Pōwhiri have a purpose; and it is not to dominate women

In a pre-match warm-up for this election year, the Speaker and the NZ Herald have stretched their conservative credentials by cleverly feigning outrage at both the misogynistic and outdated cultural processes of Māori people and the spectre of political correctness that requires Parliament to follow those very processes.

All of this apparently began at the pōwhiri for the Youth Parliament last year at which Annette King and Maryan Street arrived late, sat on the paepae tapu (the speakers’ bench) and were asked to shift back a row. According to the Speaker and the NZ Herald, they would have been humiliated. I actually haven’t heard from either Annette nor Maryan as to whether they were humiliated. I personally would have been more embarrassed about turning up late to a pōwhiri and wandering across the marae atea (the area between the two groups) in front of everyone, but each to their own.

This has prompted Carter to say that the tikanga used in Parliament needs to be updated. It has prompted the NZ Herald to say that iwi should “move with the times.”

No-one who has made any comment from Parliament or the media seems to have any idea what the tikanga in a pōwhiri is actually about. The presumption is that it is a greeting process generated out of a patriarchal domination system. However a pōwhiri, its structure, its process, is a communication of meaning. Pōwhiri is a multi-layered story.

If you can picture a marae space in your head, the story begins at the gate.

The first layer of meaning is the threat and possibility inherent in new relationships. When you arrive, you are an unknown quantity. Your intentions may be violent. So the pōwhiri is a prescribed process to carry you and the hosts through a ritualised verbal dance that brings you closer, step by step, both in word and in actuality, to the point of physically touching in the hongi (touching of noses) and spiritually touching in sharing your mauri (your essence) with the other person. This dance is full of danger. Both physically and spiritually it is full of threat.

So there are important roles. The women’s role as the voice of the karanga (the call) starts the process with a recognition of its life and death implications, because only women can bring forth life, and women are the personification of death and the diminishment of mana (power and authority) in Hine nui te pō. From that initial lead by women, men then move to the front, because you never put the future of your iwi, your hapū, your whānau at risk. Men are, in this sense, at the front because they are expendable in a conflict, and whaikōrero (speeches) are a form of conflict in which our tūpuna (ancestors) meet and wrestle for dominance in whakapapa (genealogy) and kaupapa (purpose).

Yet deeper than this is the idea the pōwhiri is the story of creation. At the gate, the process starts with Te Kore (the nothingness). It is the voice of the women that calls forth Te Pō (the night), the actualisation of the creative possibility, and the movement onto and into the pōwhiri enacts the creative act. Again the conflict of whaikōrero enacts the conflict of atua (gods – sort of) in the movement from Te Pō to Te Ao Mārama (the world of light and understanding) in which they wrestle for the authority to join their mana with Papatūānuku and Ranginui to create everything we hold dear. This conflict is ended, again, with the hongi, which remembers the first mana tangata (authority of people) in our creation, which was mana wahine (authority of women), the creation of Hineahuone.

Beyond this again is the central tenet of the Māori world view: tapu (sacredness, set apart for a purpose, inherent worth). The proscribed roles, the process, the ritual are all about a movement of two groups negotiating the interaction of their tapu to achieve a respectful whakanoa (reduction or diminishment of tapu) that allows those two groups to become one group who are bound by a relationship that enhances each of their respective tapu. It can only be achieved by the harmony of the roles that men and women play in this process.

Pōwhiri is story. A beautiful, powerful story that tells us we need to value our current relationships, be brave enough to build new relationships, but wise enough to protect ourselves from those who would take advantage of us.

What needs transformation in Parliament is not the tikanga of pōwhiri but the inability of our society’s institutions to understand holistic knowledge held in and communicated by story. A pōwhiri is not a series of parts that can be dismantled and put back together for the pleasure of Parliament. It is an holistic story that communicates truth to its informed listeners.

If we are guilty of anything as the collective ‘Māori’ we are portrayed as by the media, it is seeing hope in society’s institutions using our cultural processes. I know that along with many of my relatives, I really hope it shows a new mindset, a new openness, a renewed commitment to our partnership under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, whenever I see an institution trying to use tikanga Māori. Perhaps we shouldn’t fool ourselves. If people do not have the ears to hear the truth in our stories, we shouldn’t share our stories and our people with those institutions. We should stop throwing the best of who we are as tāngata whenua into a relationship with people who keep consuming, but never sharing. It might be time to take back our pearls from the swine.

