'Mana Takatāpui' by Elizabeth Kerekere. Image: Office of the Clerk

What do we really know about gender diversity in te ao Māori?

Kassie Hartendorp (Ngāti Raukawa) has been looking to Māori stories and storytellers to learn more about our gender identities before colonisation. There’s a lot to be read between the lines, she writes.

Te ao Māori can be a very gendered place to be. In some settings, your gender can tell you where you stand, what you wear, who you sit by, and what your role is. And you only have two options to choose from. Yet, my own experience of te ao Māori is incredibly gender diverse. It is full of wise and regal older queens, kind and thoughtful men and intelligent, cheeky souls who walk in between. This world is rarely talked about, or we are told that being transgender or non-binary is ‘a Pākehā thing.’ So I thought I’d dive into whakapapa, and see if it would bring me any insights.

Whakapapa maps out our relationships to who and where we come from; reaching back to the beginnings of our universe, to our atua, our physical environment, and to each other. It runs in our blood, through our deepest relationships and underpins the way our society is organised. As Moana Jackson says, ‘our whakapapa are a series of never-ending beginnings.’ It opens up a world of connections, and provides us with the basis of how we understand the world, and how to act within it.


Elizabeth Kerekere talks to Ātea editor and On The Rag co-host Leonie Hayden about pre-colonial Māori sexuality and gender.

Ani Mikaere has researched Tainui traditions based on the whakaaro of Te Rangihaeata and concludes that whakapapa was the primary lens of our forebears. She writes that:

“Each and every component within the web of whakapapa is important, because the absence of even a single link compromises the integrity of the network as a whole.”

All tūpuna had a role to play in whakapapa, and each role was necessary to the benefit of the wider group. Ani adds that “without the unique characteristics of each and every individual, the strength of the collective is diminished.” This visioning of whakapapa is one where every person is valued, because it is through their contribution that the wider whānau is enhanced.

Mikaere also questions the idea that hierarchy is implicit in whakapapa. Within the whakapapa given by te Rangihaeata, the children of Rangipōtiki are treated as equivalent in ranking. Mikaere makes the argument that the key point of whakapapa is the connection itself – not whether some tūpuna are more important than others. There can be a pressure to distance ourselves from those tūpuna who have not behaved well or who did not fit in with prevailing social norms. As we accentuate the tūpuna with the more desirable deeds or traits, it becomes possible for hierarchies to develop.

While these hierarchies can seem ‘tūturu Māori’, they are sometimes rooted in social hierarchies that we have inherited through European modes of thinking. They often place men over women, European over indigenous, light skin over dark skin, heterosexual over homosexual or bisexual, and discriminate according to different abilities. Over time, these binaries and hierarchies are so naturalised that they become unspoken yet constantly present. Our histories can then become ‘sanitised’ as we attempt to make our past more legitimate or lucrative in times of assimilation, Treaty claims and even cultural revitalisation strategies. While these tactics may have once enabled us to survive, we have to ask: who is being left behind?

An initial glance at our recorded history tells strongly of rigid roles between wāhine and tāne. Anyone would almost be forgiven for thinking that people of different gender expressions do not exist within te ao Māori. Where indigenous nations in the Pacific and abroad have recorded multiple forms of gender expression, the scarcity of information on the topic in te ao Māori has left some scholars puzzled. Take a deeper look though, and you will find stories in between the lines, that speak of a movement, a fluidity, a transcendence or a transition between what we see as male and female.

Returning to our very beginnings, Ranginui and Papatūānuku feature strongly in our most known Māori creation stories. There are different renditions of this history, but most place Rangi and Papa in traditional female/mother and male/father gender roles. In one account recorded by Edward Shortland in 1882, Tangaroa was accused of committing adultery with Papa, so Rangi confronted and attacked him at his home. When Tangaroa retaliated, he ‘pierced him through the thigh’ causing Rangi to fall. Shortland then writes:

“While Rangi lay wounded he begat his child Kueo (=Moist). The cause of this name was Rangi’s wetting his couch while he lay ill of his wound. After Kueo, he begat Mimi-ahi, so-called from his making water by the fireside.”

Following this, Rangi produced seven more children. At no point in this account is Papa mentioned, or any other woman. There is no other information before or after this section, making comment on the fact that our primordial father has just given birth to nine children, all on his own. It’s just another day in ancient te ao Māori. It is only through trawling through the preface that you find a clue written by the author, where he says that his ‘informant’ had told him this narrative without the permission of his people. This man died soon after this retelling, and his death was attributed to trampling on the tapu, by making sacred teachings public. Without any more information, this whakapapa account rests uneasy amongst its sibling renditions. We must ask, is it because of the Pākehā ethnographer writing its contents without collective Māori consent, the eerie death of the tohunga who passed on this knowledge, or the fact that it speaks of our ancient, archetypal father figure performing an act that is considered the ultimate demonstration of womanness?

Stacey Kerapa is one of many trans takatāpui Māori featured in the book Takatāpui – A Place of Standing. Photo: Tanu Gago

Moving forward in time, Ngāhuia te Awekotuku writes of the experiences of the Māori tourism industry at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua in the 1880s. One 1871 account is from a male tourist in Ohinemutu:

“We scattered ourselves among the huts. Crawling through the low entrance of one, I seated myself cross-legged in the midst of the family circle, and became popular by the present of a little tobacco, a portion of which, mingled with many compliments I presented to what I imagined to be a young and lovely Maori belle, with a pair of huge and magnificent eyes, her graceful form being wrapped up in a blanket, when to my disgust after a short time I found I was flirting with a boy.”

