Toko Toru Tapu church at Wainui with the Ngātotoiti urupā to the left. (Photo supplied)

Iwi Māori must keep our hapū strong, writes Tainui Stephens. Each voice in this diverse chorus isn’t just sweet and precious — it’s powerful too.


When I walk into Ngātotoiti, our hapū cemetery in Ahipara, I always expect to see the headstones and temporary wooden crosses of people older than me. But I have a special tangi for those who died younger than I am now, and who I once knew. Especially my cousins. We hung out briefly in our 20s and then the decades slipped by.

More than 80 percent of Te Rarawa iwi live outside our tribal rohe. We live scattered lives and, if we’re fortunate, we get home to connect once again.

When we return, we don’t go home to the tribe. We go home to the hapū. Any hapū is a collection of whānau linked by a common ancestor or history. Way back in the day, the hapū was the main political unit of Māori society. To understand hapū dynamics is to gain insight into ways to achieve co-operation in any Māori undertaking.

My hapū are Ngāti Moetonga and Te Rokekā. Our home marae is at Wainui Junction, Ahipara.

It’s in a tiny settlement near the Herekino turnoff, up a gravel road in a valley surrounded by our maunga. Over to the right, between the peaks of Mongeroa and Rangituhituhi, there’s a gap like a giant “V”. It’s said that the spirits of the dead come through that gap and travel along the ridge of peaks leading to Whangatauatia at the southern end of Te One Roa a Tōhe.

They descend and then travel along that mighty 90-kilometre beach to Te Rerenga Wairua. It’s a typical fun thing in Far Northern oratory to refer to the various types of toll gates through which the spirits of our kin from the south must pass.

On the left of the Wainui Church Road is the lovingly restored Moetonga whare, and its Te Rokekā waharoa. Further up is our urupā and the Toko Toru Tapu church. The sturdy building is new and the result of a determination to replace the old wooden church that had blown down in a storm in the early 1960s.

The ruined building’s pews had gone to the Rātana church in Roma Rd. The bell went to St Clements at Pukemiro. The wood in the walls became the roof of a refurbished Te Ōhākī tūpuna whare, opened in 1968. These Ngāti Moetonga gifts from all those decades ago help cement community relationships and decision-making.

Wainui. Ngātotoiti urupā is on the left. (Photo supplied)

Wainui Native Settlement in 1902. (Photo: Northwood_Auckland Weekly News, April 3, 1902)

Ngāti Moetonga is now redefining itself to meet modern expectations, and to empower the hapū. We do that with respect for our kaumātua and for the tikanga they left us. We’re blessed that we have committed whānau members who keep the fires of home alive. They run the marae, the monthly church services, and tend to our urupā.

They’ve spent years nourishing a vision for our people and arranged a recent series of hapū hui in Auckland and Hamilton. Our final hui was a wānanga back home. A time to make decisions.

During a moving pōwhiri, the young people and their elders played their roles in karanga, karakia and whaikōrero. I choked up and lost my singing voice listening to the waiata and hymns. The various harmonies spookily became those that were sung by the old people of my youth.

After many hugs and hongi, we had a “potluck kai”. All I can say is that we were lucky to have such stunning pots. After struggling through piles of outrageously good food, we got down to business. We needed to get the hui’s agreement on the plans offered by our hapū committee.

As a body of connected whānau, we witnessed the unfolding of a dream for the marae complex. The planning, compliance, and paperwork for such an endeavour is huge. The diligent work of the committee was apparent to all. Hard copies of resolutions were placed on the walls, and everyone got post-it notes to make their comments. We started with the big picture.

Ngāti Moetonga hapū in a wānanga on the weekend before Anzac Day. (Photo supplied)

Whaea Marty presents the strategic overview.

Our kuia, Aunty Marty, small of stature, with a beautiful moko kauae, led us through a clear and personable overview of the committee’s strategy. She deftly wove a tactical template of leadership, governance, equivalency in partnerships with Pākehā, and the exercise of mana motuhake through an expressed autonomy. Most of all she urged our active engagement and participation as Ngāti Moetonga Te Rokekā.

She sealed the deal with the simple and meaningful vision statement:

Ngā whānau o Ngāti Moetonga Te Rokekā. Hei taumanu, hei whakawhanake te hononga o ngā whānau ki ngā marae, ki ngā urupā, ki ngā wharekai, ki te whenua, ki te reo Māori me ōna tikanga anō hoki.

Ngā whānau o Ngāti Moetonga Te Rokekā. Reclaim and reassert hapūtanga by reconnecting whānau to marae, to urupā, to wharekai, to whenua, to te reo me ōna tikanga.

Wow! Okay. I’m in. Sign me up. Like magic, Fleur the treasurer goes around getting people to take photos on their phones of the bank account details for contributions. The cost of four coffees per week, donated regularly, goes a long way to help out.

