Karakia are cultural practices, but are they religious as well? Or just spiritual? And how exactly do we draw the line between the two? Māmari Stephens, a senior law lecturer at Victoria University, looks into a cultural can of worms.


My eye was drawn to a catchy headline thrown to me by my Facebook feed the other night: Karakia could fall foul of ban on Bible teaching in state schools.

Upon clicking, I discovered this from an AUT professor, Paul Moon: “Banning religious practices in schools may inevitably extend to removing karakia from schools as well.”

My first response was a swift stab of: “Oh, no you bloody don’t!”

Many, many Māori would have had their hackles raised at the mere prospect of state interference in what many consider to be primarily a cultural, rather than a religious, practice. I can’t think of a serious endeavour, or hui, in everyday Māori cultural life, where karakia don’t have some kind of presence, even if a muted one.

The most irreligious of Māori will often still take part in karakia. Would kids and teachers in kura kaupapa Māori, for example, really be faced with a ban on saying karakia? I wondered.

So why has this issue been raising its head — and not for the first time?

You may have missed it, but an important case was due to be heard in the High Court last month. Jeff McClintock, the father of a student at Red Beach school in Auckland, had filed a claim against the school for alleged failures of its duties under the Education Act 1989. He claimed his daughter had been subjected to discriminatory treatment after she opted out of Bible classes.

The matter morphed into a national issue and, by early April this year, the big guns were lined up to be joined as parties to either side of the action — including the Human Rights Commission, the Secular Education Network, and the Churches Education Commission.

Interest had been building over the past 18 months or so. Tensions were rising. And then — nothing. Mr McLintock failed to get some papers into the court on time, and the case was thrown out, its central claims left un-argued.

Despite this damp squib anticlimax, there may yet be some progress on this front, as an appeal has been lodged against the court’s decision.

So what is the connection between McClintock’s issue and karakia?

Well, it all depends on how we define karakia. Is it a religious practice or a cultural one? Or both? And how exactly do we draw the line between the two?

The Secular Education Network has confidently asserted that McClintock’s case (if it does get heard) would not result in the banning of Māori cultural practices. But there are a few building blocks that need to be put in place before we can agree with them.

First, let’s look at what we’re allowed to do in our public education system. According to section 77 of the Education Act 1964:

… every State primary school shall be kept open 5 days in each week for at least 4 hours each day, of which hours 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon shall be; and the teaching shall be entirely of a secular character.

So, our primary public education system is a secular one, and has been since the beginning of free, compulsory education in 1877. Separation of church and state, and all that. Except — when it may not be.

(Interestingly, though, secondary education need not be secular, and Boards of Trustees have discretion to allow non-discriminatory religious instruction under the Education Act 1989 — arguably a hangover from the days when education was not compulsory beyond the age of 13.)

Section 78 of the 1964 Act says that primary schools can close for short periods of time during the day:

… for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board and of religious observances conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board or for either of those purposes; and the school buildings may be used for those purposes or for either of them.

Which means religious instruction and religious observation can be carried out at secular primary schools during periods of agreed closure.

As an example, during lunch-times, schools are “closed” for instruction, and so are available for Bible classes as matters of religious instruction (teaching children what to believe, not teaching about religions). This is when the children who opt out might be set aside to read a book, or even wash dishes, or some other alternative activity.

Yes, opt out. Under section 79(1), children may opt out of any such instruction, as long as their parents or guardians request this, in writing, of the school. Not opt-in, where parents or guardians request in writing that their children “sign up” for such instruction.

Ah. You see, this system also applies to religious observation, not just instruction. And that’s where we have to look more closely at what karakia may, or may not, be. Because, if karakia count as religious observation under section 78, then schools need to “close” during the day in order to allow its observation, and parents have to notify their schools in writing if they wish their children not to take part in karakia.

And, if a case such as McClintock’s succeeds in prompting law change, for example changing opt out to opt in, then religious observation would be included, and parents and guardians would need to write in for their children to be able to participate in religious observation. IF karakia can indeed be called that.

To say that such a change could, at the very least, have a chilling effect on cultural practices would not, to my mind, be scaremongering. A ban would not be technically correct, but it wouldn’t have to be.

So we have to grapple with this question: what the heck are karakia anyway?

There is no doubt that sometimes prayers occur in New Zealand primary schools that are Christian in nature, but that are called karakia (and sometimes called īnoi).

