Surrounded by Taonga

How learning from Māori has enriched my life

Alanna Irving
Jul 23 · 13 min read

I recently attended a hui on the theme of Te Ao Māori with the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network. It was special for many reasons, first of all because it was at Waitangi, at the Treaty grounds and historic Te Tii marae.

Note: I use a number of Māori words in this post. I’ve put a glossary at the end for those less familiar with Te Reo, as I was when I first moved here.

A rainbow appeared when we visited this field, the place where the founding document of Aotearoa New Zealand was signed.

The hui brought together a unique mix of people and cultures. There were Māori people speaking Chinese and Chinese people speaking Māori. There were conversations about the historic and future relationships of not only Māori and Pākehā, but also diverse New Zealanders, countries across Asia and the world, and indigenous peoples of other nations.

I heard Māori perspectives on the Ainu people of Japan, and on ethical textile sourcing in China. I learned about a Paiwan person’s views on Māori tattooing. I saw 5th generation Kiwis of Asian decent side by side with first generation Pākehā Kiwis.

The hui helped solidify many thoughts that have been bubbling away for quite a while in my mind. We each made commitments to ourselves at the end of the experience, and mine was to clarify what I’ve been learning enough to write it down and share it.

Taonga are precious to us all

The second article of the Treaty of Waitangi affords Māori the protection of and sovereignty over their taonga, including not just land and tangible objects, but also intangible things like culture and language.

Ko te Kuini o Ingarani ka wakarite ka wakaae ki ngā Rangatira ki ngā hapū — ki ngā tangata katoa o Nu Tirani te tino rangatiratanga o o rātou wenua o rātou kāinga me o rātou taonga katoa.

The Queen of England recognises the ultimate authority and sovereignty of the chiefs, tribes, and native people of New Zealand, over their lands, villages and everything that is held precious.

The hui helped me reflect on how important the Treaty’s protection of taonga is not just for Māori, but for all of us. Māori taonga have enriched my life in countless ways, and I’d like to share a few here.

The art of kōrero: space for deep listening

When I first immigrated to New Zealand, I encountered the simple but powerful practice of giving someone as much time as they need to stand in front of a group and express themselves, through opinions, stories, songs, silence, or all of the above.

At first this was in groups of mainly Pākehā, inspired by Māori-style kōrero to practice deep listening and holding space for others to speak without being talked over or time-pressured. This was deeply healing and inspiring for me, as someone who’s never been comfortable with the American tendency (that I grew up around) to begin your sentences halfway through someone else’s.

With practice, I became much more able to share and witness vulnerability, to value listening as active contribution, to heed my beating heart as a signal of my time to stand and speak, and to sit fully present with a group in silence. One American who joined such a listening circle broke down crying afterward, saying it was the first time in his life he’d felt truly listened to.

Later, I had the opportunity to observe Māori kōrero skills in action at pōwhiri and poroporoakī at marae. At the Te Ao Māori hui, the poroporoakī went on much longer than expected, with moving speeches and songs from both sides of the wharenui. Later, one of the Pākehā organizers commented that, while in years past she’d have been anxiously checking her watch, she’d now learned to trust the Māori approach to time and listening, which was fortunate because she felt the poroporoakī had become one of the most important moments of the whole hui.

Valuing whānau for real

Many say “family is important in Māori culture” in the abstract, but I’ve really seen the depth of that truth by observing it in real life situations.

When we first arrived at Te Tii Marae, one of the kaumātua who welcomed us began by expressing thanks to all the family members back home who’s support was enabling us to participate in this hui. As someone with a young child, I had been wondering just then how her dad was getting on solo parenting. This simple comment took a private worry and turned it into a shared human experience, acknowledging me and every person there in the context of their whānau.

Time after time at the hui, a young Māori leader would talk to us about their inspiring work as a lawyer, city councillor, or fashion designer, and then casually drop that they also have 4, 5, or 6 tamariki. In my social circles, many fret about balancing work and just one child. To me, raising six kids seems superhuman, and making it work alongside an amazing career is a testament to the incredible caring capacity of Māori whānau. Every time someone mentioned their tamariki, the pride and joy just beamed out of them.

My partner and I once brought our then 1-year-old to a professional conference, and traded off parenting throughout the day. We wanted to help normalise the presence of children in work-related spaces, but it wasn’t always smooth going. At one point we both wanted to attend different workshops at the same time, so my partner tried bringing the baby along. Of course, he struggled to focus while simultaneously keeping her entertained. Another participant noticed and offered his help. My partner was unsure, not wanting to burden him. But he simply smiled and said, “Bro, it’s OK! We’re Māori!” and took the baby.

This is in sharp contrast to a story one of the Māori speakers at the hui told about facing reprimand from her Pākehā manager for bringing her well-behaved children to the office when she didn’t have other childcare available. Her workplace saw employees as individual human resources instead of human beings inextricably connected to their whānau.

Multiple families brought babies and children to the hui at Te Tii, and it was treated as the most normal thing in the world.

