Dr Ngāhuia Murphy: “There are things that we don’t know about ourselves because the stories about who we are have been censored and omitted from the record.” (Supplied)

Revolutionary doesn’t come close to describing the impact that Ngāhuia Murphy’s work is having on a generation of wāhine Māori.

As a kaupapa Māori, mana wahine researcher, and the author of two books (a third is on the way later this year), Ngāhuia’s work — most notably on menstruation practices in the precolonial Māori world — has done much to uncover the previously invisible histories and identities of Māori women that were “stolen from us through colonial processes”. She is reclaiming the stories and mātauranga of wāhine Māori, she says, because she’s “not prepared to leave wāhine stranded in the margins of history as second-class citizens”.

It’s all decolonising work — something she’s had lifelong training in, as she tells Maraea Rakuraku in this kōrero.


Kia ora e hoa. I want to talk about tino rangatiratanga and the work you do to uplift wāhine Māori as a mana wahine researcher.

It’s obvious to me that this is your calling — and also that this would’ve been nurtured by growing up with parents who were doing Te Pūmaomao decolonisation hui back in the 1980s and 1990s. It was really groundbreaking mahi, and they’re still doing it today, so there obviously remains a need, nē hā?

But let’s start with your whānau and your growing up. Your beginning times.

I was born in Rotorua in 1977, but I grew up in Taranaki.

Mum and Dad are teachers, and when I was a toddler, we left Murupara, in the rohe of Ngāti Manawa, and moved to Mōkau, on the border of Taranaki, where Mum and Dad took up positions at a two-teacher school. Dad was the principal.

Te Pūmaomao was born in Taranaki. It was a response to the racism and injustice in the education system, and to various tono and hīkoi in the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, there was the call for decolonisation wānanga that was laid down at the Hirangi hui in Tūrangi in 1995.

Mum and Dad are in their 70s now, and living in Te Arawa. And they’re still running the wānanga, more than 30 years later, still working full-time on the kaupapa. They’re kaupapa people!

That’s how Ēnoka, my older brother, and I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s. Dad would rock up to a town to run the wānanga, and people would hear that he was coming and they’d turn up at the marae with their tino rangatiratanga flags to greet him. Mum joined him on the road quite a few years ago. She’s a very courageous lady and a gifted, creative educator who backs Māori and our fight for justice.

Takawai and Chris Murphy have been leading decolonisation wānanga since the 1980s. (Photo supplied)

Your parents are amazing. Tell us more about them, and your tīpuna, too, please?

Dad is Takawai Murphy, the son of Te Marunui Murphy, who was the mayor of Murupara — the first Māori mayor in the country. He’s also the mokopuna of Kiekie, the Ngāti Manawa matriarch and major landholder.

Kiekie was the daughter of Hopaia who married Peita Kotuku from Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Haka Patuheuheu. When the sovereignty wars broke out in Taranaki in 1860, Koro Peita and his whānau crossed the border from Ngāti Maniapoto into Taranaki. They fought with Taranaki against the settler government.

Peita was a young man at the time, and Puketakauere was his first battle. From there, he went on to fight at Ōrākau in 1864, the last battle of the Waikato Wars, travelling with his Tūhoe whānau. He was struck by two bullets at that battle but they didn’t penetrate his clothes!

So he survived that battle and went on to be imprisoned on Rēkohu where he met Te Kooti. He became known as Te Kooti’s best shot and right-hand man, and outlived all of his fighting band. He rolled with Te Kooti for years and he didn’t put down his arms until he fell in love with our kuia Hopaia, the daughter of the Ngāti Manawa rangatira Peraniko.

Dad’s mother, Kuiwai Martha Tāhu, was born and bred in Waikaremoana. Her mum was Poi Taahu who has whakapapa to Maungapōhatu and Ruatāhuna through her mother Tītīhuia. Tītīhuia married the Norwegian whaler Charlie Twist, and they lived in Waikaremoana. Nanny Poi married Koro Te Hau “Windy” Taahu. His father was Wi Taahu, whose younger sisters were Ngāpera and Kiha.

