"Māori women’s restriction from certain spaces (during menstruation and pregnancy) can be read not as exclusion, sub-ordination, inability and/or disability but as marking their sacredness and importance." (August, p 118)
In early October 2010, I was part of a group of Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa students who visited the taonga Māori collection at Te Papa Tongarewa. As always, several weeks before class, the Wānanga sent us readings and information, including a list of instructions from Te Papa for viewing the taonga. Many of the instructions are about the tapu of the taonga—no kai can be taken into collection rooms, women who are hapū or menstruating are invited to visit at another time, tamariki are not normally allowed, karakia will be said, and there is a wash basin outside. A few days after our visit, the radio news reported that feminists were angry that a pānui like this had been sent to staff from museums planning to visit the collection.
This essay provides an introduction to the issues raised by responses to the Te Papa pānui. I do not address whether I think the pānui from Te Papa solely represents a Māori worldview, that would be a much bigger project. This is a small essay that touches on several very large topics—tapu, the special place of women in te ao Māori, the role of taonga in te ao Māori, and sexism. Clearly, I cannot comprehensively cover any of these topics in such a short essay. Hopefully though, this essay will provide an overview of the issues as I understand them, and direction to better resources.
Some of the reaction to the Te Papa pānui has come from a misunderstanding by Pākehā, and probably by many Māori too, of the importance of women in te ao Māori. August’s 2005 paper (from which I took the opening quote of this essay) Māori women: bodies, spaces, sacredness and mana is particularly relevant. Likewise, the importance of taonga may be misunderstood. Tapsell’s paper The flight of Pareraututu: an investigation of taonga from a tribal perspective gives a thorough explanation of the relevance and use of taonga. The process of colonisation has profoundly affected our thinking about gender and especially the role of women. Many have worked hard to avoid introduced patriarchy becoming ingrained in Māori thinking. Anyone interested in the topic should for a start read Mikaere’s The balance destroyed: The consequences for Māori women of the colonisation of tikanga Māori.
I think most of the uproar around the Te Papa pānui is because it comes from a Māori worldview, and most New Zealanders are unused to being asked to consider cultural norms other than their own. Despite being indigenous to these islands, a Māori worldview and the tikanga that develop from it are foreign to most people now living here. Anyone who does not understand that worldview may find the pānui strange or even challenging. One way to understand a people’s culture is to look at their creation traditions (or religions). Religions aren’t simply handed to people—our tūpuna invented them. We are constantly re-inventing them in ways that keep them relevant, reflecting our values and our environment, so they both shape our culture and worldview and are shaped by them.
"Religions provide basic interpretive stories of who we are, what nature is, where we have come from and where we are going. This comprises a worldview of a society. Religions also suggest how we should treat other humans and how we should relate to nature. These values make up the ethical orientation of a society. Religions thus generate worldviews and ethics which underlie fundamental attitudes and values of different cultures and societies." (Tucker and Grim, p xvi)(This does not mean that the Te Papa pānui is religious. There is a difference between religion and the worldviews, cultures or cultural practices that develop from those religions.)
To understand the Te Papa advisory we need to understand the concept of tapu, and the way it applies to both women and taonga.
TapuThere are two aspects to tapu: the sacredness of each life, and restrictions for protection. Mikaere describes the first aspect,
"No individual stands alone: through the tapu of whakapapa, she or he is linked to other members of the whānau, hapū and iwi... Every person has a sacred connection to Rangi and Papa and to the natural world around them." (Mikaere (a), p 4)Henare calls this 'intrinsic tapu' (Henare, pp 29-30) because everything is always tapu in this sense—we are born tapu and it cannot be removed. Jackson describes this as
the major cohesive force in Māori life(Jackson, p 41).
The second aspect of tapu involves tapu used for political purposes. Henare calls this 'extensions of tapu', because it adds another layer to the intrinsic tapu.
