He aha e te reira tikanga ki te e Māori (what does it mean to be Māori)?

by January 13, 2014

The Putangitangi model. Davis et al (1993) The Putangitangi model. Davis et al (1993)

"Ahau tuturu me Maori? E to tetahi ki te whai i te tikanga o tetahi o te iwi? E me i tetahi orau ki te whakawhiti i te paepae i runga i te rahi te toto ki te e 'legit’? E me i ki hei i runga i te rohe poti Maori?"

"Am I a real Maori? Does one have to follow the customs of one’s people? Do I need a certain percentage to cross the threshold on a blood quantum to be 'legit’? Do I need to be on the Maori electorate?"

The notion of whakapapa (genealogy) is a great foundation for Maori identity, but it needs to be broadened. Land, language and family connections are core pillars of most indigenous cultures (Maori included) but they shouldn’t exist as the be-all and end-all in deciding who is in and who isn’t. In light of the different traditional models of whakapapa (taotahi, whakamoe, tararere, tahu, whakapiri, hikohiko) there needs to be a more 'progressive’ enactment---one in which someone who doesn’t breathe the language like air or who doesn’t have ongoing connections with their marae or who are only 1/32, can still hold their heads high and be proud to be tangata whenua (people of the land) – as well as having the social norms to affirm their identity.

In a simplistic way, whakapapa should be the acknowledgment of blood – whakapapa rite ki te mihi o te toto. There is a false societal dichotomy that silhouettes Maori identity and all its connotations, and I think that to a certain degree Iwitanga (tribalism) over the past 40 years has aided the awkward identity crisis of being Maori (whether consciously or by merely playing the politics outlined by the New Zealand government). Indeed Te Rito (2007) discloses that if people in cities lose their whakapapa connections with their traditional papakainga (village) they can be left in identity limbo within the metropolitan lifestyle. The notion of kanohi kitea (being seen) or being in appearance at "local marae or community gatherings is as all-important now as ever it was" (Te Rito, p. 4).

It seems, though, some have forgotten that after World War 2 there was mass urbanization of Maori moving away from their stomping grounds and into the cities. Yet, in light of the past 60-odd years of urban migration, some people hold onto the 'ideal' that to be Maori is to be strongly tribal. Sure, places like Te Whanau o Waipareira are great modern day tribal hubs for families in the cities, but there is still a strong ideological chasm that pits 'tribal Maori’ as unequivocally indigenous and Maori that aren’t 'tribally rooted' as kiwi. This is why there needs to be a revamp of what Maori genealogy means and how it is implemented as an indigenous theory of identity.

Kia toto te timatanga o te haere ahurea – blood should be the beginning of a personal cultural journey. If blood is used as the cornerstone of Maori identity than everything else that is culturally treasured – land, language and tribal connections – will become symbols of indigenous diversity and strength rather than pillars of exclusive inclusivity. That is not to say land rights and the preservation of languages aren’t important to indigenous self-determination and identity, but rather blood should be the common denominator that 'legitimizes’ Maori-ness – if someone has a drop of Maori blood than their indigeneity should be acknowledged. This blood salutation isn’t trying to radically individualize indigenous genealogical practices (that would be assisting colonial customs like the commodification of Native Land Titles). Rather it’s a broadening of indigenous identity in order to welcome those that feel rejected by both their Maori ancestry and the dominant colonial culture. Preserving the language, standing up for land rights and making tribal connections are results of this journey of indigeneity, and although individuals should strive to strengthen these areas, the threefold crux of indigenous meaning shouldn’t be used as points of subjective exclusion.

There are stark cultural differences within Maoridom, and that’s not a bad thing. Over the past 60 years the Maori indigenous culture has become more and more intra-cultural. Davis, et al (1993) created a counselling template, the Putangitangi model, for culturally competent psychotherapy with Maori clients. The Paradise duck or Putangitangi is an indigenous bird of Aotearoa New Zealand, and its four different habitats (river, sky, land and sea) metaphorically correspond to four quadrants of indigeneity – the vertical axis denotes the strength of the dominant culture upon a person’s identity, and the horizontal axis represents "the strength of their ethnic identity" (1993, p. 2). Racial stereotypes run both ways, the social labels created by the dominant culture for indigenous people are a given – criminals, state beneficiaries, savages, uneducated, poor, etc. – but seldom is there acknowledgement of racial stereotypes 'within’ indigenous cultures. Although the Putangitangi model is a counselling guideline, it can be used to extend cultural empathy for indigenous diversity within Maoridom:

  • Sky (dominant culture) – some people have been extensively influenced by colonial social norms and western culture. Their indigenous cultural background has been marginalized throughout their personal formation.
  • Land (traditional indigenous culture) – some people stand strong on their traditional customs and practices. The dominant culture has had little impact on their identity development.
  • River (Bi-cultural culture) – some people have been distinctly influenced by both the dominant culture and their indigenous traditions. They are accepted easily in both worlds.
  • Sea (Urbanized culture) – for some people the dominant culture has had little influence except to exclude their experience. But neither do they have robust connections to their traditional culture. "Who they are has been formed by marginal influences from both cultures...they may fear rejection from both directions" (1993, p. 3).

Indigenous identity and genealogical customs need to adapt to acknowledge heavily urbanized Maori, who feel marginalized by the dominant culture as well as their indigenous heritage. The Putangitangi model encourages counsellors to affirm Maori wherever they are, whatever "habitat is home for them right now" (1993, p. 4). Having the knowledge that indigenous identity is becoming more and more intra-cultural is pivotal in building customs and practices that affirm whakapapa as the acknowledgment of blood. Sure, there are a few practical issues to get past, like the identification of who gets Indigenous University Scholarships, but the social order needs to adapt rather than leaving that weight upon the shoulders of the marginalized. Treaty Settlements have been a great source of government recompense for colonial atrocities, but in the process it has created a distinct identity of who is Maori and who isn’t. In light of the social barriers that might hinder someone being included in their tribe (especially the corporate branches of Iwi and Hapu), there has arisen not only a financial gap but also a cultural gap between the distinct identities within Maoridom. Blood should be the common denominator that links all indigenous people together, no matter what habitat they are in at this very moment, in the hope that all aspire to preserve the threefold crux of indigeneity – land, language, and tribal connections.


Davies, S., Elkington, A., & Winslade, J. (1993). Putangitangi: a model for understanding the implications of Maori intra-cultural differences for helping strategies. New Zealand Association of Counsellors Journal, 15(2): 2-6.

Te Rito, J. S. (2007). Whakapapa: a framework for understanding identity. MAI Review, 2: 1-10.