In this story, the tourist is disappointed by this realisation and even ‘disgusted’ which tells us more about his own perspective, than the actions of the ‘young and lovely Māori belle’ who he met. We do not know much more about this unnamed person, but what we do know is that they were living and embodying the femininity of a woman, while also being seen as a man from a European perspective. This speaks to the fluid, shifting nature of gender within te ao Māori. It is impossible to know whether women like her lived as women, performed as women, simply enjoyed dressing femininely and receiving male attention, or any other number of possibilities. What is clear is that they appear comfortable and content in their gender expression, they were accepted in their ‘family circle’ and that the negativity and disgust comes from the views of the European tourists who find themselves attracted to them.

In 1929, 26-year-old Nikora Hune Haora was working as a housemaid in Takapuna, Tāmaki Makaurau. After three months of work, she was tried in court for ‘falsely representing himself as female.’ The employer herself refused to believe that she was not a woman, speaking of her ‘feminine poise’ and gave ‘excellent testimony to Haora’s character.’ Regardless, the magistrate told the court staff to ‘take him away and burn those clothes he’s got on. Then send him back to his people.’ This shows that the act of living in the world as a woman, when one was not physically accepted as one, was seen as threatening and destabilising to 1920s society by the police and court system. With such widespread media attention, the punishment of Nikora Hune Hauora may have sent a message to other people like her: that the act of transcending the gender of your physical self is enough to convict you of a crime, publicly shame you and upturn your entire life.

Prior to the 1930s, there were snippets of recordings about Māori who moved across genders. And it makes sense to me that these histories exist. I see gender identity is a part of our material and spiritual existence of being Māori. Because it is not only outwardly expressed in the physical world, but is also a reflection of wairua. Elizabeth Kerekere writes that “Most Māori are aware of their gender and sexuality from a very young age – it is part of wairua; the spirit, soul or essence we were born with that exists beyond death.” In Elizabeth’s resource on being takatāpui, Jennifer Edwards follows this by saying:

“They [ask] was I born male and I say no, I was born female…the equipment might be wrong. My grandmother knew it. My godmother knew it. So I know what I am.”

There is an inner essence within all of us, that takes on different forms. It is a way of being in the world, that is sometimes inherited from whakapapa, or resurfaces in new and unprecedented ways. Sometimes people express that essence, but often, the world’s rigid expectations around gender work to suppress, shame, and punish that true expression. In a world where modern health technology can assist in helping people to physically express their wairua through hormone replacement therapy, or gender affirmation surgeries; it makes sense that people are more openly transitioning between genders. Perhaps in pre-colonial society, where wairua was an integral part of our everyday lives, the ability to see the essence of a person was more common.

There is a temptation in forever searching for historical ‘proof’ that our gender traversing tūpuna existed, but perhaps we have lost the lens to understand them as they would have been in their own time? Was it possible that we left behind our gender transcending relations/selves when we wanted to prove that we were ‘civilised?’ Perhaps this fluidity and ambiguity became harder to see; like a collective blindness where the lens of our wairua became out of focus and the details too fuzzy. I wonder if the old people warned against their tohunga sharing the knowledge that Rangi birthed nine of his children because they were worried about what the colonisers would do if they found this out? Maybe they condemned that tohunga’s life because he risked the protection of their people in passing on their gender fluid histories?

To some, this may seem a hypothetical discussion that is ‘nice to have’ but not relevant to our conversations on whakapapa, tikanga and te ao Māori or our ongoing struggles as Māori. However, it is absolutely crucial that we consider our whanaunga across genders in this time. Right now, our relationship with these whānau is shamefully one largely one of prejudice, hate and violence.

This year, transgender and non-binary people in Aotearoa researched their own health and wellbeing in the first ever report of its kind.

The results of the report are chilling. Two thirds of the participants (67%) reported that they had experienced discrimination at some point, with 44% saying this had happened in the past twelve months. When it came to mental health, 71% reported high or very high psychological distress (compared with only 8% of the general population). More than half of the participants (56%) had seriously thought about attempting suicide in the last twelve months. Rates of substance abuse are higher, and almost half of the participants reported someone had attempted to have sex with them against their will, since the age of thirteen. The list of barriers affecting transgender and non-binary communities is extensive and permeates almost every area of life.

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The question then becomes: what does this mean in the context of whakapapa? Building on Ani Mikaere’s definition, it would be unthinkable to allow whanaunga to be treated with such denigration and violence. If every person in our whakapapa is valued, and each unique contribution necessary to the collective whole, then our whanaunga traversing across genders should be accepted without question. If our wairua is a vital part of our existence as Māori, then why should this become secondary to our gender presentation? Who benefits from us leaving our whanaunga behind, because they do not fit coloniser norms? What do we lose in ourselves, when we erase this knowledge of fluidity and movement?

It’s simple, really. Right now we have a choice. We can respect the essence of another person in their wholeness, or dehumanise them. One path leads to a strong, vibrant, enriched manifestation of whakapapa, one results in rigid roles that do not reflect our lived realities, causing stigma and isolation. One path leads to life, the other death. In an ongoing time of cultural revitalisation, it is time to bring back our lost lenses and re-embrace our gender transcending whanaunga back into our whakapapa once more, in every way possible.

E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea. I will never be lost, for I am a seed sown in Rangiātea.

Kassie Hartendorp (Ngāti Raukawa) is a cis takatāpui woman and a student of Ahunga Tikanga, Māori Laws and Philosophy at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. This piece was made in collaboration with her community.


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