Jackson describes the second aspect,
"In this sense, tapu was a specific restriction which could be placed on a person, an object or a piece of land, and so render it especially sacred as a type of protection or prohibition… The ritual of this process established a sacred protection or rite of prohibition which was secured by the sanction of the gods… the ritual linked the people and the event with an ancestral precedent. Any failure of the protection or breach of the prohibition would be due to human error and would be punished by ancestrally-defined sanctions." (Jackson, pp 41-42)
If it is sometimes necessary to impose restrictions using tapu, then a method must also be necessary to remove those restrictions. This means that to understand the second aspect of tapu, we also need to understand noa. While this meaning of tapu is something set apart as sacred, noa means a safe and unrestricted state—but still with the ‘intrinsic tapu’ intact. Whakanoa is the process of returning something to its normal state by removing the ‘extensions of tapu’.
Women have a significant role in these processes. Understanding that role is necessary to a discussion of Te Papa’s offer to hapū or menstruating women visiting the taonga Māori collection.
Te tapu o te wāhineThe importance of women in Māori creation traditions is immediately obvious to anyone who hasn’t already been blinded by misogyny (as the first ethnographers clearly were). As Mikaere explains:
"A central feature of Māori cosmogony is whakapapa, which binds humanity to the spiritual forces from which the world was created. Vital to the continuation of whakapapa are both the male and female elements. The female reproductive organs and the birthing process assume major significance throughout the creation stories." (Mikaere (b), pp 13-14)From the perspective of whakapapa, there can be nothing more sacred than the birth process. Women therefore have a special importance. Pere points out,
"The first human was a woman. She was not formed by Tane, or any male god. She was from Papatuanuku... My old people said the reason why the first human was a woman is because it is women who give birth to children... All of us have sprung from the very beginning from the womb of a woman." (Pere, p 167)
This does not mean that women are only important for their ability to give birth—but it does mean that our importance is elevated. The power to give life, to give birth to future generations, comes from Papatūānuku, the first mother. Nothing in te ao Māori is more important than ensuring the continuation of whakapapa.
"The story of Hine-nui-te-pō and Māui also encapsulates a theme which features throughout the Māori creation stories: the awesome power of female sexuality. It is implicit in the womb symbolism of Te Kore, Te Pō and in the birth of Papatūānuku and Ranginui's children to Te Ao Mārama. It becomes explicit with the first act of sexual intercourse between Tāne and Hineahuone. And in Māui's encounter with Hine-nui-te-pō, the potency of the female sexual organs is unassailable. The passage through which each of us passes to enter Te Ao Mārama is the same passage through which each of us must pass on our inevitable journey back to Te Pō. The process which brings each of us into being brought the world into being. Our very existence is centred around the sexual power of women." (Mikaere (b), p 23 )
This power allows women to whakanoa, to remove the tapu from people, places or things and make them safe again. As Binney describes:
They drew the dangerous life-destroying elements of tapu into themselves and then sent them back to their point of origin, that is, to the world of gods and the spirit forces(Binney, p 26). Because the tapu is drawn into the whare tangata, only women who are not yet sexually active, or who are past the age of giving birth perform these rituals.
According to Henare,
This is the mana and the tapu of women(Henare, p 20). Jenkins describes it as an indication of the supremacy of women’s spiritual power, because whakanoa allows control over the organisation of rituals (Jenkins, cited in Mikaere (a), p 6). Mikaere explains:
"The power of women to whakanoa is clearly of vital importance, for it establishes their ability to traverse the spiritual boundaries of tapu and noa, thereby nurturing and protecting communities… It is argued that this may be only half of the full picture. It may be that women’s powers in fact allowed movement both to and from the state of tapu – in other words, that women possessed not only the ability to whakanoa, but also the power to whakatapu. (Mikaere (a), p 6)
As Mikaere points out, the language of menstruation, childbirth and mothering demonstrates their significance and centrality—atua means both the ancestor gods and menstrual blood; hapū is both pregnancy and a large political group; whenua is both the placenta and land; whānau is both birth and the extended family; ūkaipō refers to nurturing both in terms of breastfeeding a baby, and in belonging to land (Mikaere (b), p 32; Ministry of Justice, p 183). Protecting this power, and the health of future generations, is at the heart of tikanga around menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth:
manaakitia te hunga e whakawairua mai ana i nga koopu o nga whaea – protect the spiritual essence and life force taking place within the wombs of their mothers(cited in August, p 120). These tikanga include women avoiding urupā and food gathering areas at times when they are menstruating or pregnant.