As I said, we’ve been down this track before. Three years ago, some staff at Kelston Intermediate in Auckland were unhappy about being asked to lead pupils in daily karakia, and complained to their union.

At the same time, not far away in Avondale, as the Herald reported, children from Rosebank primary school’s Māori bilingual unit were leading pupils and staff “in daily prayer, a tradition stretching back two decades in a school that is a melting pot of race and creed”.

Principal Heather Bell says beginning the day this way brings a sense of grounding to the school and creates a sense of belonging.

Translated, the brief Maori prayer penned by the school’s kaiarahi reo or Maori language assistant, says: “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.”

Some, perhaps many, Māori will say that such prayers are not, in fact, karakia at all. Ngaire McCarthy is a keen proponent of the view that karakia have been co-opted by Christianity, and that at their traditional core, karakia are in no way religious. She argued in Sciblogs that:

The traditional karakia that is used to open and close ceremonies is not a Christian prayer, it is a ritual chant, a set form of words to state or make effective a ritual activity. Karakia are recited rapidly using traditional language, symbols and structures.

The early missionaries saw Maori traditions through a Biblical framework and believed that karakia was always a prayer, so they took the word and reinterpreted it to mean Christian prayer. The word karakia then became just another tool of colonisation.

If the few kaumatua (elderly Maori) who articulate the karakia, are Christian, they will continue to misrepresent our customary karakia. This puts them into direct conflict with our pre-colonisation customary traditions.

According to 19th century sources, karakia were used to ensure correctness of process, to mark transitions, to ensure safety (among many other things). Te Mātāpunenga defines karakia as:

A set form of words to state, confirm or make effective the intent of a ritual activity, and the reciting of these words, thus often translated by terms such as “incantation”, “charm”, or “spell”. In modern usage the term has been extended to include Christian and other religious services (for example, a church is often referred to as a whare karakia). In traditional ritual activity strict adherence to the proper the form of the karakia was essential; hesitation, mispronunciation or omissions in its recitation could negate or reverse its intended effects and bring harm to those involved. The word is Proto-Tahitic in origin, with similar meanings in Tuamotuan, Rarotongan and Māori.

On one view then, karakia are cultural ritual without religion, and ought to be entirely safe for use within the primary school environment. On this view, culturally bastardised prayers are masquerading as karakia, and fall foul of the law.

I really question this dualistic approach to understanding karakia. For one thing, the moment any traditional karakia envisages or acknowledges any power or entity outside of the human experience, that karakia takes on a spiritual dimension. It then becomes a matter of definitional point-scoring to determine when matters spiritual shade into matters religious.

The presumption that Māori traditionally had no religion sometimes stemmed from ethnologists and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, who assumed that Māori practices — lacking temples and, in most cases, reference to a supreme being — could not be regarded as “true religion”.

This attitude smacks of a similar insistence that Māori law could not be “true law” because there were no courts or parliament.

The extent to which Māori religion remains in modern New Zealand, is an open and fascinating question.

The courts in New Zealand and Canada have had to consider what counts as “religion”, as Fiona Wright identified in the New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law in 2007:

Australian and New Zealand courts have said that religion involves belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle as well as canons of conduct that give effect to that belief … Canadian courts have described religion as a “particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship” combined with “belief in a divine, superhuman or controlling power” [..] In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.

So, depending on your definition of religion, karakia can be defined as religious observations for the purposes of the Education Act 1964.

Or, depending on your definition of religion, karakia are not religious and won’t count for the purposes of the Act.

On either reading, karakia are still cultural practices.

If the McClintock case ever does get argued, and, if restrictions do end up being placed on religious instruction in primary schools — to protect secular education, and to uphold the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (upheld in the New Zealand Bill Of Rights Act, s13) — Māori cultural rights (protected under s20 of that same Act) will most definitely be under threat.

And, if that threat becomes reality, I wonder about implementation.

Who will put their hand up for the job of karakia police, patrolling schools and kura, watching and listening for karakia and those code words in Māori that sound suspiciously religious (depending on which official is defining “religion” that day), and therefore must face strict control — and those that sound merely “cultural”, and can be left alone?

After all that, I think I’m back to my old gut instinct: “Oh, no you bloody don’t!”


© e-tangata, 2016

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