Decolonise your body! The fascinating history of Māori and periods

A lot of knowledge has been lost about traditional Māori attitudes to menstruation, but some extraordinary Māori women are making sure it’s not lost forever, writes Leonie Hayden

Like a bolt of lightning out of the blue it sometimes occurs to me that a thing I’m doing, or feeling, is a product of colonisation. When I look at my thick thighs and wish they were smaller, when I feel isolated or lonely, I remember that my ancestors had a different perspective, a community narrative that focused on service to family and connection to the natural world, and not ego or individuality. In this upside down world, the world that is my birthright, my thighs are strong so I can work on the land, travel long distances and carry children. I’m not alone but an integral part of a holistic ecosystem, as important as a mountain, a kauri tree and a chief.

It’s sobering every time.

Recently, it also occurred to me that there is probably an alternative to the shame we feel around periods. I just needed to ask for it. I know in my heart of hearts that the blood and the pain means something beyond ‘take two panadols and pretend everything’s fine’ and I believe that my tūpuna had access to that meaning.

Presumably knowledge passed along matrilineal lines was the first on the chopping block when the campaign to erase Māori culture began. Ethnographers like Elsdon Best, who recorded a lot of our stories and tikanga in the early 1800s, would have naturally been averse to sitting with wāhine Māori and just listening. Hell, even if he wanted to he probably wouldn’t have been invited. That’s the thing about indigenous knowledge systems – just because you want the information, it doesn’t mean you deserve it. Even within te ao Māori, access to wānanga was given to those specially chosen to receive certain knowledge.

With legislation like the Tohunga Suppression Act restricting traditional practices, and assimilation being pushed by leaders like Tā Apirana Ngata (not to mention all of the British colonial government and its resulting wars), matrilineal knowledge didn’t stand a chance and a lot of our mātauranga around the sacred waiwhero (also known as ikura, mate marama, mate wāhine, te awa tapu, māui) has been lost. We’re only just beginning to understand again, thanks to the work of wāhine Māori who are changing research methodology in our universities so that matauranga learned at the knee of their kuia and kaumātua can be embedded in institutional knowledge.

Michele Wilson (Tainui, Ngati Pāoa), founder of I Am Eva period underwear and Frankie Apothecary, first started to learn about traditional waiwhero practices when she was studying rongoā medicine at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

“I became interested in how our tūpuna managed their period. Using a tampon or a pad is not very friendly to Papatūānuku so I began to discover more sustainable and Papatūānuku-friendly ways of managing a period.”

She learned that mosses such as angiangi and kohukohu were used to make pads, called kope. Decoctions made from karamu and puka plants were used to ease period pain. And as I suspected, the social expectations of those on their period were very different from today. A common belief is that they were banished to a special bleeding house and banned from certain places during this time, like food gardens. This has given many the impression that menstruating people were considered unclean. But Michele suggests this tikanga was more about letting them rest rather than any imposed restrictions.

“For a few days they’d be allowed to step back and set limits on what they were and weren’t prepared to do, depending on how they felt. How amazing would that be if that was tikanga today? ‘I don’t feel that great, I’m not going to come into mahi.’ Remember making excuses to not do PE because you were on your period? Why shouldn’t you do that? If you need to rest, it should be embraced.

“Imagine if women weren’t made to feel like they were weak, they’re actually going through something powerful and amazing and they were going to take some time for themselves. That’s empowering.”

Like so many young girls, the idea of acknowledging a period horrified me. Everyone I know has a story that ends with tears of shame and a jumper tied around the waist. Secrecy is at the centre of all Western ideas around menstruation, just look at advertising around it. From the baffling use of blue liquids to the active, glowing white women in white bikinis, this blatantly distorted image of periods implies only one thing – how you feel about periods and how you deal with them is wrong and weird.

In te ao Māori, there was no cause for shame, only celebration, Michele says.

“When waiwhero first arrived, there would be the giving of gifts, which would be an awesome tikanga to continue today. Moko kauae would be given, ceremonial cutting of hair, piercing of ears. She would be introduced to new arts, learn karakia and waiata. There would be a hākari, the community would get together to share kai. And there would be a ceremonial bleeding onto the whenua as a gift to Papatūānuku.”

This practice was about acknowledging the connection between people, land and ancestors.

“Our tūpuna believed our waiwhero, our menstrual blood, carried our ancestors. Bleeding straight onto the land is our gift to the mother, to Papatūānuku. I know some wāhine that still do that today.”

She cites Awhitia Mihaere, Leonie Pihama and Ani Mikaere as huge influences and sources of information, but credits Ngāhuia Murphy especially, a PhD candidate whose Master’s thesis, Te Awa AtuaTe Awa Tapu, Te Awa Wahine, is probably the greatest resource there is on Māori menstruation practices, histories and knowledge, which she calls “a potent site of decolonisation, cultural reclamation, and resistance toward the perpetuation of colonial hegemony.”

The whakapapa narrative forms a large part of Te Awa Atua. In it, Ngāhuia shares a kōrero from Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Arikirangi Rose Pere about a Ngāi Tūhoe word for menstruation: ‘māui’. It’s a version of a story that many of us are familiar with – the demigod Māui and his quest for immortality:

“Māui went to Hine-nui-te-po-te-ao, and climbed up to her thighs. The Tiwaiwaka (fantail) flitted up to Māui, and asked him what he was up to. Māui told the Tiwaiwaka that he wanted to go back into the womb where he was sure he could receive immortality. The Tiwaiwaka warned Māui about violating the natural laws of the world, but Māui continued on his journey.

“The Tiwaiwaka woke the sleeping Hine-nui-te-po-te-ao. She demanded to know what Māui was doing and he told her about wanting to be like the Moon. Hine-nui-te-po-te-ao said she could grant Māui his wish but he was not to return to the womb; she then crushed him and made him the first menstruation to come into the world.

“Contrary to most versions, Māui did not die but achieved immortality after all, reappearing ‘like the moon’ in the blood-tides of woman. Flowing like an ancient ‘river of time’ and binding the generations, Māui’s monthly appearance signals continuity and the immortality of the people down through the generations.”

Celebration, whakapapa and an ancient river of time that connects us all is without doubt the alternative narrative I needed to the shame that we’ve all been taught to bear, and brings me one step closer to decolonising my body and my worldview.

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In a world oversaturated with Western beauty ideals, that trades on internalised shame and wants me to have a smaller nose, no body hair and a perfectly flat stomach, it’s a relief to shut out the noise and just listen to the ancestors.


Read more:

Ngāhuia Murphy – Te Awa Atua, Te Awa Tapu, Te Awa Wahine and her website Waiwhero.com
Leonie Pihama – Honouring Our Voices. Mana Wahine as a Kaupapa Maori Theoretical Framework
Marino Harker-Smith – Potent not pollutant
Kim McBreen – The tapu of taonga and wāhine in a colonised land
Wikitoria August – The Māori female – her body, spirituality, sacredness and mana



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