Te tapu o te taongaThe significance of taonga in tikanga Māori has often been misunderstood and underestimated. Many non-Māori assume that taonga are the same as heirlooms—hardly surprising when my Reed dictionary translates taonga as simply
property, treasure, apparatus, accessory (equipment), thing(Ryan, p 275). Taonga are much more than this and have an important role in tikanga Māori. This cannot be understood from a few words of explanation.
According to Tapsell,
"taonga is a powerful and all-embracing Maori concept that defies explanation by simply providing a list of written examples. For Maori, if an item, object or thing is described as he taonga it immediately elicits a strong emotional response based on ancestral experiences, settings, and circumstances." (Tapsell, p 326)
This can only be understood through what Mikaere has called the ‘whakapapa imperative’ (Mikaere (c), p 3):
"Part and parcel of looking at the world through the prism of whakapapa is the imperative to treasure those physical manifestations and expressions of ancestors that connect us to our origins and enable us to project ourselves with confidence into the future." (Mikaere (c), p 7)
Tapsell talks of three essential elements of taonga—mana, tapu and kōrero (Tapsell, pp 327-329). Taonga possess mana through their associations with tūpuna; this grows over time as the taonga pass through generations, accumulating history. Tapu places restrictions on taonga to protect their mana, and the greater the mana the greater the tapu; this is managed by kaitiaki who both care for the taonga, and ‘perform’ it at appropriate events. The kōrero is the iwi traditions, stories and histories that become attached to the taonga (Royal, p 66). Tapsell considers this the most important element, because the kōrero explains the meaning of the taonga and ensures that the mana and tapu are understood. He compares the kōrero to a cloak that envelops the taonga, and allows it to be treated and performed appropriately. Tapsell argues that the importance of taonga is their ability to collapse time,
allowing descendants to re-live the events of past generations… [which] allows ancestors and descendants to be fused back into a powerful, single genealogical entity(Tapsell, p 330). This is a way that knowledge from tūpuna can be understood by present generations.
All taonga are directly associated with both ancestors and land (Tapsell, p 331). The statement by Mikaere that taonga are physical manifestations of ancestors can be understood in at least two ways—that they are physical objects made with the hands and ideas of our tūpuna, and so represent the mana and tapu of those tūpuna; or, that taonga actually possess the wairua of tūpuna, they are tūpuna. Each of these understandings is true for different taonga. Tapsell explains that wairua is one of the ways taonga may communicate knowledge from tūpuna—experienced as ihi, wehi and wana—even if the kōrero is no longer known (Tapsell, pp 330-331).
Many taonga held in museums have little or no kōrero with them. They may have been given to the museum by people who found them, for example when exploring caves, the coast, or on building sites. Or the kōrero may simply not have been passed on with the taonga.
Colonisation and taongaColonisation is relevant to this discussion in two main ways. The first is that colonisation attempted to destroy the structures of Māori society including mātauranga Māori, and the tikanga based on it. The second is that the coloniser has built a relationship with Māori that is dominating and abusive. The Crown (and many Pākehā New Zealanders) appears blind to the generosity and goodwill that Māori continue to display to them—they are succeeding only in feeding mistrust and resentment among Māori.