My mum, Chris, has whakapapa to County Armagh in Ireland, as well as Cornwall and Spain. We also have Persian whakapapa. Her mum was Grace Hill, a fiery Irish descendant, who had a brother, Bill Hill, who was fluent in te reo and was a teacher in Murupara. Uncle Bill was the whāngai father of a lot of Māori boys in Murupara. Aunty May was their sister and she was also a kaiako (teacher) in Murupara.

So I come from a whānau of educators.

Ngahuia’s Nanny Tatiana and Aunty Wai, in Murupara. (Supplied)

Taranaki had a massive impact on your whānau, didn’t it? You mentioned that your tipuna Peita Kotuku took up arms with his whānau to stand with Taranaki. So I guess you could say the move to Taranaki was tipuna-driven, nē?

Āe. When we were growing up in Mōkau, we didn’t even know about our koroua Peita and his connection to Taranaki. So, it was amazing to find out that our relationship with Taranaki is old — and it continues through our lives, through our mahi, through our ongoing connections.

By the way, Koro Peita was interviewed as an old man by the historian James Cowan, and he talked in detail about the battle of Ōrākau. What’s cool is that he talked about the wāhine who were at that battle, who took up arms, who worked under fire. He talked about the tipuna wahine Rawinia from Ngāti Manawa who had the tip of her nose blown off by a shotgun shell. This is important because some historians have recorded that Ngāti Manawa weren’t there. But we were there. And Rawinia was there fighting alongside her husband, the Ngāti Manawa rangatira Takurua.

Then there was Ahumai Te Paerata, from Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Te Kohera, who was the one recorded as saying that, “if the men die, so too shall the women and children. Ka whawhai tonu mātou mo ake tonu atu.” She was riddled with bullets at that battle, yet she made it out alive.

There were three tohunga at that battle, and one was a wahine, Ahuriri. It’s amazing her name has been recorded because usually wāhine names and stories are left out of recorded histories.

That’s the politics of knowledge production — what gets recorded and what gets left out and what political imperative is served. Māori women’s stories have been relegated to the margins of history. There are things that we don’t know about ourselves because the stories about who we are have been censored and omitted from the record.

And it’s extraordinary that iwi histories record that it was Ahumai Te Paerata who said those words committing the women and children to die alongside their tribal brothers. It reflects the profound way that the women and the children fought shoulder to shoulder with the men for the whenua and our way of life.

Our tīpuna wāhine didn’t take up arms and fight to the death to be redefined as inferior a few generations later. We must never forget that our wāhine and tamariki fought for us. We wouldn’t be here without them.

We’ve lost so much of ourselves, our stories, our knowledge through colonisation. But just going back to Taranaki — what was happening there that led to your parents creating Te Pūmaomao? Why was Taranaki so significant for your family?

My whānau was really politicised in Taranaki. Taranaki at that time was a hotbed of political activism. There was a real community of amazing people there — they were organised and educated. Like Te Miringa Hohaia who was a Taranaki historian and a direct descendant of Te Ātiawa rangatira Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke. He had a profound influence on me.

There was also Ngaropi Cameron who set up Tū Tama Wāhine o Taranaki. And Aunty Marge, an important kuia in Taranaki. And Ruakere Hond, Mahinekura Reinfield, Te Ururoa Flavell and Riro Poike from Rapanui.

And there was the tohunga Huirangi Waikerepuru. He was beautiful. The last time I heard him speak, he talked about the importance of reclaiming our relationships with our kuia, the atua wāhine. He talked a lot about the way Christianity was used as a colonial weapon to subjugate our people.

Those teachings had a big impact on me and Enoka and our dad.

Dad used to have a popular talkback radio show in Taranaki, and every week he’d drop in these contentious kaupapa. Like, “Let’s ban Christian prayers on the marae, folks! Ring me and tell me what you think!” People would ring from across the country because the show was broadcast nationwide. It was a great medium to politicise our people and grow momentum in our movement for tino rangatiratanga.

So you and Ēnoka were fed on tino rangatiratanga and decolonisation kōrero at the dinner table, and exposed to a constant stream of thinkers and activists from te ao Māori?

Āe. We grew up in a very political household. And, of course, Ēnoka was fabulous. He put it all into practice. Like, when he was a teenager he went to a bank with a Māori cheque and insisted on cashing it. And they’d say: “No, you can’t do that. It’s got to be in English.” And he’d kick up a stink and Dad would be called, and it was great.