32 thoughts on “Pōwhiri have a purpose; and it is not to dominate women

  1. A well constructed and thoughtful argument that deserves to be spread far and wide. Perhaps the answer in the meantime lies in the closing statement –

    “We should stop throwing the best of who we are as tāngata whenua into a relationship with people who keep consuming, but never sharing. It might be time to take back our pearls from the swine.”

    The idea presented by the Speaker that Maori culture needs to be “modernised” is the real problem because it presumes that there is something wrong with our tikanga.

  2. Kia ora Tiare, kei te mihi au ki a koe i pānui ki taku tuhinga. Tika ana tōu kōrero, nā te Speaker te hē.

  3. I find it hilarious that a guy who walks into Parliament with all kinds of pomp and circumstance and a bloody ceremonial stave to perform a public prayer before politics can start is calling for other people’s culture to be modernised.

    Incidentally, if two male MPs walked in late and sat in the first row, would they be asked to move? Genuine question, I’m slightly unclear on whether the first row is only for the speakers as I would guess it would be. Even if they wouldn’t, though, the whole “controversy” is bullshit, especially since it was Western colonisers that came in and said “hey women are inferior so we’re going to interpret everything you do that way, cool?” and ignored any responses of “no, not cool actually”.

  4. So beautifully put..and I agree with comment above. Ignorance and disrespect breeds all sorts of negative ideas, thoughts and actions. I would like to think that this PANUI will spread far and wide for All to read also. I will certainly do my bit in making that happen.

  5. That’s an interesting question about men if they were late arrivals. Certainly, it really is considered rude to come in late and sit in the front. I don’t know the circumstances but presume the whaikōrero hadn’t started, in which case most people on a marae would quietly come in the back. I think your summary is correct for anyone: “no, not cool actually.”

  6. I love your explanation of the powhiri Graham. I hope people find time to read it as well as the thoughts of those above. Matthew 7:6 Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

  7. This is a really thoughtful piece. I understand what you are saying, but parts of it irk me nevertheless – and I am not “feigning outrage.” The immediate issue appears to be how female parliamentarians are treated – not the overall purpose of a pōwhiri. The effect, whether intended or not, presents women as non-speakers, as having a non-equivalent role to males. I appreciate the broader cultural context outlined, which I already did appreciate – but that doesn’t make problems any less for women in a contemporary context, particularly when they are operating in a parliamentary context.

    The underlying issue that I see here and in other social media is outrage at the Speaker telling you how to do things, especially when so much has been on the terms of a dominant colonial culture. I relate to this as a woman, who is part of a power minority frequently told how to do things, disallowed to do things or exploited, suppressed, oppressed.

    By highlighting the specific details of these parliamentarians and their lateness, do you trivialize the issue? “I personally would have been more embarrassed about turning up late to a pōwhiri and wandering across the marae atea…”
    This seems disingenuous to me – I have been on marae where men have arrived late and wandered about – crossing in front of speakers, passing notes, talking to people. I don’t know whether or not they were embarrassed.

    I have worked in Parliament and know that in that setting, parliamentarians are frequently late, sometimes female, of various ethnicity and cultural backgrounds, sometimes high-ranked. So if lateness is an issue in this context, maybe an accommodation could be made in the parliamentary setting.

    I don’t really think you are concerned about lateness. This is about power, and the signalling of power. That is why numerous women were upset when Prime Minister Clark was “put in her place” a few years ago. Her place in one context did not match her status in another. From an international perspective, in this age of immediate media and global interaction, it appeared dangerously antiquated to outsiders.

    I’m not currently in the country, so it is hard to ascertain the political impetus for the Speaker to raise this currently, but over the years, I have heard Māori women and men discuss the possibility of change to accommodate the changing roles of women and men. It’s not just conservative, pakeha, male politicians suggesting change.

