Pāpaki tū ana: ruāhine as female spiritual experts & our misreading of Wahinerua & the Tainui grounding

Pāpaki tū ana ngā tai ki Mauao
I whakanukunukuhia,
I whakanekenekehia,
I whiua reretia e Hotu a Wahinerua ki te wai,
ki tai wīwī, ki tai wāwā,
Ki te whai ao, ki te ao mārama,
Tīhei mauriora.

This is a very well known tauparapara and waiata ā ringa in Tauranga Moana. It translates as following:

The waves beat continuously against the rocky cliffs of Mauao,
They tried to shift the canoe forward and aft.
Wahinerua was thrown overboard there by Hotu,
Into the swirling waters, the roaring ocean
And emerge into the world of light
I breathe, ’tis life!

In a few short lines it captures the imagery and drama of the arrival of the Tainui canoe to Te Awanui. As the canoe was guided through the entrance between Matakana Island and Mauao, it became grounded on an unseen sandbar that is called Ruahine. Perturbed, Hoturoa, captain of the canoe, sought to understand what wrong had been committed that had led to the grounding and how this could be resolved. Here I have heard two accounts: that he found Wahinerua, an old woman, had eaten seed kumara, a great wrong, and so cast her from the canoe as a sacrifice to restore the tapu of the canoe; or that Wahinerua volunteered to sacrifice herself to restore the tapu of the canoe. Either way, Wahinerua was drowned, and the canoe was refloated to continue its journey within the harbour. Her body floated to Mauao, where she was transmogrified into a rock, now cunningly named Kuia Rock. It is common for tāngata whenua to offer food for safe travels and prosperous fishing when leaving the harbour.

In the above intepretation, ask yourself this question: why would you have let Wahinerua on the canoe in the first place? She is old, so she can’t bear children on the arrival in Aotearoa; the story suggests she is silent, a very passive old woman hardly suited to the rigours of establishing a new home far from support; and in one interpetation she is eating the seed kumara, showing a flagrant disregard for the ongoing survival of her entire community on the canoe! Was she just there in case they needed to sacrifice a human?

I want to suggest a long diet of colonisation and patriarchal Christianity means there is a likelihood that we have misread this foundational narrative. I want to suggest that Wahinerua was a ruahine who partnered with tohunga to ensure the safe passage, arrival and survival of the people of the Tainui to their new home. I want to suggest that the tauparapara was a record of the kind of ritual ceremonies and functions Wahinerua performed for her people on the journey.

Our first clue is the naming of the sandbar that the Tainui grounded upon as Ruahine. I contend this was deliberate, to remind descendants as to who took the lead role in freeing the canoe from its predicament.

“The term ruahine applies to a woman of high rank, usually the eldest daughter… who possessed knowledge of karakia and ritual behaviour which enabled her to carry out her tasks among her people…. The ruahine was past childbearing age and the restrictions of menstruation, or was childless…. The ruahine and tohunga were responsible for conducting ritual performances for the benefit of their people, and for ensuring that the atua were appropriately acknowledged.” Aroha Yates-Smith, 1998, 161-2.

When the Tainui grounded, Hoturoa would have understood that the ultimate cause, whatever it was physically, was a diminishment in the tapu of the canoe and its people, which led to a diminishment in their mana, their power to guide and protect the canoe on its journey. The fate of the journey was in the balance. He would quickly have turned to the tohunga and ruahine on his canoe for explanation and resolution to restore the diminished tapu.

Wahinerua was an active part of that discussion and debate. She may have suggested that they had offended an atua, possibly Parawhenuamea or Hinemoana, both female deities connected to the sea, silt and sand. The offence had meant that Hoturoa had been stripped of mana and was now subject to a restrictive state of tapu. Restoration required a death to diminish the restrictive state that the canoe and crew were now in. Most records of pure (cleansing) ceremonies indicate that this removal of restrictive tapu was done by the ruahine stepping over the person, a figurative death that removed the restrictive tapu.

Perhaps Wahinerua conducted the same type of cleansing ceremony but on a grand scale; she volunteered to remove the restrictive tapu on the crew and the canoe by descending from the canoe to the sandbar and offer cleansing karakia until the canoe was refloated. She understood the dangers and may have even died during the ceremony; the tauparapara may be the record of her actual death or of the figurative death encapsulated by her ritual actions. In any case I believe now that the naming of the sandbar and the creation of the tauparapara are not a subtle dig at a passive old woman, but a spontaneous offering of thanks for their courageous spiritual leader, their ruahine, Wahinerua.

I regret to say in my experience many of our our marae, our hapu and our iwi throughout Aotearoa have become firm bastions of misogony and ritualism. I maintain that there is place for roles within stories, even gendered roles, in our tikanga and kawa that can be honouring and community-building. However there is also a role for critique of what we have handed-on, unthinking, from one generation to the next. The presumed roles for our wāhine are often, in my opinion, most troubling. Few of my Pirirākau or Tauranga Moana aunties, cousins, and nieces are the passive females who are wallpaper or objects in our traditional stories. The tendency is to critique the story; perhaps we best critique the narration of our stories by a patriarchy that doesn’t want to acknowledge the mana of our wāhine.


Aroha Yates-Smith 1992 Hine! E Hine! Rediscovering the Feminine in Māori Spirituality PhD Thesis
Elsdon Best 1976 Māori Religion and Mythology
Te Rangihīroa 1974 The Coming of the Māori