Māori women talk about the future of moko kauae

Associate Professor at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, Mera Lee-Penehira. Photo: Qiane Matata-Sipu

Māori women talk about the future of moko kauae

The Spinoff talks to wāhine Māori about the history, present and future of moko kauae, as well as Inia Taylor, the tā moko artist behind the controversial moko kauae worn by life coach Sally Anderson.

“Moko kauae is not for Pākehā!”

That outcry by a group of wahine Māori, prompted by a recent media investigation into controversial Pākehā life coach Sally Anderson, sparked widespread debate across the country last week.

Academics, political commentators, tā moko artists, activists, bloggers and the general public weighed in on the issue, first highlighted by national indigenous women’s collective, Hina Matarau.

One corner says moko kauae is a taonga afforded only to wahine with Māori whakapapa, while others believe a person’s character, contribution to te Ao Māori and family connections should be considered where that whakapapa does not exist.

The Anderson case isn’t the first of its kind, but has become the catalyst for a wider discussion around the future of this symbolic cultural practice.

It was four years ago Anderson and her husband Roger Te Tai approached tā moko artist Inia Taylor, to etch a moko kauae into her chin.

In an email, made public by another kaitā who denied Anderson’s request, the self improvement guru said the tattoo would be “a symbol of triumph”, of overcoming her tumultuous past. It would be an initiation into the next phase of her life, turning 50, and would represent her work as a healer and someone who “bridges the gap between light and dark…between indigenous cultures and mainstream.”

“I believe I should have been born black,” she wrote. “But I’m white (pakeha) yet bridge all races, creed, colour and genders in a way no other practitioner can.”

At that time, Anderson wanted the experience filmed by the 60 Minutes programme. When the pair contacted Taylor, he had immediate reservations.

“She seemed like a pretty interesting character,” Taylor remembers. “She had been through a lot.”

Based on her cultural background, he turned her down twice.

“Then Roger came back to me and brought a full-on delegation of whānau to my studio. I felt quite pressured. I didn’t feel the right to say no, based solely on her race,” he remembers. “They had travelled down from Panguru. I didn’t know them from a bar of soap, as I don’t with many who come to me for moko. You go on what pepeha and whakapapa people bring to the table. If they say they whakapapa to Micky Mouse, who are you to say they don’t? I was told they were going to whāngai her into their whānau.”

He notes there had already been precedence, where different iwi and hapū had gifted moko to Pākehā they thought were worthy. Taylor believed this was one of those situations.

“So, I fulfilled my role as a moko artist,” he says. “They didn’t bring kaumātua, but told me they had their blessing. Without that, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Taylor says he designed the piece with Anderson’s Pākehā heritage in mind. The patterns used mimicked the shape of her eyebrows, which he says were also tattooed on. The moko was engraved with a tattoo gun, instead of the hand uhi tools he would normally use. And he purposely steered clear of more traditional patterns.

It was when the design went on to be commercialised, used as marketing for Anderson’s coaching business, that Taylor began to question her intention and his decision.

“You don’t know what people are going to do in four years time, or ten years for that matter. Who was I to question another whānau or hapū? I think many moko artists, given the circumstances I was faced with at the time, would have made the same decision.”

It is this issue of decision-making that Mera Lee-Penehira, Associate Professor at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, says is part of the problem. She is very clear in her view that the gifting of moko kauae to Pākehā is not the right of any Māori.

As a māngai for Hina Matarau, she is also adamant that Māori, and in particular Māori women, have a responsibility to maintain the sacred space of moko kauae.

“When moko is on your face, it is in a different realm. It is as simple as that,” she explains. “There is a particular tapu associated with our heads that is at another level to the other parts of our body.

“I include moko as a form of our language reclamation because our skin carvings are their own narrative. Our colonisation makes us question our worthiness but our tūpuna wāhine knew their worth. Moko kauae is part of our birthright.”

