Kerri Opai, author of Tikanga: An introduction to te ao Māori. (Photo: Tania Niwa)

“The Māori world is, in fact, a Māori universe with all of the subtleties, idiosyncrasies and nuances of any culture,” writes Keri Opai in his new book Tikanga: An introduction to te ao Māori.

Keri is a linguist and teacher, and in this beginner’s guide, he shares some of the knowledge he’s learned from a lifetime of learning at the feet of his Taranaki kaumātua — answering some common questions along the way. Like, what kind of pepeha is appropriate for those who aren’t Māori? Why shouldn’t you sit on tables? Where do manuhiri speak before the tangata whenua? 

Here are a few snippets from Tikanga.


At the end of my teens, I was a kaiako at a kōhanga reo (“language nest”) in Whanganui. Kaiako is a teacher, derived from the word “ako” which means to both teach and to learn. This hints at the reciprocal nature of teaching and a philosophy of a lifelong commitment to learning and being curious about the world. As the whakataukī states: “Kāore he mutunga o tēnei mea, te ako” — “There is no such thing as an ending to learning.”

I made many long-standing relationships there in Whanganui, including time with knowledgeable people and elders, so it will always have a place in my heart. There is a close relationship between Taranaki and Whanganui and our dialectal variation of the “h” replaced with a glottal stop is cherished and brings us closer together. 

During a tangihanga (Māori funeral) on a marae up the Whanganui River, we waited for the manuhiri (guests) to arrive. Eventually they did, and after the traditional exchange of calls of welcome and response delivered by the kuia (female elders), everyone sat down to await the speeches (see the more detailed explanation of the pōwhiri process below). 

A couple of minutes ticked by while speakers gathered themselves and prepared to speak. Nothing unusual about that. Then another few minutes, and another. Eventually 10 minutes had passed with no one standing to speak. This was very unusual. What had happened? Why wasn’t anyone saying anything? 

Finally, after these 10 agonising minutes of silence, confusion and apprehension, the elders on the local Whanganui side indicated with a hand gesture for the manuhiri to start the speeches. And amidst uncertainty and unease, the first speaker stood to deliver his speech of farewell. 

The long delay had been a lesson for the manuhiri. In Whanganui there is a tikanga, a protocol, called, unsurprisingly, tikanga Whanganui. This tikanga is unique in my experience. It is that in Whanganui, at a tangihanga, the manuhiri speak first. 

The lesson had been that the manuhiri had not “done their homework” and found out what the tikanga was in this part of the Māori world. The guest speakers had been waiting for the local speakers to stand up and speak first as is the common custom among most iwi. The local elders in full cognisance of the guests’ confusion had just waited patiently for them to start, eventually putting them out of their misery by indicating for the manuhiri to start the procedures. 

I guarantee that no one of the manuhiri guest party ever made that mistake again. 

The point of me recalling that experience to you is to emphasise that fact that Māori people, hapū, iwi and even Māori organisations are not homogeneous. There is no one size fits all. 

Of course, there are some shared principles and values like manaakitanga (to look after, tend, foster, extend hospitality) and aroha (love, compassion, sympathy, empathy), but it is important to be aware that there are many variations of tikanga throughout the motu (nation). What is clearly understood and normal in one region may be totally different in another. 

There are even variations among iwi, hapū and sometimes whānau. 


What exactly is a kaumātua? How does one become one? Is it dependent on age? 

Leading means different things to different people/ iwi/rohe, but people who “do” are respected more. One of the realities that some regions have to deal with is the fact that there are not many people to do the tremendous amount of work within te ao Māori. 

Taranaki is one of these areas where there aren’t that many people to uphold tikanga and te reo. It is increasing slowly in Taranaki, but it is an uphill battle. Many of us who are highly involved in things Māori have to do many jobs that would be associated with the role of kaumātua. 

So, is this title given or taken because of age? At the time of writing my father is in his 80s, but he would not call himself a kaumātua (notwithstanding the fact that he still plays competitive table tennis and can beat me on most games on PlayStation). 

This is because he, like many Māori people, believe being called a “kaumatua” is much more than about getting on in years. As with most things, there are iwi variations, but the etymology of the word was explained to me in this way: 

He matua kua noho kau 

A person of parent age (not a child or teenager) that has merely to sit, to dwell. 

In other words, if you desire knowledge, you must seek out these people and go to them. They have earned their time to rest and are the wellsprings of knowledge, experience and wisdom. 

So, yes, clearly experience and wisdom are meant to come with age but, according to this definition, you are a kaumātua when your iwi and community say you are. It is not just a title one should take, but it is really an acknowledgement by the people who respect and support you that you have reached the status of learned elder. 

Is it possible to be a 30-year-old kaumātua? Well, yes, if your iwi and community back you because they are the ones who will have to defend this position if there is any grief given from other iwi or kaumātua. Most iwi, though, respect boundaries and believe that it is up to each iwi and rohe to “appoint” their own kaumātua without judgement or interference from outside. 

I have met a few of these rare individuals who were considered “young kaumātua” and their knowledge in things Māori was truly impressive. But so was their standing with their communities. Without exception these kaumātua lived and breathed their Māoritanga and had spent years learning the different aspects of the marae.

They had learnt from the back, starting with food preparation, digging both hāngī (earth ovens) and graves, preparing the wharenui, cleaning the toilets and all the mahi that is required to be seen as someone to depend on. A real “ringa raupā” (an industrious worker with calloused hands). 

