Claudia Nussbaumer continues her investigation into the concept of gender as it is performed in different indigenous communities around the world, this week unpacking the Maori example. 

The Maori are an indigenous community hailing from New Zealand. They are descended from eastern Polynesian settlers, who arrived in New Zealand between 1250 and 1300. Maori culture, identity and politics are unique having blossomed and grown over centuries of isolation, before the arrival of the British in the early 1800s. Today, the Maori population in New Zealand is thought to stand at about 885,000 people.

In preparation for this article, I sat down with Hana Tapiata, a lifestyle blogger who lives by traditional indigenous philosophies and mātauranga Māori (Maori knowledge). “Growing up te ao Māori was all I knew” Tapiata tells me. ” I was immersed in it before I was even born, it’s been the foundation upon which I’ve been able to grow.”

Like with so many indigenous communities, Maori traditions and lifestyles before the arrival of foreigners is challenging to uncover- a lot has been lost to time. When discussing the traditional Maori construction of gender and its differences with the ‘western’ conception, Tapiata understands Māori knowledge to acknowledge ‘te ira tāne’ and ‘te ira wahine’, or the male and female energies present within each of us. “There’s a duality in all things, some possessing or expressing more of one than the other.”

The roles of men and women in Maori society have historically been very different. The primary role of men was typical to most societies: Men were the provider and defender. The rank of a man was seen by the amount of facial tattoos he had accrued. Women were not allowed to have full-face tattoos, but they could have tattoos below their lips. Regarding the rank, the same was true for women, the more tattoos they had, the higher their rank. Although women were treated as sacred due to their child-bearing abilities, research suggests that they received their ranks from ancestors and husbands. Despite traditional Maori culture accepting a wider, more fluid, definition of gender performance in areas, it seems that gender roles still operated as a dichotomy.

Nowadays Maori traditions and rituals have changed and people have assimilated to ‘western’ ideas and integrated into mainstream society. In many ways, Maori are still disadvantaged in Kiwi society today. The Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975, has attempted to undo many of the wrongs perpetrated against the Maori people. Progress has been made but injustices and racism still persist in New Zealand society. According to Hana, the biggest challenges facing the Maori community today have to do with identity and connection. Before the arrival of foreigners, there was a more clear-cut definition of how one could identify with their iwi (tribe). “With our changing world and a mix of whakapapa (descent, genealogy) within many of us, that definition of how we connect and identify with being Māori hasn’t evolved with us.”

Hana has recently come out with a book called ‘Self awareness doesn’t begin with self’ about interpreting ancient knowledge and how to implement that into your daily life.


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