Moko is inherited from its source, Ruaumoko, the pēpi of Papatuānuku who reigns over earthquakes, volcanic activity and scarification (moko). Kaitā Mark Kopua has written about the whakapapa connection tracing Ruaumoko to Maui, to Toi-kai-rakau and then through to most tribes, giving Māori the inherent right to receive moko.

Alongside a number of kaitā he is actively involved in the revitalisation of moko kauae, hosting ‘mokopapa’ across the country. He writes: “For as many diverse marae and hapū there are, there are also just as many diverse tikanga, kōrero and beliefs” around moko.

Kopua has used takapau in many of the kauae he has done. His explanation speaks of the five parts to the design, telling the personal story of the wearer. Each pattern and its placement reflects the status of the wearer within her female siblings and represents her whānau and supporters. It also highlights the service she gives her hapū or iwi.

“In traditional times a young woman who had reached puberty had the power to create a new life and was considered a valuable member of her people,” he writes. “Receiving a moko kauwae meant the whānau believed she was capable of leadership, of being a voice, so they etched that belief into her chin. It symbolised her ability, status, influence, commitment and service to her collective.”

He shares that over time, the hapū would commission an extra line, the ngutu kura, to be etched above the top lip portraying her service to them. As she aged and her experience, wisdom and advice reached an iwi scale, another ngutu kura would be added to signify this milestone.

Fully darkened lips, ngutu purua, had its meaning attached to being the whānau voice.

Lee-Penehira was 37 when she received her kauae. At that time, she was considered a relatively young recipient. To prepare, she attended a series of ānanga with a group of women embarking on their journey. The kōrero supported a strengthening of identity and learning and sharing karakia and waiata. These practices were to help each wahine with the practical process of having moko applied and living their lives with kauae.

“I was in a hurry,” she admits. “I had a daughter who just turned two and I wanted her to not remember me without moko kauae. My reclamation of our moko and our reo was to normalise both things in our lives.”

In the past 12 years, since receiving her kauae, Lee-Penehira has recognised a noticeable resurgence. “Today I hear young women talk about kauae as a given, like, you are going to have a 21st, you are one day going to get a moko kauae. That is so important for Māori women to reclaim.”

It is this reclamation, she says, that sees a shift from colonisation to tino rangatiratanga. “As the sole right of Māori women, not only is it okay to make a race-based decision in applying moko kauae, but it is a requirement.”

Puawai Cairns, head of Mātauranga Māori Collection at Te Papa Tongarewa, spent time with Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku during her doctoral studies in 2001. They were examining the use of tā moko in New Zealand popular culture. She also completed a Masters degree looking into the use of moko in New Zealand media and literature.

Head of Mātauranga Māori Collection at Te Papa Tongarewa, Puawai Cairns. Image: supplied

Twenty years ago, the argument was whether non-Māori should receive any form of moko on their body. The result saw an acceptance to the application of kirituhi, for those without Māori whakapapa.

She says the argument about cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation has become more nuanced. “It is not just, ‘you have taken what is mine without asking me’ anymore,” says Cairns. “Lots of tricky layers now come into play. Our image as Māori has never been more prominent, with our culture so readily available on the internet. It is uncontrolled how people will use it at the other end.”

Cultural appropriation is the unqualified and unauthorised use of another people’s culture for your own personal use. “The difference between appropriation and appreciation sit with two key words – unqualified and unauthorised.”

Cairns is clear that when it comes to any indigenous taonga, regardless of its medium, you must go back to the root and ask permission. “Appropriation doesn’t just exist between cultures,” she adds. “It can exist between tribes, between families.”

Permission seeking is complex and isn’t without its flaws. Who you ask, how you ask, and how long you ask for, are all variables.

“Moko is so highly guarded, even more so now because it has gone through such a visible renaissance. More people taking it on means more non-Māori are influenced by that and want to claim it. From an observer’s point of view, some seem to be more permissible than others.

“As a Māori wahine, it feels like we have had so much pressure on us to abandon moko on the face in order to fit into contemporary society. Only a few years ago, you couldn’t work as an attendant for Air New Zealand if you had tā moko. Tame Iti and Mark Kopua were thrown out of bars for having moko on their face. Moko is so interwoven in our struggle for the restoration of our own rangatiratanga, to have non-Māori take it on, and not understand those struggles, demeans what we have been going through these last few centuries.”

Cairns hopes to one day receive her own moko kauae but still feels, for herself, it is a milestone she needs to earn.

Tā moko artist Tyler Jade of The Native Studio says this notion adds another element to the discussion about why Pākehā should not have facial moko.

“It would hurt me to see tauiwi walking around with their faces done knowing that back home, our people did not feel worthy enough to wear it themselves,” she says.


Read more: Moko kauae is the right of all Māori women. It is not a right for anyone else.


While travelling overseas with the roopu Te Karanga o Niwareka, Jade encountered a few non-Māori with moko on their faces, given to them by Māori kaitā. It was there she learnt that the parameters she was taught at House of Natives, in regards to mataora (men’s facial tattoo), kauae (women’s facial tattoo) and pūhoro (thigh tattoo) being reserved for those with Māori whakapapa, were not the same for all.

The experience emphasises that the Anderson case is one of many in modern day context where Pākehā are being adorned with Māori facial tattoo.

Sina Brown-Davis is a proud activist. With Māori, Tongan and Samoan whakapapa, she wears a malu and moko kauae. She is also married to a Pākehā. “He relishes in his Pākehātanga,” she sys. “He would never even think to receive mataora because he respects that it is not his history, or his culture.”

Many non-Māori who seek to wear facial moko find the practice appealing as a form of healing intervention. While living as an ex-pat in Australia, Brown-Davis’ kauae was a visible connection to home for herself and, her daughters. It also helped her deal with the pain of being away from her father.

The role of moko in healing was the focus of Lee-Penehira’s doctoral thesis. But she says Pākehā have their own healing interventions in their history and geneology. “If we share ours willy nilly, other’s won’t seek and reclaim their own.”

For Brown-Davis, her kauae has made her feel more dignified. It has made her stronger. And as one of very few in her hapū to receive moko, the topic makes her charged with emotion.

“This isn’t about skin colour, it is about whakapapa. I cry seeing other Māori women with kauae. I stop to hongi them, to honour and respect them and the different journeys we have been on.

“We have survived colonisation, we have survived genocide. It was 30 wahine who kept moko kauae alive for our people. This recent debate has been a good reminder to respect the dignity and mana of our wahine.”

Cairns welcomes the protests. Currently collecting material for a protest book she is co-authoring, she says agitating and making people uncomfortable is a healthy practice. It works like a warrant of fitness for Māoridom, prompting a review on issues and a possible change of direction.

With such passionate dialogue across social media, the discussion about the application of moko kanohi seems long overdue. “The space of the keyboard warrior is important in beginning the conversation,” notes Lee-Penehira. “But if that’s where it begins and ends, things will never change.”

There have been calls for a hui, kanohi ki te kanohi, where wahine Māori and moko practitioners can come together and discuss guidelines for the practice. Tā moko artist Inia Taylor supports the idea. He has also heard calls for only wahine moko to perform moko kauae, another kōrero to add to the discussion.

“I think this has happened, at this time, because of the type of person [Sally Anderson] puts herself across as,” says Taylor. “I’m not a wild tattooer who went out on some renegade looking for a Pākehā to put a moko on, and piss off all the Māoris. I did it at the suggestion of her whānau. I wish they would come forward to take some responsibility for that. Regardless, this was going to happen with one of our moko artists sooner or later.

“It is good for the culture to be growing, learning, changing and evolving. It’s a shame it has come at such a personal cost.”

He says he can still see a place where a person of Pākehā descent can be of huge value to te ao Māori but, if he were to be asked again, he would say “go and talk to wahine Maori”. The next issue he forsees is how that will conflict with different iwi’s tikanga.

Mera Lee-Penehira reinforces that kauae are taonga to wahine Māori.

“We need to have our Māori men open to advice from wahine Māori in terms of where, who and how moko kauae is applied. This is our domain. If they can be respectful of that, we can move forward together.”

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