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ĀteaApril 19, 2023

It’s always an appropriate time for a karakia

a woman and two kids, all in black and blue, around a tree with white squiggly lines to give it a sense of the world beyond the literal one
Image: Getty/Archi Banal

Opening a meeting? Building a waka? There are many perfect times to pause and remember the world of the atua, writes Airana Ngarewa.

Tapu once had influence over every aspect of Māori life. While an intuitive concept to those who grew up immersed in te ao Māori, it can perplexing to those looking in from the outside. With comments from the likes of Kaipara mayor Craig Jepson popping in and out of the headlines, it seems it is time for a healthy history lesson on the relationship between tapu and karakia and why they play such a central role in how Māori see and navigate the world, and why Māori maintain they are appropriate everywhere – especially council meetings in Aotearoa.

If you have ever sat on a table or touched the top of someone’s head, you have probably been warned that doing so is tapu. But what does tapu mean exactly? While phrases like sacred, restricted, prohibited or in a state of being set apart have been offered as translations, the reality is a little more complicated. This is because tapu has many different faces: there is the tapu that we all possess as human beings, the tapu that different aspects of the natural world possess, there are wahi tapu, places with a greater than normal amounts of tapu such as urupā, and so the list stretches like the ocean into the horizon.

At its simplest level, a thing is tapu in te ao Māori if it shares a special connection with the atua, the traditional Māori gods. To some these gods are real and to others they are expressions of the natural world around us. Human beings are tapu because our tupuna believed we were shaped from the soil of Papatūānuku. Parts of the natural world are tapu because they are domains of the atua, the ngāhere being the domain of Tāne and the oceans being the domain of Tangaroa. Urupā are tapu because they house the tūpāpaku of our loved ones who have passed on and are under the protection of Hine-nui-te-pō.

a woman with a hei tiki around her neck in muted colors
Tikanga Māori can inform many ways of being (Image: Getty)

Tapu was taken very seriously by the old people. There are many kōrero tuku iho that recount occasions where tapu was transgressed and the consequences that took place afterwards. While sometimes deadly, other times the consequences were more instructive.

One such story tells of a chief travelling into the forest to find a tall tree to fell. The chief, Rata, desired to shape the trunk of a tree into a waka. After felling the tree, he returned home satisfied. However, when he returned the next day to the spot where he left the trunk behind, he could not find it. Upon closer investigation, it seemed the felled tree had put itself back together.

Determined, Rata fell the tree again, stripped it of its branches and hollowed it out, working until the sun had set. Early morning the next day he returned and found the tree had put itself back together again. And so a final time, Rata fell the tree, stripped it of its branches and hollowed it out. This time though, he only feigned leaving, hiding to see how the tree would rebuild itself. To his surprise, he saw a group of insects, birds and the spirits of the forest (the children of Tāne) putting the tree back together one chip and shaving at a time.

Rata rushed from his hiding place and seized as many as he could in his hands, questioning why they had undone his work. Their reply was simple, “Who gave you permission fell this god of ours?” As shame overcame Rata, the children of Tāne instructed him to return to his village so that now he had learned his lesson they may build him the waka he needed.

Rata’s mistake was simple. He had transgressed against the tapu of the forest, of Tāne Mahuta, by felling one of his trees without performing the proper karakia first. This is the heart of the relationship between tapu and karakia. This is the heart of why Māori maintain they are important and necessary inside and outside council chambers on this whenua. Karakia are about respect and acknowledging the mana inherent in all things. This includes our fellow man, forests, lakes, streams, mountains, the sky above and the earth below.

beach with a waka full of people in the grey-toned water
Beginning a long journey, or felling a tree to use as a waka? A perfect opportunity for a karakia. (Photo: Cam McLaren/Getty Images)

Karakia are one of the most important ways Māori navigate tapu. It is how we come together, acknowledge the world around us and speak aloud our respect for it. This is why we so often finish karakia with phrases like Haumi ē! Hui ē! Tāiki ē! The intended meaning being something akin to we are united and are ready to get on with the kaupapa. Māori use karakia in almost every setting: before the beginning of a long journey, when opening a building to the public, to begin or to close a meeting. In the latter context, karakia are often about acknowledging the tapu of everyone who has gathered together, the tapu of the kaupapa and creating a sense of collective action, a goal all local government should strive towards.

This is why karakia are so important to Māori. They are about manaakitanga, gratitude and the recognition of the world around us. Telling a Māori karakia are not appropriate is like telling them it is not appropriate to say please or thank you; it would be like telling Rata he was right to fell the tree before he mihi’d to it and its relationship to Tāne. It is unimaginable to the Māori mind and Māori heart that karakia in Aotearoa would ever be inappropriate in any setting. Karakia are like kumara – they go well with everything.

This is public interest journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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