Whenever two cultures meet there will be cultural exchange and effects. When one people colonise another, there is a lack of balance in this process. The colonising group expects the people they meet to change, to adopt their culture, and is not prepared to do the same themselves. According to Linda Smith,
"By the nineteenth century colonialism not only meant the imposition of Western authority over indigenous lands, indigenous modes of production and indigenous law and government, but the imposition of Western authority over all aspects of indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures." (Linda Smith, p 64)
This imposition will occur through force, but it will also occur through undermining indigenous authority, and corrupting indigenous knowledge—by selective education and relentless cultural imperialism. As Said explains,
"The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them." (Said, p xiii)
Imperialism seeks to destroy other cultures, to assimilate those people into the colonising culture. In New Zealand, this involved missionaries and Crown working together. Missionaries were teaching a new religion, and attempting to shame Māori into giving up their beliefs and culture. The Crown supported this work, attempting to suppress any expressions of Māori culture using laws such as the Tohunga Suppression Act, and policies such as stopping Māori children from speaking te reo Māori in school. These attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, but they have had a huge effect—most Māori are more familiar with Pakehā culture than mātauranga Māori. The connections and knowledge of present generations with our tūpuna are weaker than they would have been in the past; and likewise, our connections with and knowledge of our taonga are weaker.
Europeans brought more than imperialism, they also brought death. Within 100 years of European arrival, the Māori population fell from upwards of 200 000 to 42 000 (Durie, pp 29-31; the 200 000 figure is a conservative estimate, other estimates range from 100 000 to 500 000). Pākehā have suggested the Māori population was in decline prior to European arrival. As Mikaere argues though, this pattern of massive mortality in indigenous populations as a consequence of European colonisation was well known by the 1700s:
The Crown understood only too well the consequences of European contact for a previously isolated population such as Māori(Mikaere (d), p 3). High and indiscriminate mortality meant that knowledge, including both mātauranga and tikanga Māori, was not reliably passed from one generation to the next as it had been in the past. Those whānau were then more vulnerable to colonial cultural imperialism, which included individualism and patriarchy.
The Crown was intent on breaking down Māori collectivism in order to get at Māori land. Individualism and individual ownership were enforced in many ways, not least of all through the Native Land Court, which
proved to be an irrepressible agent in the imposition of non-Maori notions of ownership onto ‘Maori land’(Williams, p 56). The crisis created by massive mortality made this task easier. Taonga are closely connected to whenua (Tapsell, p 333), just as land is a tūpuna and cannot be owned neither can taonga (Tapsell, p 362). As Māori relationships with the land were upset, so too were relationships with taonga. Many taonga were transferred with land, while others were sold out of desperation for money when land, the economic base, was gone.
It is important to understand that colonisation is ongoing, and that it has ongoing effects on the relationship between Māori and Pākehā. A Māori worldview has been (literally) demonised, re-interpreted, and this interpretation battered at will. After centuries of abuse, many Māori resent and distrust any actions by the Crown that affect them. And like the violent partner in many abusive relationships, the Crown (and many Pākehā) cannot understand why they are constantly met with this negative attitude. When confronted with Māori cultural expectations, many Pākehā respond with indignation, revealing that cultural imperialism is still operating. The Crown was not successful in cultural genocide, but they did succeed in turning an opportunity for cultural exchange and synergy into a festering cultural division, with one side defensive and willfully ignorant of history, and the other understandably mistrustful and antagonistic.
Colonisation and women
"The process of en-gendering descriptions of the Other has had very real consequences for indigenous women in that the ways in which indigenous women were described, objectified and represented by Europeans in the nineteenth century has left a legacy of marginalisation within indigenous societies as much as within the colonizing society." (Linda Smith, p 46)
Mikaere comprehensively covers this topic (Mikaere (b); also Mikaere (a), (e); Linda Smith; Andrea Smith writing about colonisation in North America), and I have written on it previously and don’t want to re-cover that ground. To summarise this work, tikanga Māori stresses gender balance (as discussed above), and female sexuality is consistently honoured (Mikaere (a), p 9); whereas the colonising culture is fundamentally misogynist (this is indisputable: the colonists came from an explicitly Christian culture where the creation stories are overwhelmingly patriarchal, and the laws that the colonists brought were undeniably misogynist). The introduction of patriarchy has been not just a consequence of colonisation, but also a tool of colonisation (Mikaere (a), Andrea Smith, pp 7-33).