Only then were they taught the front part of the marae: the paepae, whaikōrero, karanga, karakia, and waiata tawhito. In the eyes of their kaumātua and teachers, they had earned a place to be taught and to hold the mana of the iwi even though they were relatively young. 

Some people have even tried to adhere the label “kaumātua” to me but, like my father, I just say, “Give me another 20 or 30 years and I’ll think about it.”

In recent years, the majority of native speakers of te reo and many of those who were taught at the feet of traditional experts of te ao Māori have passed away. Programmes and courses have become available to teach younger people the language and protocol of the marae that, in the past, would only be left to our elders because of their maturity, experience and wisdom. 

I understand this and I applaud the intention to train people up to carry the burden of te reo and tikanga on our marae, especially those marae that have little to no speakers left, but I urge caution. 

I have encountered many of these “young guns”, and while they look and sound impressive, there is a dearth of depth, a lack of maturity and, worst of all, a serious absence of humility. 

Sometimes, being a good kaikōrero or kaikaranga means moving over or out of the way altogether when there is someone present who is more appropriate to kōrero or karanga, even if their language doesn’t scale the heights of Ranginui. More and more, I’m seeing tauheke and kuia, who have spent their whole lives on the marae, getting pushed to the back so that people in their 20s can prance and peacock their way through karanga and whaikōrero. 

When possible, I have challenged this. One taiohi told me that I should come to his course on Māoritanga because I might learn something. I told him I was quite happy with the 35-year apprenticeship I had served. 

Another young man quoted a whakataukī about a bird to me. It was a pretty whakataukī. When I asked what the bird looked like, he made an excuse and left. 

He could parrot (no pun intended) quotes and sayings very well, but he had no practical experience with what he was talking about. I wasn’t trying to embarrass him; I was just insinuating that it was best to have some real-world experience to go with rote-learned quotations. 

Another time my patience was wearing thin one day when a boasting youth told me how he had recently spoken at a major hui in front of thousands and he wished that I was there to listen to him. I had had quite enough of his conceit at this stage so I told him that when he had cleaned as many toilets on as many marae as I had, only then would I listen to what he had to say. 

This is not just an older guy yelling at the sky, jealous of the injustice of not being youthful any more. 

This is the voice of experience over a long career encouraging younger people to be patient and humble. To take up the reins of leadership when their backs have earned the tokotoko (walking stick) that they are carrying, not because it looks cool and enhances the performance but because they need it from the years of bearing the load of responsibility. 

The “Entertainer”

I grew up quite poor and had little money for koha. When a group from the marae were going to a hui in Rūātoki, deep within the heart of Ngāi Tūhoe, I once again realised that I was without funds for a koha. In the impetuousness of youth, I decided that seeing as though I had no money, my koha would be to try, at least, to entertain the tangata whenua. 

Rūātoki was then and is still now one of the few communities where te reo is the dominant language among the permanent residents. I was amazed to see the paepae stacked with at least 10 native speakers and no one was under 80 years old. To this day, Tūhoe are one of the staunchest iwi when it comes to their Māoritanga. 

That night, after karakia, we were introducing ourselves and I hatched my cunning plan to “entertain”. I stood up and after the appropriate mihi and pepeha I divulged that I had secretly stowed away so that I could find a Tūhoe wife, and I asked if anyone was interested in taking up my offer. 

As it turns out, there was plenty of interest. Kuia after kuia, with no teeth and, again, no one under 80, all got up and said how they had been widowed years ago and would love the opportunity to teach this young pup some new tricks . . . 

Very fortunately for me, my kaumātua stood up and told everyone that disappointingly I was in a taumou (betrothed) situation back home in Taranaki and that while I was unhappy with this arrangement, I had to see it through for the mana of my hapū. 

Later, my kaumātua told me very clearly not to ever do that again or he wouldn’t bail me out the next time. 


Dawn kawa ceremonies are a mainstay for those of us immersed in te ao Māori and heavily involved in the revitalisation of more traditional practices. Usually, whare are opened at dawn, but in the modern age with city and town councils wanting to try to be more respectful of Māori customs, many events and exhibitions are opened with Māori ceremonies. 

At one such dawn ceremony for the opening of a new Māori exhibition at an art gallery, the kaumātua and I, followed by about 50 others, went around the exhibition reciting our karakia. 

It was just before dawn and so it was almost impossible to see anything. No one had thought to bring a torch so that we could, at least, know where we were going. 

We fumbled our way around in the dark, encountering a man standing in our way. In the circumstances it would have been rude not to hongi him and so we all did so. It seemed strange, but we thought perhaps he had just gone the wrong way in the dark and we were focused on our karakia and the ceremony so we carried on. 

It wasn’t until the ceremony was over that we turned on the lights to see that 50 people had pressed noses with one of the mannequins in the exhibition. No wonder his nose had felt quite rigid. 


These extracts are from Tikanga: An introduction to te ao Māori, published by Upstart Press (RRP $39.99) and available now.

Keri Opai is a linguist, teacher, and the author of Te Reo Hāpai, the seminal work on creating a Māori language glossary for mental health, disability and addiction. At the time of qualifying, Keri was the youngest person to become an official te reo translator. He advises widely on cultural issues. 

© E-Tangata, 2021

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