Te Miringa Hohaia, a Taranaki historian and a direct descendant of Te Ātiawa rangatira Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke, had a profound influence on Ngāhuia. (Photo supplied)

That would’ve been an unusual action back then. Did you ever have doubts, growing up in a household like that, when you were encountering the Pākehā world? Did you ever think: “Oh, this is too much going against the mainstream. This is too hard.”  

No, I didn’t. But I also didn’t believe that tino rangatiratanga was truly possible for us. I just couldn’t see how we could liberate ourselves from the cage.

When I was about 17 years old, I asked Te Miringa Hohaia if he’d be my pāpā because all my whānau had left Taranaki by then. Mum and Dad had moved back to Mataatua and Ēnoka was at Waikato University.

Anyway, Te Miringa said: “Āe.” He used to come and visit me every day at the rhododendron garden tearooms at Katikara where I was working — and the Pākehā staff would get nervous because he was in the paper all the time with his activism, blocking the roads to stop the milk tanker trucks, cutting fishing nets, and doing all kinds of wonderful stuff.

And, sure enough, we’re sitting out in the gardens, and Te Miringa tells me how this was a significant place for Te Whiti o Rongomai, the Parihaka prophet. And then he starts talking about occupying the gardens. And I thought to myself: “You know, if he does that, I know what side of the counter I’ll be on. I’ll be out in the garden with Pāpā Te Miringa.”

I asked him: “Do you think that we’ll achieve our tino rangatiratanga?”

And he said to me without any hesitation or doubt: “Absolutely.”

And from that point on, I never doubted it again. That was around 30 years ago, and my conviction has only got stronger. Our fight for liberation as Indigenous people in our own country is an intergenerational story. And we will never give up because we have right on our side.

I felt so proud when I saw that footage a few months ago of those rangatahi at Freyberg High School. The confidence. It’s like an unbreakable wave. We’re just getting stronger and stronger in our identity as tangata whenua.

But we must keep on our toes too because the last time we were this strong was in the 1990s, when we were fighting against the “fiscal envelope”. That’s the last time there was this incredible upswell, and the tino rangatiratanga movement was strong. There were noho occupations, demonstrations, activism, hīkoi all over the country. We were mobilising. We were cohesive.

(The fiscal envelope was the $1 billion cap set by the National government in 1994 to settle ALL historical Treaty claims — although the government’s own researchers estimated the true losses for Māori to be in the tens of billions. For example, Ngāi Tahu’s losses alone were estimated at around $16 billion. However, in 1998, Ngāi Tahu settled for $170 million. Tainui settled for the same amount in 1995.)

The fiscal envelope came out of nowhere — and our response to it was a unanimous NO. But, one by one, we bought into it.

Now we’re in a similar place. We’re very strong, but we need to keep an eye out for distractions. And we have to keep united, and have our vision on the future and on our mana motuhake. And just be careful of the way that our movement for liberation might be sabotaged by the settler government.

I think we need to remember too that our confidence and clarity today is because of the hard work and sacrifices of those of our people who took the frontline and said these kinds of things at a time when people hated them for it — including our own.

Has it taken a psychological toll being in the thick of the decolonisation fight all these years, and constantly entering those worlds where you’re coming up against the hostility and resistance to that mahi?

Some people talk about decolonisation and our fight for liberation as taumaha, a heavy weight. And it is. But some of my most incredible experiences of unity, of love, of connection with te ao wairua, with the tīpuna, with the uri whakaheke, have been on hīkoi.

Ēnoka and I would hitchhike to Waitangi every single year. It was a little pilgrimage, to represent our whānau. There’ve been times, on those hīkoi up to Waitangi, where I’ve felt the tīpuna were on the hīkoi with us — and I’ve felt the future generations rumbling beneath our feet. At those times, I feel connected to the past and to the future and to this extraordinary lineage of ours.

And I think what a great privilege it is for the story of my life, as humble as it is, to be woven into this grand intergenerational story of liberation. And what an honour it is for me to give my life, to give my talents and skills and my research work as a kaupapa Māori researcher, to this story, to the people.

“I grew up exposed to this odd kōrero that our tīpuna saw menstrual blood as paru, dirty. And I didn’t buy it.” Ngāhuia’s first book, Te Awa Atua: Menstruation in the precolonial Māori world.

Let’s talk now about the mahi you do as a mana wāhine researcher, especially the groundbreaking research you’ve done to uncover the truth about our traditional menstruation practices. Can you talk here about the path you’ve taken to arrive at what you’re doing now?

I’d dropped out of school when I was 16. Mucked around a bit. And then Ēnoka, who was teaching at Waikato University, said: “Come and learn te reo Māori.” So I jumped into Te Tohu Paetahi, a reo wānanga taught by him, Pania Papa, Tonga Karena, and others.

Then, I went into the Whare Tapere with Terry Crawford who explored contemporary Māori dance and waiata as a way to connect with the atua wāhine and tell their stories through sound and movement. This led to a master’s researching precolonial Māori understandings and attitudes to menstruation.

I grew up exposed to this odd kōrero that our tīpuna saw menstrual blood as paru, dirty. And I didn’t buy it, because it contradicts all of the significance placed on te whare tangata — this is our term for the womb, which is literally “the house of humanity”. I wondered how our tīpuna really saw the sacred monthly blood of wāhine, and if we had any tikanga, pūrākau or stories and ceremonies attached to it.

I discovered, through examining karakia, mōteatea iwi, navigational and cosmological stories and histories, that our tīpuna celebrated the arrival of te awa atua (menstruation in puberty) through a range of ceremonies such as pure makawe, piercing the ears, taking kauae moko, whānau hākari, and the gifting of taonga.

We also returned that blood to Papatūānuku in exactly the same way we return our whenua ki te whenua (our placenta back to the land). These are mother-blood rituals. All of the sacred blood and matter of the whare tangata returns to the mother Papatūānuku, binding us to her as the source of our sustenance.

Why did our tīpuna celebrate the blood through these kinds of rituals? Because the blood represents the continuation of whānau whakapapa. If there’s no blood, there’s no potential for uri (descendants).

Our whare tangata rituals were smashed to smithereens through the impacts of colonial Christianity, which demonises the sacred nature of wāhine as creators of life — and also through the raupatu (land confiscations). Because our ceremonies are land-based, if you take away the whenua, you disrupt the intergenerational ritual practices.

With whānau at her PhD graduation in 2019. From leftt: Paihuarere o Taikākā Wiringi-Murphy (her brother Ēnoka’s youngest), Pirimaia Tanczos (Ngāhuia’s eldest), Ngāhuia, Nandor Tanczos (Ngāhuia’s husband), their son Te Hau Tanczos, and Ēnoka. (Photo supplied)

In many ways, your work as a mana wāhine researcher was a continuation of that decolonisation mahi you’d grown up with.

Āe. I’d grown up with Te Pūmaomao and cultural reclamation kōrero, and I thought: “Well, what about wāhine Māori? Who are we?”

The truth is, colonisation has affected wāhine differently from tāne because it’s a patriarchal process. It has elevated our men to a superior status and recast wāhine as inferior and “spiritually polluting”. When Pākehācame here, that’s what they thought of women. To them, women were the property of men.

What must they have seen when they first encountered our tīpuna wāhine? Ariki. Tohunga. Rangatira. Fighters. Pākehā rewrote our histories and gave wāhine the bit parts.

I wonder what Ahumai Te Paerata would think of that? I wonder what my koroua Peita Kotuku, who fought shoulder to shoulder with women, would say to that? And my kuia Kiekie, who was a kaitiaki and landholder of a vast tract of whenua in Ngāti Manawa? What would she think of the degrading way Pākehā have redefined wāhinetanga?

The problem is that, over time, we’ve come to believe these colonial definitions. What they wrote has been reproduced, corrupting the balance in our relationships, in our world.

So my PhD and postdoctoral research has been about reclaiming mana wāhine histories, stories, ceremonies, knowledge and identities because these things have been stolen from us through colonial processes.

And my work as a mana wāhine researcher is about reclaiming the voices of our tīpuna kuia. I’m committed to restoring the knowledge that’s been stolen from us.

So, this is how I continue my parents’ legacy of Te Pūmaomao: through reclaiming the sacred knowledges of who we are as wāhine, to restore the balance destroyed by colonisation. Enoka teaches te reo Māori, I reclaim mātauranga wāhine.

The research I do is always motivated by the agenda of decolonisation and mana motuhake. I’m not prepared to leave wāhine stranded in the margins of history as second-class citizens when I know they led war parties, they led muru plundering parties.

They were tohunga, they were landholders, they were rangatira, they were ariki. They were beloved sisters and daughters. They were mothers and formidable grandmothers who kept the people safe. Warriors were sometimes known by the names of their mothers and grandmothers — and they sometimes named their weapons after them too.

Ngāhuia with Aunty Rangimarie Rose Pere, at Waikaremoana. “She was the fiercest person I ever met.” (Supplied)

As you said earlier, it’s about restoring balance?

Āe. It’s about working to restore balance and enable healing and empowerment for our people because we’ve been through a lot.

It’s about mana motuhake, tino rangatiratanga and moving beyond liberation as a people. It’s the kaupapa that my parents laid down with Te Pūmaomao. It’s the kaupapa that my whānau have given me. It’s decolonisation, it’s cultural reclamation.

You can’t go wrong if you’re pono (true) and you’re committed to all good things for the people. It’s like that beautiful line from John Trudell. He’s my all-time favourite poet. I got to meet his whānau when I was in Minnesota, just after he’d passed away in 2015. And in one of his poems, he said: “Share your life, so the people may live.”

It’s about sharing your skills and talents and abilities for the good of the people, for the collective. When you pursue your own heart, when you embrace your own uniqueness and the sweetness of your own heart, and give it up as an offering and service to the needs of the people — you can’t go wrong. That’s pono. Kia tika!

That was one of the main messages from my kuia Rangimarie Rose Pere: “Stand in your own mana, be true to yourself.”

She also said: “Embrace all of your whakapapa strands that make you uniquely who you are.” Because if you turn your back on some of your whakapapa strands, it will manifest itself in an illness in your body. That’s what she talked about. Embrace the uniqueness of who you are and stand in your own mana.

She was amazing, Aunty Rose. And she was fierce — she was the fiercest person I’ve ever met. She was so fearless. I learned a lot from her because I spent years with her.

What’s next for you, e hoa? I know you have your third book coming out later this year, but what’s after that?

Kei te haere tonu te kaupapa. It continues for me, for us, as wāhine. I’m just getting warmed up, e hoa! Creativity is where I’m moving to. Exploring different mediums to express myself.

The post-doctoral fellowship has been about composing mana wāhine ritual prose and reinterpreting, composing and performing. I intend to keep painting, singing, composing, writing and expressing my own creativity. After years of writing academically, I am adoring returning to write more creatively.

That’s thanks to my mum who taught me how to write, poetry especially. I was going to school with her when I was about three, and I would sit in her classroom. She taught me how to express my spirit through poetry, and about looking to the beauty in nature.

So I will continue to reclaim, reimagine and recreate mātauranga wāhine because that’s what I’m passionate about.

And I will continue to use my writing as a way to deepen my hononga, or connection, to specific atua wāhine and my own spirituality.

We’ll also be back to living simply on the whenua again this year. Enjoying fires on the whenua, growing a maara kai, keeping chickens and a few sheep. Living close to the whenua.

Cultivating wildness is important. It’s like Linda Tuhiwai Smith said: Keep the savage! Savage is someone who lives in the forest, who’s close to the wild energies of nature, to the mauri of the mother.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr Ngāhuia Murphy, of Ngāti Manawa, Ngāti Ruapani ki Waikaremoana, Ngāi Tūhoe, and Ngāti Kahungunu whakapapa, is a mana wahine researcher, storyteller, director and author of the books Te Awa Atua: Menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world, and Waiwhero: A celebration of womanhood. Her third book, Intuitive Ritual: A mana wahine sourcebook, is due to be released in October.

Ngāhuia is committed to decolonisation and cultural restoration through research, activism, theatre and the arts. Her research has inspired international Indigenous theatre productions, art works and short films.

She is a New Zealand Health Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow. In 2016, she was awarded the Sir Hugh Kawharu Auckland Museum Scholarship, and, in 2020, a Judith Binney Award. In 2022, she presented evidence for WAI 2700, the Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry.

Maraea Rakuraku is a poet, short-story writer and award-winning playwright, of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu whakapapa.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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