Indigenous Legal Frameworks for the Planet

There were many references made at the hui to Māori connectedness with nature. Tangata whenua means “people of the land”, the inverse of the western view that land is of (owned by) people. In our time of environmental crisis, learning how to be better kaitiaki of Papatūānuku couldn’t be more important. Fortunately, Māori are bringing unique legal frameworks for our relationships to land from Aotearoa to the world.

First of all, there is the Treaty itself. Despite all the broken promises of the last two centuries, the Treaty, as written and as understood by the Māori rangatira who signed it, remains a profoundly inspiring document. Its ideals represent the opposite of colonialism — a nation founded on the free agreement of sovereign and equal peoples to live in harmony with each other and the land. We have a long way to go to live up to those ideals, but with the Treaty as our guide Aotearoa could become a living model for a post-colonial world.

Another example is the Waitangi Tribunal, “a permanent commission of inquiry that makes recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to Crown actions that breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi.” At the hui, Tania Te Whenua spoke in a moving and personal way about her work as a lawyer specialising in Māori land management and Tribunal claims. While the full magnitude of colonisation and land theft can never be righted, the ideals of the Tribunal show what could be possible in a bicultural nation aspiring to equity.

Te Awa Tupuna, a legal person, when I visited them a few years ago

Another is Environmental Personhood, which reconceptualises the value of nature, from its mere exploitability for human profit to an expansive and holistic view of its intrinsic value. The Whanganui River was declared a legal person in 2017, named Te Awa Tupua, and is now recognised as “an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea, incorporating the Whanganui River and all of its physical and metaphysical elements.” The river is represented by two kaitiaki, one from the Whanganui iwi and the other from the Crown. Te Urewera was given similar status in 2014, turning it from a national park owned by the Crown into a legal person who owns itself.

These concepts are not new for Māori; they’re expressions of long-held values and knowledge. What feels exciting and new to me is the realised integration of indigenous worldviews into legal structures that define the planetary impact of a modern nation. Because we have made these concepts real in Aotearoa, others around the world may follow.

The meaning of Manaakitanga

Sometimes translated as “hospitality”, this concept goes so much deeper. Māori Dictionary defines Manaakitanga as “the process of showing respect, generosity and care for others”. I’ve begun to understand it through watching Māori people put it into action.

The process of a pōwhiri on a marae is said to lift the tapu of manuhiri so that they become tangata whenua for the period of their stay. This is a concept I had heard before but hadn’t felt in my heart until the hui at Te Tii.

The feeling didn’t come immediately at the conclusion of the formal pōwhiri on the first day. It happened slowly, beginning with being invited into the wharekai to help serve dinner like a local. It grew through warm smiles and genuine conversations, and culminated in all of us being invited to sit on the tangata whenua side of that historic and symbolic wharenui to welcome speakers on the second day. When the full weight of that invitation hit me, tears came to my eyes.

Manaakitanga is the generosity of spirit that allows Māori to leave space for Pākehā and Tauiwi to become good Treaty partners. Despite it all, Māori are right there, keeping up their side of the agreement. Despite it all, they still believe in us.

Speakers at the hui referenced the fact that many iwi have graciously agreed to Waitangi Tribunal settlements representing less than 2% of the true value of what was stolen. The other 98% is Manaakitanga. I can only hope to demonstrate such magnanimity in my own lifetime.

No matter how much has been taken from them, many Māori are still willing to generously share their language, stories, culture—their taonga—with us.

We got to experience a haka at the marae on the Waitangi grounds.

The Gift and Challenge of Whakapapa

This is probably the biggest one for me.

I have found the Māori emphasis on whakapapa personally confronting. I’m a child of diaspora and family estrangement, who moved 20 times before finishing school, and became first a traveler and then an immigrant. I thought I would never have a deeply rooted identity or community. Wellington is the first place I’ve lived longer than two years in my whole life.

That mindset was challenged by coming Aotearoa New Zealand and committing to this place and its people. Many groups I’ve been part of here, influenced by Māori culture, practice self-introduction and self-discovery through whakapapa. I was repeatedly asked who my ancestors were, as a way to understand who I am. At first, I struggled to answer at all, deflecting or skirting around the issue, afraid to face it head on.

But the question didn’t go away. Over time, I was shown the deep importance of whakapapa. I began to understand why Māori see tupuna surrounding every person they meet. I began to process the personal impacts of being alienated from my own story. Finally admitting to myself that my avoidance of the issue was due to an unconscious fear of its power, I slowly gained awareness of loss and mourning for my own indigeneity, ancestral language, and family history.

When my mom came out to New Zealand for my wedding a few years ago, I sat her down with a voice recorder and asked her to draw the family tree with me. I undertook some of my own research and surfaced more of my own memories. I explored my own identity with renewed context.

As with every whakapapa, mine turned out to be a very long story.

So, I arrived at the hui with all this in mind. When we began a workshop about whakapapa, I was nervous about my turn coming around. I had gone from having no story to tell to having too much. Where do you even begin when the story starts about 6000 years ago? When the faces in the room turned my way, that was the question I asked.

Luckily my friend Josh Wharehinga was there with a perfect answer:

“You don’t owe anyone else the whole story of your whakapapa. But you owe it to yourself to know it.”