    The definition of conservative (lower case c) is to resist change, to uphold the status quo. Sometimes that is positive, but change doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong – as your commenter suggests: “The idea presented by the Speaker that Maori culture needs to be “modernised” is the real problem because it presumes that there is something wrong with our tikanga.”

    Maybe change is appropriate in some circumstances, not others. When has tikanga been adapted? You know it has and it is untrue, as some say, that tikanga is unchanging so why bother changing now.

    I imagine you will disagree with me but it shouldn’t be a binary discussion, surely?

  8. Every misunderstanding gives us an opportunity to learn & grow as one people. But in order for that unity to take place wise leaders must be at the front “on the pae” to be the catalysts for change. Communication, creative thinking & open minds are what is needed if we are to move forward. I am Maori & understand the powhiri process but I am not so ignorant as to think that we are the only ones who invented or understand the powhiri process in depth. Every culture has it in their own way. Whether people are completely conscious of it is another story. Threatening to take back our Tikanga & claim it as only for ourselves is a big step backwards in my view. I dont believe our tupuna fought for their land & their rights so that their mokopuna would grow up to be ignorant, close minded & full of hate. Why else would they sign the Treaty? They obviously saw the benefits in uniting with another people who had knowledge, resources & skills to trade. I understand the injustices but that is a side issue here. Thankfully we now have many educated whanau who have taken on the mantle to fight that battle legally. But as long as we continue to focus on the negatives, new beginnings can not start to take place. The initial intention of signing the Treaty was a good one & I believe we need to get back to that. The sooner we start embracing our differences & learning how to move forward together, the better off we all will be. These are just a few humble thoughts that came to me & I felt inspired to share. ‘Te Kotahitanga’ the oneness is more important to me than any other Tikanga I have been taught. The powhiri process can easily be used as a tool to help get us there. This is after all what I believe the true nature & spiritual depth of the powhiri is really about anyway. If we put our egos aside & listen to the guidance from wairua & spirit, the truth will become clear. One love. KFlowAotearoa.

  9. There’s a lot in your response, so thank you for taking the time. The issue was not publicly raised by Annette or Maryan, but I have heard reports that they laid a complaint with Speaker (though I have not seen any evidence of this). My key concern is the statements by the Speaker that we need to “modernise” our cultural processes and the quick agreement of our mainstream media that we need to “move with the times”.

    Obviously these are both terms that are laden with a particular value framework and confident in the power of the Crown to dictate the terms of engagement. As a positive contribution, I wanted to comment on the meaning of the ceremony that has been lost in their monochromatic world view.

    I do not think the Speaker has any great regard or interest in tikanga and whether it changes so he is “feigning outrage”. He is doing so because he and his colleagues have an election to fight in 2014 and the debate this has generated is another example of using Māori as a whipping boy to generate emotion and enthusiasm amongst the National faithful and those on the Right of the political spectrum. Usefully, the Speaker would well know that the complaints of the two Labour MPs reduces the ability of the parties of the Left to come out in support of Māori or tikanga. I think this was a calculated press release for a slow news period to launch what will be a cynical play and slow grind to retain power on election day.

    As to whether a pōwhiri presents women as having non-equivalent roles, I really would challenge you to recognise that this is a view of our culture that is taken from a standpoint outside of our culture. Therefore, it is a use of power, a use of the Gaze. Change, transformation and stability in our tikanga are for us to lead, and I trust Māori feminists in particular to push change in this area. I trust them because they understand the story underpinning pōwhiri and therefore can suggest movement that is in harmony with our culture. Pākehā women, whilst still fighting their own battle for equality, remain in a position of power in relation to the colonising of Māori. It’s our culture to change.

    Tikanga is always changing. On every marae, in every group, in every whānau, tikanga is constructed and deconstructed continuously. But in our time, at our behest, and on our marae.

  10. This was really interesting for me to read Graham, very enlightening. Over the years I’ve heard people commenting about the role of women on the marae, both Maori & European. The strongest views were held by feminist Maori and they were adamant that the right to speak should be available to them. I guess resolving this is about being able to hold multiple perspectives and find a unity that recognises the partial truths of those perspectives. All spirituality is evolving and to attempt to resist spirit’s need to move would seem fruitless to me. Perhaps it’s about feeling for the direction of that movement very carefully? I agree that it is for Maori to lead whatever change needs to occur, particularly in this case, wahine Maori.