Danny, the marae chairman, takes us through the detailed plans for the proposed wharekai and wharepaku. We cracked up as he spoke of the challenge to reconcile the disparate opinions of women who are experts in their kitchen domain. Masterful negotiation was required to forge an agreement about the layout of the workspaces, and where the doors went.

As we considered the future of our hapū and what we could do to help, a survey was taken of the impressive range of personal and professional skills in the room. Flagrant advantage was taken of Sean, a Pākehā architect who’d married into the hapū. He was immediately drawn outside into a mini hui to design an external mattress room for the whare. Everyone has something to offer.

And everyone has a place in our whakapapa. The core mahi of our wānanga was to be guided by reo and tikanga to explore our links with each other and our history. We discussed our shared lines of descent and learned how to use them in speech. Our understanding of ourselves grew with all the stories that go with those many layers of names, of time, of existence.

Our gently insistent Whaea Lisa then split us into three whānau groups for a creative workshop. Each whānau had to preserve what we were learning by writing a waiata on the spot. We had one hour.


Mea ake rā. “Time’s up! What’ve you got?”

And what we’d got was great. We had enough knowledge, language, and kapa haka chops among us all to come up with three terrific waiata.

The waiata competition. “We had enough knowledge, language, and kapa haka chops among us all to come up with three terrific waiata.” (Photo supplied)

On the last day, Matua Chris, who was our low-key hilarious MC, led the hapū in karakia at Toko Toru Tapu. Afterwards, everyone walked through the Ngātotoiti urupā reviving memories of the beloved and the familiar. In the quietness of moments with our dead, we learn to reconcile life’s failings, joys, and hopes to be better. And thanks to our wānanga, new names offered new stories to cherish.

A hapū has a place in its heart and mind (and on its merch) for its tribal sayings. These short pepeha are often cryptic and open to interpretation. They describe something about the character of the people. It’s one hapū identity marker among many.

Mereana Kerehoma was a kūia who guided me in my early learning about mihimihi and tikanga. She was a deep reservoir of knowledge and guardian of the considerable cultural legacy of her late husband Rarawa Kerehoma (Pat Graham).

I can still hear her quiet, wheezy voice sharing the meaning of the hapū pepeha “Moetonga Whakakawa Kai”. She said that, many generations back, our hapū ancestress Moetonga was a famous and formidable leader.

Moetonga made a ritual (whakakawa) out of ensuring that she and her people woke up early to put the hāngi down and prepare the kai. It was a sign of being ready for anything before everyone else, as much as a sign of hospitality.

My kūia added that she viewed Ngāti Moetonga as being generous and hard workers who enjoyed a good time, and that Te Rokekā provided skills in the arts of whaikōrero and whakapapa.

I used to attend a wānanga with Te Māhurehure kaumātua Hare Tāwhai. We met weekly at Te Puea marae in Māngere. The lights went out and he would lead us in kōrero and karakia. When I explained Aunty Mereana’s interpretation of our Ngāti Moetonga pepeha, his deep sonorous voice offered an alternative.

At one time, Moetonga had married the great northern ancestor Rāhiri. But she was unable to conceive a child. Rāhiri then wed Moetonga’s younger sister Whakaruru, who soon became pregnant.

Moetonga wasn’t happy and used the lesser status of her sister to fling an insult. She said to Whakaruru: “E pai ana. E taku teina, kei a koe tā tāua tāne.” (It’s all good. Since you’re already second-best, you can have him.) In other words, Moetonga was kawa (bitter) towards the kai (fruit) inside the belly of her junior sibling: Moetonga whakakawa kai.

Ahipara chief Haami Piripi feels Hare’s version rings true. So do I. And I also believe Aunty Mereana’s version. That was her truth. She’d seen the evidence in the character of the people over a long lifetime with them.

And so it is today. I see many wāhine like Chanel, Michelle, Ellen and Pearl leading our hapū journey into the future — with super capable tāne like Noble, Robert, Stephen, and Te Ariki beside them — among so many others. Tēnā rawa atu koutou katoa.

In her time, and at a great age, Mereana Kerehoma spoke of our hapū as descending from female leadership that was always one step ahead. In this time, and at an equally great age, our Pāpā Rev Eru Harawira speaks of our hapū as descending from the lofty mountains of our home, and the rivers that flow from them. And that we of Moetonga and Te Rokekā are as one with Te Rarawa, the descendants of Tūmoana tangata and Tinana waka.

Ngāti Moetonga wānanga. (Photo supplied)

On the weekend before Anzac, we went home to wānanga. We did so as a hapū with ancestors in common who we recall with love. At whatever age you pass, you become an ancestor yourself, a tūpuna. It’s what happens. And, if your bones come to lie at Ngātotoiti, you too will be remembered when the people gather.

I now see the children of my cousins for whom the ahi kā burns bright. They bring their smart thinking and full hearts to the expectations and unsaid dreams of their mums and dads and nannies and koros who lie up the road. Moe mai rā e tōku rahinga, nau mai rā e te iti mā. Nō koutou te wā.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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