My direct family tree. I can’t figure out how to represent the full tree in only two dimensions.

Thanks to Māori teachings about whakapapa, I now know so much more about who I am. I don’t always tell the whole story, but I know it, and my children will know it.

I can now see the reverberations of historical and intergenerational trauma manifested in my whakapapa as broken people and broken relationships. This understanding has greatly increased my sense of empathy toward my imperfect family and my imperfect self.

At the same time, I’m the generation to finally break the trauma cycle. I have incredible privilege in my life, thanks to the strength and struggle of my tupuna, and my children will grow up in peace.

I am tangata tiriti, a person of the Treaty, which creates the very basis for my citizenship and presence on these islands. I am deeply proud to be defined by this inspiring document.

I am tauiwi, a non-Māori, non-Pākehā New Zealander. My iwi is full of incredible diversity yet all bonded together through connection to this land.

I am Jewish, the first I know of in my family line, possibly in 6000 years, to marry outside the tribe and have a mixed family. This has given me the opportunity to share my heritage and traditions with many friends and family who otherwise may never have encountered this culture at all. Through me, the story of my people continues to evolve and grow.

At the hui, my thinking was enriched by many other diverse whakapapa stories. As I began to see all the participants surrounded by their tupuna, I came to a realisation: to have the conversation about decolonisation and equity that we need to have as a society, we have to think, feel, and interact intergenerationally. We have to get all the tupuna talking to each other.

Connecting through whakapapa to your own intergenerational trauma is a direct line to empathy for the intergenerational impacts of colonialism. No matter what your New Zealand family story is, the trauma and privilege of your ancestors reverberates through time and shapes who you are. By understanding the context of their whakapapa, I can develop empathy even for racists, and through empathy all change is possible.

Teachings from the indigenous wisdom of my own people further drive this home for me. On Passover, the day of the year when we remember our slavery and liberation in Egypt and reflect on the ongoing struggle for liberation of all people, we don’t say “When they were slaves in Egypt”, we say “When I was a slave in Egypt”. In every generation we are obligated to understand that we ourselves endured slavery. It’s one continuous story.

In the hall of names:

When I went to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, as I stared at hundreds of faces that looked so much like my own, each telling a beautiful story brutally cut short, a voice resounded loudly inside me: It was me. I am them. Their lives are my story. Their story is my life.


The taonga I take forward

If there’s one essential idea I’m taking away from the whole hui experience, it’s that the Treaty of Waitangi is not something ‘for Māori’—it’s for all of us.

It defines our tūrangawaewae as Kiwis, in all our diversity. It challenges us to live up to our highest ideals as a society. It protects many unique, invaluable taonga for us all.

The Treaty itself can fit on a single page. It promises something very simple yet profound: we, as diverse, free, sovereign peoples, desire to live together in harmony and mutual respect.

Now it’s up to us to keep that promise. That aspiration, that potential for an equitable future, is why I am committed to this place. I’m so fortunate to live alongside Māori people, who generously share their taonga along the way. It’s these taonga that are going to take us where we need to go.

I’ll end with a quote from Tania Te Whenua, one of the tuakana at the hui, whose words have stayed with me:

“The past is not our fault, but the future is our choice.”


Te Reo Glossary

The Māori language is yet another incredible taonga, which has let me understand and communicate concepts I otherwise wouldn’t have words for. At the hui, when asked for a concrete way to be better Treaty partners, one speaker simply said, “Pronounce our language correctly”.

Pronunciation is a great start, but we can go further. Engage with the meanings of Māori words and use them in daily life. As with most Treaty provocations, it turns out to be hugely enriching for everyone who takes part.

  • Aotearoa—New Zealand, land of the the long white cloud
  • Hui — meeting, gathering, conference
  • Iwi — tribe
  • Kaitiaki — caretaker
  • Kaumātua — elder, person of status
  • Kōrero — discussion, speaking
  • Manuhiri — guests, outsiders
  • Marae — Māori community space and meeting place
  • Pākehā — white New Zealanders
  • Papatūānuku — mother Earth
  • Poroporoakī — formal closing ceremony
  • Pōwhiri — formal opening ceremony
  • Rangatira — chief, leader
  • Tamariki — children
  • Tangata whenua — people of the land, native people, Māori
  • Taonga — precious treasure
  • Tapu — set apart, other (in the context of manuhiri at a marae)
  • Tauiwi — non-Māori non-Pākehā New Zealanders
  • Te Ao Māori — the Māori world
  • Te Reo — the Māori language
  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi — the Treaty of Waitangi
  • Tuakana — mentor, older sibling
  • Tupuna — ancestor
  • Tūrangawaewae—place where one has the right to stand and belong
  • Whakapapa — genealogy, lineage
  • Whānau — family
  • Wharekai — kitchen
  • Wharenui — meeting house

Huge thank you again to the Asia New Zealand Foundation, Te Tii marae, and everyone who made the Te Ao Māori hui such an amazing experience.

Alanna Irving

Written by

Exploring bossless leadership, collaborative tech, and co-op systems — https://alanna.space

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade