When a whale is stranded or washed up on a beach, the call often goes out to Ngātiwai in Whangārei. The iwi is widely respected for its expertise in the tikanga of whale recovery, led by tohunga Hōri Parata.
Hōri, his son Te Kaurinui, and others from Ngātiwai were recently called out to Wharekaho in the Coromandel following the beaching of a large sperm whale.
In this conversation with Connie Buchanan, Te Kaurinui Parata explains what the mahi involves. (Photos by Te Rawhitiroa Bosch/Rawhitiroa Photography.)
How can I talk about something that’s so big? You want to put enough kōrero out there to help create understanding, to give information to help enlighten people who are unfamiliar with what we do.
But you don’t want to give so much that it can be misinterpreted or misappropriated. We need to maintain the tapu of the work. That’s a big thing for me. How do we recognise, respect, and maintain the sanctity and dignity of these tuākana, these whales who are our elders?
Ngātiwai have a whale-stranding protocol that acts as a permit for us to culturally harvest taonga from the tuākana that get stranded in our rohe. Things like their bones, teeth, and oil.
Whaea Rāmari Stewart was instrumental in the development of that protocol, along with many others who were working with the Ngātiwai resource management unit in the 1990s and early 2000s. I’ve been told, though, that our people were practising this tikanga long before we needed a permit. Apparently, one of our tūpuna was doing these things at least 15 generations back.
We get at least one stranding a year on our turf here in Whangārei. Then other hapū and iwi also ask us to go help them with their strandings. We only go if the mana i te whenua send a tono for us to come. We offer our own tikanga if they need it, and our aim is to reclaim and renew the practice for them, based off the local mātauranga tuku iho about kaitiaki, pepeha and whakapapa.
Our understanding is that the whales are our tuākana, our elders created long before us. You’ll have read or heard the stories — there are multiple versions around — about how whales were gifted by Tāne to Tangaroa. Then, when our tuākana have finished their time with Tangaroa, they begin their journey back to the place they were created.
It’s for us, as their tēina, to recognise, respect and maintain these relationships. When they return, we honour the gifts from our gods and those from our tuākana.
There’ve been so many strandings over the years that Dad and the Ngātiwai resource management unit have been involved in. Dad reckons we’ve worked with over 500 whales and cetaceans since I was born.
I’m 25 years old, and I was named after a whale that was named after a tree. Dad says he was looking for a kauri log for a waka for Ngātiwai when a Bryde’s whale got stranded near the Whangārei heads. Dad said that it looked like the long trunk of a kauri tree, so he named the whale Kaurinui. Mum was pregnant at the time, and it was decided that, when I was born, I’d be called Te Kaurinui in recognition of what happened.
By the time I was two, I was being taken along by Dad to wherever the kaupapa was. Half the time, I didn’t know where I was, and I liked that. There was always something new to see and different places to explore. I just got to be a kid on those trips.
It usually starts with a phone call, telling us that a whale has turned up on a beach somewhere. If it’s in our rohe, we go to check the place out and assess what the situation is. If it’s in another iwi’s rohe, then we wait for the call from the mana i te whenua.
Our kaumātua and kuia determine the tikanga. The first thing we do is have a whakatau and wānanga with the hau kāinga to understand what they want to achieve. We need the people who know that beach, know those tides, know the whenua and local tikanga. The plan is affirmed in these cultural procedures to move ahead, confident that we’re doing the right thing according to the wishes of hau kāinga.
It’s so important that we recognise the hau kāinga of the place where the whale has been stranded, as they have every right to do what they want with them once they’ve died.
Right before any work is carried out, karakia and takutaku are used to claim the whale and whakawātea (clear) the space for what we need to do.
The emotional part, the taha wairua stuff, comes to me when I’m actually there — when I meet the tuākana and acknowledge them as they are. I can’t mihi to them when I’m 500 kilometres away.
There are many roles to be played, and the completion of the mahi is heavily dependent on all these roles being fulfilled. Roles that are tapu and likely to be contaminated in our work involve sharpening, cutting and pulling.
Then we have medics who are noa, and they have many responsibilities. They are the in-betweeners — they maintain the tapu, wairua and wellbeing of everyone. We have renderers and resource specialists to process taonga. Importantly, all our gear has to be clean and accounted for before and after each stranding. Then there’s kai and accommodation to consider for everyone.
We don’t get paid for the mahi of the whales. It’s all tikanga. It’s not a commercial operation. We’re not motivated by money. We’re motivated by the mana. We’re there to honour the atua and the tuākana according to our cultural traditions.
We’ve just finished with a parāoa, a sperm whale, at Wharekaho in Coromandel.
It was Ngāti Hei who called us. We travelled there on a Wednesday, and it was my first time driving over that beautiful mountain range. There were little rocks that had fallen from the mountain, and it was a sign for us to just slow down, to navigate carefully. The next sign was the light rain that came from the sky. It was a really light mist that kept the dust down and off our vehicles. That tiny rain was also perfect for doing the work. It kind of cleansed the air.
When we got to the local papakāinga, there was a whakatau with Ngāti Hei, the Department of Conservation, and some of the local community, to acknowledge each other and the situation we were in.
On the beach itself, the conditions, the māramataka, everything was just running smoothly. Everything lined up. It was a beautiful, beautiful place.
Our goal was to harvest and preserve as much taonga as we could from the parāoa, who was named Puhiwai-Rangi. We wanted to leave everything on the beach looking like nothing even happened. No mess, no nothing. It took us until Friday morning to finish that work, pack up and return home.
For me, this mahi brings such a feeling of accomplishment. It’s like watching the Black Ferns win. The thing that we wanted to achieve was so big that we couldn’t have done it alone. Just like rugby, kapa haka, or an opera, it’s a kaupapa that requires many people to achieve the goal. That’s so empowering and reassuring.
In these sorts of situations, you can carry tons. You can shout beyond your own decibels. You can see beyond your own sight. Hear beyond your own ears. The huge thing we set out to achieve is achieved because of every single person who was there to lend their mana. That’s the sense of accomplishment.
That’s why I see the whale as rangatira, because they attract the people to come together to do the work that needs to be done, to honour the atua.
Sometimes, I wish it was just as easy to attract whānau to come back to the whenua to do other mahi — in our māra, or to aid our native ngāhere, or clean up pollution. The type of mahi that might not be as spectacular as flensing a whale but is equally as important.
There’s just so much mahi that needs doing for our environment and our ngāhere. Smashing invasive weeds and pests. Replanting natives. All of that is so important and just as hard to sustain financially. It’s been tough for me realising that we’ll always have to apply for funding to pursue that environmental work and to sustain our cultural practices that go with it.
Meanwhile, the tides are getting higher. We’re trying to maintain and build our dunes but then a king tide will come and takes it all out. I get scared that maybe we’re too late. That kind of thinking gets me in a dark place.
So, I focus on the things that are in my control. I think about the work that I’m doing to contribute to the rebuild of our environment, the plantings to sequester carbon — that stuff. I want to keep caring. To keep giving energy to the things that can be done.
The whole time we’re doing that other mahi, we’re response-ready for our tuākana, our whales. We need to be ready to drop everything, ready to leave that night.
When I get the call that there’s a stranding, it’s like a big ball being thrown at me. I don’t know how heavy it is. But I know I’m ready to catch it.
As told to Connie Buchanan, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Te Kaurinui Parata of Ngātiwai lives in Whangārei with his partner and son, where he works as a carver at Hihiaua Cultural Centre, and for Aki Tai Here in environmental restoration.
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