One of the many tragedies of colonisation is that tikanga which have developed to acknowledge the sacredness and importance of women have been interpreted by others as doing the opposite. I regularly hear statements from Pākehā men that Māori culture is inherently sexist (which at the same time implies that Pākehā culture is not). The gendered roles and responsibilities within te ao Māori have been seen by Europeans through a lens of patriarchy.
That Europeans were incapable of recognising female power in Māori society is clear in their interpretation of women as inferior and even evil (eg Best, cited in Mikaere (a), p 12), and female sexuality as distasteful and destructive (eg Biggs and Heuer, both cited in Mikaere (a), p 12). Mikaere discusses the perverse conclusions that ethnographers reached in order to explain the power that Māori associated with women’s sexuality. Best and Jean Smith wrote that
the power of women to whakanoa lay in the ability of their sexual organs to pollute or contaminate tapu by repelling atua(Mikaere (a), p 12), and Best defines tapu to mean unclean when associated with women (Best, cited in Mikaere (a), p 13). None of this is consistent with the beautiful language of menstruation, childbirth and breastfeeding discussed above. But the concepts held in te reo Māori are not accessible to a population that is ignorant of that language, whereas the writings of Pākehā ethnographers are. It is not surprising that many New Zealanders are more familiar with the more accessible, but clearly warped, conclusions of people like Elsdon Best.
Te Papa Taonga Māori CollectionAnd so we return to a discussion of the furore over Te Papa suggesting that menstruating or hapū women arrange another time to visit the taonga Māori collection. In early November, I spoke to Moana Parata, one of the kaitiaki of the collection, and asked for some background to this suggestion (Parata, 2/11/2010).
Moana has been with the taonga Māori collection since she started work at the National Museum in Buckle Street; when the collection moved to Te Papa, she went with them. The collection is maintained according to tikanga Māori. When Moana started at Buckle Street, Bessie Walters and Betty Rewi were kaitiaki of the collection, and were responsible for maintaining the tikanga. Because of the history and tapu of taonga (as described above), the collection is treated as an urupā. Karakia are said in the morning and when leaving, there is no food or drink in the collection rooms, women do not work with the taonga when menstruating or pregnant, and children can only visit with elders. These tikanga have not changed in the time she started working with the collection. There are thousands of taonga in the collection, many of which will never go into the general exhibition area. There are tikanga when taonga go into the public area, which includes asking permission of their people and karakia.
Moana sees the tikanga as a health and safety issue; to her—reflecting a Māori worldview—the tikanga are natural, respectful and keep herself and others safe. Tikanga of the collection are explained to groups before they arrive at Te Papa. Until recently, the explanation has been verbal, giving group organisers the opportunity to ask questions, lessening the chance of misunderstandings and offense. Moana spoke about the difficulty of communicating the tikanga in writing, the problem of explaining the meaning and reasons to people who may know little or nothing of mātauranga Māori. Even with the opportunity to ask questions, people are occasionally angry about the tikanga. This is usually resolved either with more discussion, or when people enter the collection rooms and experience the taonga. Recently, written guidelines have been sent to groups. Moana believes the complaint to the media is as a result of the decision to send the guidelines in writing rather than to discuss them verbally with visitors.
A newspaper successfully stirred up interest by asking a feminist blogger for comment on the guidelines, then printing the story with an outrageous headline (Anger at Te Papa ban on pregnant women), and an outrageous quote (
It’s fair enough for people to engage in their own cultural practices… but the state shouldn’t be imposing those practices on other people). Responses were predictable (each time I read the above quote, I am again shocked by it, and struggle not to write an essay about those few words).
At the heart of the issue is most New Zealanders’ ignorance of both cultural imperialism and Māori culture. I agree with Moana that if the tikanga had been communicated more effectively, there may have been no complaint—but equally if more New Zealanders understood anything of the indigenous culture of these islands, there would have been no need for better communication. If more New Zealanders understood that the reason they know so little of Māori culture is because the Crown has spent a couple of centuries trying to destroy it, they may be more sympathetic to a Māori worldview that they don’t understand. If more New Zealanders understood that representations of Māori culture have been distorted beyond recognition, they may not jump to uncharitable judgments based on what they think they know. And if more New Zealanders understood that respecting a culture means respecting the parts that don’t make sense to them, not just the parts that do, they may come to recognise their own part in cultural imperialism.
