This article is about Māori genealogy. For the Whakapapa skifield in New Zealand, see Whakapapa skifield

Whakapapa or genealogy is a fundamental principle that permeates the whole of Māori culture. However, it is more than just a genealogical 'device'. It is in fact a paradigm of cultural discourse and provides the basis for establishing, enhancing, and even challenging relationships within and between whanau (families), hapu (local tribal entities), and iwi (regional tribal bodies).

Identity statement[edit | edit source]

The recitation of whakapapa is a critical element in establishing identity - and the phrase 'Ko [enter name] au' (I am [enter name]') is in fact the personal statement that incorporates (by implication) over 25 generations of heritage. Experts in whakapapa are able to trace and recite a lineage not only through the many generations in a linear sense, but also between such generations in a lateral sense.

Link with ancestry[edit | edit source]

Some scholars have attributed this type of genealogical 'activity' as being tantamount to ancestor worship. Most Māori would probably attribute this to ancestor reverence. Tribes and sub-tribes are mostly named after an ancestor (either male or female): for example, Ngati Kahungunu means 'descendants of Kahungunu ' (a famous chief who lived mostly in what is now called the Hawke's Bay region).

Word associations[edit | edit source]

Many physiological terms are also genealogical in 'nature'. For example the terms 'iwi', 'hapu', and 'whanau' (as noted above) can also be translated in order as 'bones', 'pregnant', and 'give birth'. The prize winning Māori author, Keri Hulme, named her best known novel as The Bone People: a title linked directly to the dual meaning of the word 'iwi as both 'bone' and '[tribal] people'.

Most formal orations (or whaikorero) begin with the "nasal" expression - Tihei Mauriora! This is translated as the 'Sneeze of Life'. In effect, the orator (whose 'sneeze' reminds us of a newborn clearing his or her airways to take the first breath of life) is announcing that 'his' speech has now begun, and that his 'airways' are clear enough to give a suitable oration.

Whakapapa and its role in the mental health system[edit | edit source]

Whakapapa is defined as the "genealogical descent of all living things from the gods to the present time" (Barlow, 1994, p. 173). Since all living things including rocks and mountains are believed to possess whakapapa, it is further defined as "a basis for the organisation of knowledge in the respect of the creation and development of all things" (Barlow, 1994, p. 173).

Hence, whakapapa also implies a deep connection to land and the roots of one’s ancestry. In order to trace one’s whakapapa it is essential to identify the location where one’s ancestral heritage began; "you can’t trace it back any further" (Russell, 2004). "Whakapapa links all people back to the land and sea and sky and outer universe, therefore, the obligations of whanaungatanga extend to the physical world and all being in it" (Glover, 2002, p. 14).

While some family and community health organisations may require details of whakapapa as part of client assessment, it is generally better if whakapapa is disclosed voluntarily by whanau, if they are comfortable with this (Russell, 2004). Usually details of a client’s whakapapa are not required since sufficient information can be obtained through their iwi identification. Cases where whakapapa may be required include adoption cases or situations where whakapapa information may be of benefit to the client’s health and well-being.

Whakapapa is also believed to determine an individual’s intrinsic tapu (Glover, 2002). "Sharing whakapapa enables the identification of obligations...and gaining trust of participants" (Glover, 2002, p.31). Additionally since whakapapa is believed to be "inextricably linked to the physical gene" (Mead, 1995, as cited in Glover, 2002, p. 32) concepts of tapu would still apply. Therefore it is essential to ensure that appropriate cultural protocols are adhered to.

Misuse of such private and privileged information is of great concern to Māori (Russell, 2004). While whakapapa information may be disclosed to a kaimatai hinengaro in confidence, this information may be stored in databases that could be accessed by others. While most health professions are embracing technological advances of data storage, this may be an area of further investigation so that confidential information pertaining to a client’s whakapapa cannot be disclosed to others.

Additionally, it may be beneficial to find out if the client is comfortable with whakapapa information being stored in ways that have the potential to be disclosed to others. To combat such issues, a Māori Code of Ethics has been suggested (Pomare, 1992, as cited in Glover, 2002). A Māori Code of Ethics may prevent "the mismanagement of manipulation of either the information or the informants" (Te Awekotuku, 1991, p. 13, as cited in Glover, 2002, p. 30).

While whakapapa encompasses a broad range of ideas and concepts (both of past heritage and of the environment), it is essential to exercise caution when gathering information from Māori clients. If cultural assessments are required, it may be appropriate to contact Māori who are skilled in this area. Mental health services provided for Māori clients should invest both time and resources to learn cultural protocols relating to whakapapa, until a Māori Code of Ethics is fully developed. Once developed, it is sincerely hoped that the Māori Code of Ethics would be adhered to by all health professions.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Barlow, C. (1994). Tikanga whakaaro: key concepts in Mäori culture. Oxford University Press, Auckland, New Zealand.
  • Glover, M. (2002). Kaupapa Māori health research methodology: a literature review and commentary on the use of a kaupapa Māori approach within a doctoral study of Māori smoking cessation. Applied Behavioural Science, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.
  • Russell, K. (2004). Hui: A hui to discuss how to create and maintain a relationship with Māori organisations. Dunedin: Department of Community and Family Studies, University of Otago.

See also[edit | edit source]

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