  11. Absolutely agree, e hoa. Change is both a necessity and a reality that is upon us at marae that are struggling for people and resources. I have no issue with it, indeed I would welcome the wānanga at our marae to work out together how we would make these changes in our tikanga in a way that honours our tūpuna and better recognises our desire to enhance the mana of our women. However, as you say, this is for us to lead, not for others to force.

  12. If the powhiri is an issue for parliament then they should create their own process. Just don’t call it a powhiri or refer to it in any way as a Maori ritual/process. They can then mix it up as much as they want.

    Won’t mean anything to Maori but then not much of what parliament does or have done has anyway.

    I have to admit though that I support the right of women to whaikorero. There are not enough competent male speakers on the pae. There are however plenty of our ladies that understand and can articulate whanau, hapu, and iwi concerns.

  13. “when in Rome do as the Romans do” – a saying attributed to Jesus. My mother and father were both white and christian. Dad came from Scotland in his 30s and had no first hand knowledge of Maori culture. Mum played with maori children while growing up and made a big effort to pronounce maori place names correctly. I grew up with good knowledge of formal religious occasions and learned to respect other denominations practices. We even learned to respect other religions. But I regret to say we learnt virtually nothing of Maori culture.

    So if I’m to attend a Pōwhiri, a very formal occasion indeed, I would do as my hosts ask. Perhaps I would make suggestions once I understood Maori culture. Certainly in my own culture I understand the difference between the religious “sacrament of the Eucharist” and music written for this ceremony. If I’m invited to the performance of a Mass I would expect relative little formality and just enjoy the music. If I’m invited to take part in the ceremony called a Mass I would know this is a very formal occasion full of meaning. I would check if drinking the wine and eating the bread meant I just feel part of this community, or if it is restricted to those who believe in the bodily resurrection.

    I’ve seen a suggestion that the term “mihi whakatau” be used. I understand this would allow some informality when the primary reason for a meeting is not rooted in Maori culture.

  14. Kia ora James, thanks for your thoughts and I can only imagine what Parliament might come up with without tangata whenua. I am really interested in the debates that will come about wāhine speaking from the paepae tapu, but I am also very firm that those debates will be led by Māori at their marae, not in the NZ Herald or Parliament.

  15. Thanks for the reflection, Robin. I think caution and respect hold us in good stead in all of our cross-cultural interactions, so well put. The mihi whakatau is pretty common now, and does lack some of the formality expected in a pōwhiri, but again, tāngata whenua would guide where and when this may be appropriate.

  16. Roles change over time. Men might not be able to give birth, but they can raise a child with love, they can create beautiful works of art. Women can fight, they serve capability in the military and whilst not as physically strong as men can still hold their own in a fight.

    It comes to a point where doing something based on “this is tradition, this is how we always did it” becomes pointless. Traditions CAN and SHOULD change.

    Yet you haven’t changed. Only a tiny minority have made changes that reflect modern society. You say

    “Change is both a necessity and a reality that is upon us at marae that are struggling for people and resources. I have no issue with it, indeed I would welcome the wānanga at our marae to work out together how we would make these changes in our tikanga in a way that honours our tūpuna and better recognises our desire to enhance the mana of our women. However, as you say, this is for us to lead, not for others to force.”

    And you are right, no one should force you to change, but you should be made to feel embarrassed for not changing. Feminism is not new, it has been around for decades, so why are you only “calling for change” now? Why hasn’t change happened already?

    How many strong and powerful women miss their chance at speaking because they have to “wait”? On the flip side, how many men have to hide any side to them that is considered feminine because it is not how the ancestors would have done it?

  17. Julian, I’ve left your post a day to have a think about how to respond. Your post is underpinned by two disturbing assumptions:
    – using ‘you’ to talk about all Māori indicates you see us as the Other, a projection rather than real and equal people;
    – talking about the emotions Māori should feel, characterising the experience of Māori men and women, and asserting an understanding of cultural practice are what is called the Gaze, the view of power that asserts ownership and control over a group of people.