ConclusionThis essay glosses over a lot of complicated issues, and I admit it was too ambitious to try to cover all this ground. I have attempted to give some understanding of tapu especially as it relates to women and taonga—but of course none of this can really be understood without already understanding a Māori worldview. And this is the real issue, while Māori must understand a European worldview and law to survive in this land, colonisation has meant that very few people have any understanding of mātauranga Māori, or, in fact, of colonisation. Whenever an issue requires some understanding, whether it be the significance of te reo Māori, or kaitiakitanga, or whatever, the ignorance of most New Zealanders makes dialogue impossible. And thanks again to colonisation, this creates a problem not for those who are ignorant, but for Māori. Māori must repeatedly start from the beginning and attempt to explain their whole culture—this occurs in conversations, the media, court hearings, tribunal hearings. At some point, tauiwi need to take some responsibility for understanding the indigenous culture, and for understanding how their ignorance contributes to cultural imperialism, to Māori perspectives being marginalised and foreign in their own land.
That aside, this essay reminded me of the beauty of the concepts in te reo Māori around women’s reproductive cycles. This reminds me of the necessity to become more fluent in te reo rangatira. As Moana Parata commented,
this is about our reo, because there’s just no such thing as crossing over(Parata, 2/11/2010). The reo holds the mātauranga, and without the mātauranga, the tikanga are only arbitrary rules.
Update: For more (and better) reading on tikanga and menstruation, I recommend Murphy, Ngāhuia (2011) Te Awa Atua, Te Awa Tapu, Te Awa Wahine: An examination of stories, ceremonies and practices regarding menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world. Master of Arts thesis, University of Waikato
Parata, Moana (2/11/2010) Interview with the author, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
August, Wikitoria (2005) “Māori women: Bodies, spaces, sacredness and mana”. New Zealand Geographer 61
Binney, Judith (1986) Ngā Mōrehu: The Survivors. Edited by Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin. Oxford University Press, Auckland
Durie, Mason (2005) Ngā Tai Matatū: Tides of Māori Endurance. Oxford University Press, Melbourne
Henare, Manuka (1988) Nga Tikanga me nga ritenga o te ao Maori: Standards and foundations of Maori society. Royal Commission on Social Policy 3 (1): Future Directions
Jackson, Moana (1988) The Māori and the Criminal Justice System, A New Perspective: He Whaipaanga Hou, Part II. New Zealand. Department of Justice, Wellington
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Mikaere (e), A. (1994) “Maori Women: Caught in the Contradictions of a Colonised Reality” Waikato Law Review 125
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New Zealand Herald (12/10/2010) “Anger at Te Papa ban on pregnant women”
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Tapsell, Paul (1997) “The flight of Pareraututu: An investigation of taonga from a tribal perspective” Journal of Polynesian Society 106(4)
Tucker, Mary Evelyn and John A.Grim (2001) "Series Foreword" Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community. Edited by John A. Grim. Center for the Study of World religions, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge MA
Williams, David V (1999) Te Kooti Tango Whenua: The Native Land Court 1864-1909. Huia Publishers, Wellington
Mikaere (a), Ani (2000) "Patriarchy as the ultimate divide and rule tactic: The assault on tikanga Māori by Pākehā Law" Paper presented at Mai i te Ata Hāpara conference, Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, Ōtaki
Mikaere (d), Ani (2008) “Three million strikes and still not out: the crown as the consummate recidivist” Paper presented at the Māori Criminal Justice Colloquium, Te Ao Tara Aitū ki te Ara Maha: From the World of Calamity to the Path of Clarity, Napier
Mikaere (c), Ani (2006) “Whakapapa and Taonga: Connecting the Memory” Paper presented at Te Puna Maumahara: Rōpū Tuku Iho Repositories conference, Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, Ōtaki