A whaikōrero isn’t just a speech, writes Tainui Stephens. It’s the continuation of threads of thought woven into the rituals of encounter and gathering. They’re words designed to reveal the human truths of the moment.
I gave my first mihi 45 years ago, in July 1977. Our varsity Māori club in Christchurch was welcoming Joe Hawke and his latest news about the occupation at Bastion Point. I didn’t have the language skills to compose a speech by myself, so my teacher Bill Nepia wrote one for me to commit to memory.
When I stood before Joe, I have a recollection of being barely competent. I walked while I talked, aiming my words nowhere in particular. I clicked my fingers when I desperately tried to recall a line I’d forgotten. (I had yet to learn the skill of coughing to buy time.)
But I got through it. And from then on, I found myself pushed to talk. By my workmates, by my whānau, by my kapa haka. And then, one day, by my marae and iwi.
All along the way, I’ve tried to learn how to become good at it.
Over the years, I’ve thrilled to wonderful exponents of whaikōrero. From kaumātua to rangatahi. Men and women. I recall elders like Hōhua Tūtengaehe, Te Whati Tāmati and Sir James Hēnare who would deliver intricate tribal histories with superlative oratory. I was astonished at the recitations of whakapapa from masters like Henare Tuwhāngai, Irirangi Tiakiawa and Henare Tate.
I remember the sounds of their voices. Some were soft, while others were sonorous. I recall Haare Reneti, a Ngāti Awa koroua and a gentle man who could be louder than a jumbo jet when he was on the paepae. I remember the humour of masters of timing like Mac Taylor, Napi Waaka or Wharehuia Milroy.
They were just as eloquent in English, and they delighted in dropping one-liners. I’ll never forget kuia Rangimarie Rose Pere’s comment about mana: “Everyone is born a person of worth, until they prove otherwise.”
I have no less respect or affection for all the men and women who stand on the paepae without the eloquence of the masters, but whose words are just as heartfelt.
Language inspires and stirs me, but it’s not a matter of language alone. It’s the human context of the speech. I’ve been lucky to have spent a lot of time among different iwi and observed much oratory in many situations. As I’ve continued to learn my reo, I’ve observed people in action. This informs me when I stand.
Although I was once active in the kapa haka world, I was never adept at mau rakau. The thrust and parry of native weaponry, along with the male strut, isn’t my thing. Put a weapon in my hand and the only threat to the enemy is death by laughter.
I’m not a hunter, carver, or artist. I don’t sing, and I won’t dance. I can’t DIY or fix stuff. I’m a talker.
Thanks to tikanga that we observe every day, mihi are a normal part of our Māori life. They can happen at any time and place and are always a meaningful pause in proceedings. I sometimes find myself on the speakers’ paepae at a formal hui. It’s always a daunting thing. Never to be taken for granted. Always to be reflected on.
A whaikōrero is not just a speech. It’s the continuation of threads of thought woven into the rituals of encounter and gathering. They’re words designed to reveal the human truths of the moment.
As you get older, you may find yourself being put on the paepae without warning, no questions asked. It’s best to be guided by your seniors or kuia as to where you should sit. But beware of either end of the row. It’s a clear sign that you either have to kick things off or bring things to a conclusion. Each course of action is tricky, especially if you don’t know which end is which. Or why you’re there.
Whatever you say also depends on who you find yourself sitting alongside, and who’s seated opposite you. As the manuwhiri enter the marae or the whare, and as the speakers’ benches fill, make sure you check out who’s there.
Usually, you enter the ritualised forum of speechmaking with some idea of your role in the unfolding order of thought and expression. I listen carefully to the speakers before me. I go over my kōrero in my mind and add or subtract according to what I hear.
There will be themes underlying the speeches, or reasons for the hui that I can latch on to. When there are many speakers bouncing back and forth, it’s like a game of tag. Played well, it can be a delicious and delightful game to observe or be a part of.
Despite your preparation, you can be sure that half of it will disappear once you’re on your feet. The mood of the moment can take you places you hadn’t expected to go — and so it should. That mood can be enhanced by whatever you say.
If I prepare well, I can recall enough of the appropriate language to use, by instinct rather than rehearsal. The more karakia, metaphor and idiom you know — and the more you can express what is in your heart — the greater the chance that you will leave a gift of worthwhile words.
There are a great many important hui in the Māori world these days. And there are growing numbers of experts on the paepae of the people. New life comes from energetic graduates of immersion education who’ve marshalled the resources of their hapū to achieve cultural excellence. These examples of intellectual and spiritual maturity are alive all around the country.
At times, I find I’m the only person being welcomed — as happened when I went to the tangi of a friend recently. We’d been close colleagues in the early days of Māori television. When I arrived, it was hosing down with rain and I happily stood alone under a shelter waiting for other mourners. But two dear friends among the locals saw me and ushered me straight into the whare to join the previous group.
As I sat down, the final speech from the tangata whenua was ending. The group was then invited to pay respects to the whānau pani. Everyone got up and went to my bro’s coffin and family.
I couldn’t move. I could’ve joined the group and bypassed the need to speak, but I sat rooted to my seat. This put the paepae in the situation of having to mihi me. They saw that I’d been brought in and understood I needed to speak before I could get any closer. They commenced their greetings.
As I listen to the content of any speech, I try to be alert to many things at once. It doesn’t take long to get the feel for the personality and skill of a speaker. You might also consider the rank of those who sit by the speaker’s side, and of the women who called you in. The type of songs they sing. The order of the rituals. All will shape your response.
At a tangi, it’s pretty easy to figure out what to say. You are there for the dead, and so you speak to them first. Normally, you start with one of a range of appropriate tauparapara that you try to have at your disposal. But I saw my friend’s longtime partner weeping under his mask. And when the time came for me to reply, I knew I had to start there. My first words went straight to the bereft man and his pain.
When you speak at a tangi for someone you know well, you dwell in the world of memories. You share your view of that person, and in doing so you enable the bereaved family to accept the reality of death. It’s often the case that visiting manuwhiri bring stories of the deceased that come as a welcome revelation and ease the path of tears.
At any tangi, it’s normal to discuss the way someone passed on. An understanding of this can be both loving and practical. Some deaths offer painful lessons in survival. Some deaths are unbearably tragic. Some deaths are sad and wistful but can turn into jubilant celebrations of a life. All deaths hurt. The right word at the right time can be a life-affirming experience.
At my son’s tangi in early 1988, three young northern men of my age came to Roma marae in Ahipara to pay their respects. They were Hone Harawira, Shane Jones and Mangu Awarau. In his mihi, Shane offered the following words to soothe me:
“I mea nei o tāua wheinga, ko te tangata e mātau ana ki te mate, he tangata mātau hoki tērā.” The ancients tell us that a person who knows of death is a person who truly understands.
These words truly stayed with me. I felt that if I could get through the death of my child, I could cope with anything.
As a result, I have for decades been of the view that the forthright and formidable Shane Jones can do no wrong. I shared this with him recently. We laughed when I said I was grateful I’d never been a politician who held an opposing view or had to argue with him. He would’ve always got my vote. I have lifelong gratitude for his words of aroha, uttered when I needed them most.
A speech doesn’t exist without others to hear it. The point of the paepae is to bring inner peace to the people as we navigate the worlds of the living and the dead. It’s a peace that comes from the insights carved into our language and delivered in the cadences of old — and from the connection with people who know what you’re going through, and care enough to say so.
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