander Turnbull)


The men at Waitangi this year should have comprehended that Mangu was key to balancing the multiple cultural concessions they had granted to Pākehā female and male political leaders that day.

Other than the landmark effort from Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Andrew Little, who made his address in te reo Māori without notes, our Pākehā politicians delivered little more than a post-colonial mockery of kawa and te reo.

There was no tapu lifting hongi or harirū. The leader of the Greens, James Shaw, gave what he thought was a short mihi from paper then spoke English. Opposition National Party leader, Simon Bridges, to his credit without paper, spoke awkwardly and briefly in te reo then ranted in English. The prime minister, who spoke from the mahau to accommodate her gender, gave a short unconvincing mihi then a speech in English, both from paper. Most of the support sang from paper.

Speaking on marae is a high form of oral and aural art and reciting poorly pronounced mihi from paper during formal occasions is simply inauthentic. The male leaders (except Little) should have spoken from the mahau because their raho were swinging in a tapu space that their reo did not fortify. Any kawa prioritising that parody and excluding Māori women constitutes nothing short of a gross chauvinistic belittling of our mothers and sisters. Mangu’s place was rightful.

Decline and revival

Other factors have been shaping this debate for some time. Between 1900 and 1960, the Education Department attempted the linguistic genocide via forced language death of te reo by enthusiastically beating the kia ora out of successive generations of Māori children. The infamous Hunn Report (1961) reinforced this approach describing te reo speakers as “backward and retarded”.

Urbanisation escaping impoverishment from land loss initiated a demographic shift from 80% rural in 1940 to 80% urban in 1980, further eroding te reo by separating whānau from papakāinga (homelands).

The combined impact was that Māori leaders, grandparents and parents stopped speaking. Intergenerational transmission broke down. The language began to die. Between 1900 and 1990, fluent speakers fell from 90% to less than 5%. All my full-blooded Māori uncles and aunties lost their reo.

As revitalisation initiatives gathered momentum during the 1970s and 1980s, younger people began filling speaking and karanga gaps with many, in an irony of colonisation, paying fees to universities, polytechnics and wānanga to repossess the mother tongue stolen from their parents.

Mana tāne

Taha Māori is crossing another threshold. Numerically, there have never been more speakers. However, with a larger population scattered and dispersed from homeland marae, there are not enough whaikōrero exponents.

There is a crisis in fast disappearing competent male speakers. Male speakers, who traditionally dominated te reo speakers aged over 50 years, are passing away more rapidly than non-speakers. Male speakers also predominate in emigration seeking work overseas. Others become less available after taking up cultural advisory positions in public organisations that while admirably expanding their corporate cultural acumen do so without counting the cultural capital they remove from communities.

Mana wāhine

In contrast, more Māori women than men are learning te reo. In 2001, men were more likely than women to speak te reo in all age groups over 20. Now more Māori women do so in every age group under 40.

In part this is because Māori women are faring better than Māori men in tertiary education. There are two Māori women for every Māori man enrolled in Bachelor degrees.

In mitigation, while racist barriers exist for all Māori in education, like being seen as less likely to succeed, there is a particular prejudice against Māori men via a gendered colourism that preferring middle-class indigenes with European features and light skin perceives them as dark male predators.

Read more: Five wāhine Māori protestors (who other Māori thought were a pain in the ass)

Māori women are also more determined because they have borne the greater weight of colonisation and urbanisation. With 41% of Māori children in single-parent families compared to just 17% of Pākehā children by the mid-1990s, too many Māori women were and are the sole pou tokomanawa of whānau Māori (including kuia who have raised more than one generation of children).

The cumulative outcome is that more Māori women than men know all parts of their pepeha – tribal names, rivers, mountains, ancestors and canoes. The ratio of men to women identifying with an iwi is also dropping, from 96 men for every 100 women in 1991, to 89 men for every 100 women in 2013.

A wider issue here is the large percentage – as many as 40% of Māori – that have never been on the marae. Many of these people are alienated from both mainstream and the kaupapa Māori world. Alongside racism and colonisation, deculturalisation and language loss is a factor in Māori incarceration, unemployment, mental health and suicide. Combined, these are significant factors in the alienation of young Māori men and less male speakers. In my wider family, for example, this has meant five suicides in the last six years – four young men and one young woman.

Pupils of the Waiwhetū kōhanga reo in Lower Hutt. Jean Puketapu and Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi were among the early founders of kōhanga reo in 1982. Three years later there were over 300 operating. (Image: Archives New Zealand)

Māori men are sometimes the architects of our downfall.  Some have internalised false Victorian European Christian notions about the superior and inferior status of men and women. Several who find female assertiveness threatening reject modern ‘Mana Wahine’ in favour of a mythical ‘Te Mana o te Wahine’. Others over-romanticise warrior culture, neglecting that our ancestral forefathers spent more time gardening, building, hunting, fishing, birding and being good dads than they did oiling each other’s bodies in the corner of pā in preparation for the next pakanga (battle).

Māori women are now the more prominent emancipatory leaders. They led the Māori Land March, Te Hīkoi ki Pōneke, Raglan and founded Kōhanga Reo. Young activists like Julia Whaipooti and Laura O’Connell Rapira front to the media on a weekly basis to make sure our people are heard. Pania Newton led Ihumātao, Renae Maihi the landmark defamation-racism affray.

There are the politicians like Dame Tariana Turia, Marama Davidson, Louisa Wall and Nanaia Māhuta; skilled tribal leaders like Mangu, Dame Naida Glavish and Professor Margaret Mutu; and others like Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, Donna Awatere, Hilda Hawkyard, Mereana Pitman, Merepeka Raukawa-Tawa and Linda Smith. Too many to name, they walk in the footsteps of Te Pūea, Cooper, Rickard, Szaszy, Hana Te Hemera and many others.

The Future

Some decades ago, my aunties asked me to speak for our whānau. As we look to the future fewer men are learning te reo. One ponders who will speak when darkness falls.

My eldest daughter has been the whānau stalwart from a young age. She may do my poroporoaki and if challenged might reply ‘Mehemea kāhore e whai raho ngā mea tāne o te whānau ki te ako i te reo, me tū atu ahau te wahine ki te whaikōrero mō tōku pāpā’.

At the end of the dawn service on February 6, Waitangi National Trust chair Pita Tipene called Mangu to be the last speaker. On our national day, it is appropriate that the head of the largest tribe in Aotearoa New Zealand be the first and the last kaikōrero.

Keep going!