    This use of power is racism. We should not speak into each other’s cultures in a way that judges and directs as you have here. I suspect my judgement that your post is racist will anger you. But perhaps in time you could reflect back on what I have said here.

  18. You say we should not judge other cultures…why not? If you see a tradition or practice that you feel in harmful, why not speak up?

    I understand the concept of cultural superiority and that where culture and race, especially those of a minority who are struggling to keep their cultural alive, are closely intertwined then racist is an easy label to throw around, and to be honest quite hard to defend against, but let me ask you this:

    Would you advise that I live in a country whose culture and laws support the stoning to death of homosexuals and adulterous women,? Where rape and female infanticide were commonplace and ignore or in a country where the very idea of them is ludicrous. Could you advise me without making one culture sound superior, or preferential to the other.

    This is an extreme example, and I do realise this is coming across like I am trying to say that “white culture” is better than maori culture, and that you should give up your traditions and beleifs and have a disneyfied version acceptable to the masses….and I guess I am.

    Acutally, yeah I am, I am saying that any tradition, be it maori, pakeha, christian, muslim or whatever, that has gender roles based on centuries out of date ideals and concepts should be encourage to change and should feel embarrassed about being out of touch with the rest of the world.

    If your cultural traditions forbid interracial or gay marriage or encouraged violence against enemies or shamed those with mental illnesses then I would feel exactly the same.

    I will ask you again

    How many strong and powerful women miss their chance at speaking because they have to “wait”? On the flip side, how many men have to hide any side to them that is considered feminine because it is not how the ancestors would have done it?

  19. “…this is coming across like I am trying to say that ‘white culture’ is better than maori [sic] culture… and I guess I am.”

    No further discussion is necessary. Your words speak for themselves.

  20. With respect, I do have a couple of issues with this. The first is the tendency to talk about tikanga as if it is fixed in kauri gum and doesn’t evolve with context (there are obviously a number of traditional practices no longer observed that modern Maori are repulsed and embarrassed by and need not be elaborated on here). Nor is tikanga homogeneous throughout Aotearoa – Kai Tahu, for one, doesn’t have a problem with women speaking, and neither as far as I’m aware, does Ngati Porou. And indeed, there is precedent at Waitangi when Whaia McClutchie spoke for the protesters she led on to the marae and was answered by Dame Whina Cooper. Annette Sykes broke Marae protocol at Eva Rickard’s tangi, and challenged the men to recognise mana wahini – and that was on Rickard’s authority (her last wish being “keep challenging the men.”).

    While Annette and Maryan may not have said anything about feeling humiliated, Donna Awatere Huata certainly has: “If meaningful debate is to take place on the marae info the 21st century then women must be part of it.” – so let us not pretend the question hasn’t been asked by wahini themselves in action and word. Wahini have been asking to be heard for decades now, and clearly the men aren’t listening, so just possibly the Speaker’s comments should be respected as a provocation to finally address the issue.

    The standard reason given for women sitting behind men is to protect women’s reproductive organs from matuku, which begs the question why mana wahine (especially that of community leaders and senior politicians including a Prime Minister) is insufficient to do the job?

    The Powhiri may not exist to control and suppress women, but the control and suppression of women is an artefact of those protocols, no less for not giving women the choice of whether those protocols should apply to them in that way.

  21. I have no disagreement with your comments. As I have consistently stated, my key issue is the Speaker and Pākehā members of Parliament presuming to lead change in our tikanga. As to women speaking on the marae, this was comment on a blog by a wahine Māori on specifically that point:

    “…there is a powerful argument to be made that our tikanga across most marae and similar settings are gender essentialist. I think it is important that this argument and the drive for change is led from within our own whānau, hapū and iwi, and that the leaders of change are our wāhine Māori… supported by tāne Māori, particularly those who sit on the paepae. I wrote my blog because I was so very uncomfortable with the Gaze of Pākehā upon our tikanga, and the potential for that use of power to deconstruct our tikanga in a way that colonises us again.

    One of the difficult issues we will need to wrestle with as hau kainga as we attempt to make the change to bring gender equality is how this will fit with story we are trying to communicate in that process. This is and will be complicated, particular as all of our purakau that underpin our tikanga have been irretrievably affected by Christianity and colonisation…”

    So, thanks for your comments.

  22. I am impressed by the quality of the debate on this topic in this thread. That has not always been the case. A number of points have been raised but a recurring topic is a presumption that Maori women are oppressed by Maori culture particularly in respect of their being able to be heard. No evidence has been put forward to support that notion but instead the argument quickly proceeds as though that notion was a fact. Wahine Maori will answer that question themselves.

    During one episode of particularly fiery public debate on this matter (there have been a number but this occasion was sparked by Helen Clarke’s tears at Waitangi) the matter was raised Te Tii marae by a koroua prior to the welcoming of governnment officials for Waitangi Day celebrations. When he had had his say he turned to the hui and said “we now give our permission for women to speak on this topic”. There was a low angry rumbling in the meeting house as the women present processed this statement. Then one of the wahine leaders stood and said (in te reo), “Who said we were waiting for you to give us permission to speak? When we have something we wish to say we will do so and we will not seek any man’s permission to do so.” She then sat down and that was the end of that discussion. Oppressed Maori women? I don’t think so.

    That is just one example of how Maori and Maori women in particular are already dealing with this issue. Well meaning but uninformed commentary from other cultural perspectives is not helpful.

  23. I’m with you as you work through the struggle Graham, and wish that a clear path arises like a full moon to guide the tangata whenua. I have a daughter who is Ngapuhi Ngatihine on her dad’s side and so I have a vested interest in an outcome that honours both the tupuna and the mana of Maori women. Transformation through respect and relationship nurtures and grows all things to wholeness.

  24. I found this piece both eloquent and thought provoking. If only people recognised the processes intertwined in the powhiri that hold sacred spiritual knowledge, may be a greater appreciation to preserve these unique processes would ensue. I am currently living away from my mana whenua. I live in a part of the world whereby indigenous elders are fighting for their cultural processes to be recognised, acknowledged and understood so that they feel their very existence is valued in the national scheme of identity. I am living in a country whereby foreign culture is more accepted than the culture of those born to this land and it is sad, disempowering and eats away at the spirit of the oppressed.

    Who said women do not speak on the marae? As a wahine Maori I feel placed well enough to speak directly to that assumption. Indeed the karanga is a beautiful and privileged form of communication, and the waiata, again communicating and indicating that again we are ”noa”, safe and able to proceed. Nothing starts or ends without us, it just depends what lens you are using to perceive this cultural process of exchange, has your lens been immersed in tikanga or are you judging something from your own worldview with limited understanding perhaps? If those politicians felt humiliated then my hope is someone advises them as to why they were repositioned, it is a gesture of safety and protection not of dominance.

    I read above about traditions of all kinds being done away with, and embarrassed? I would feel disconnected and disenfranchised if I did not know my Iwi, my ancestoral links and heritage, my language, my whenua, my turangawaewae, why would I voluntarily give up the essence of who I am to placate some mainstream standardised way of being? I find richness in my geneology, my people and our stories, I feel blessed to walk the lands my forefathers were sustained on and certainly feel no desire to let it go to please the rest of the world. My culture embellishes the world.

    In terms of defining a Maori woman’s strength and power, given my lineage no one else actually gets the privledge to determine that but us. My strength and power is not defined by whether I can whaikorero and put myself on the battlefield of Tumatauenga, my strength comes from my womb housing life. The womb where the next generation of strength and power dwells, it flows from my breast, feeding life, from the aroha or love that resides in my heart and enables me to sacrifice and serve my whanau. It comes from the hospitality I extend and warming bellies and souls. It comes from caring for the aged and sick, respecting others and importantly respecting myself.

    I have appreciated the opportunity to read this post and comment. My greatest message is, never deny someone to live their culture if that indeed makes them feel of worth. The nature of man however is a different culture altogether, lovers of selves, violence, hatred, deceit and cunningness is not about where your nono is placed on the paepae but what humanistic weaknesses you choose to feed. Only my opinion, nothing more, nothing less :)

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