Tā Moko - Living Ancestors

by Kararaina Te Ira

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)


Many Māori say that you must have a clear purpose before you get your tā moko. Although all Māori have the right to wear tā moko, the right connection only happens when the wearer and their family have decided on the purpose, known as "kaupapa", and when you will get it.

Some choose personal milestones, a university degree or a new leadership position in an area that is likely to be of benefit the iwi, the tribe. Others seek to put their families back in touch with their iwi and their tūpuna (ancestors). In 2006, when Te Ariki Dame Te Atairangikaahu, former Māori Queen, passed away, thirty women from her tribal region chose to adorn themselves with the moko kauae. Their purpose for doing so was to mark their love and appreciation for their beloved queen who had passed to the afterlife. A moko kauae is a facial tattoo located on the jawline, predominantly worn by women. In the Pacific area, it is only Māori who use tattoo in this way.

If the wearer is not Māori, is it still tā moko?

Embedded in tā moko is a wealth of cultural knowledge that has been accumulated, and is perpetually built upon, over generations, connecting recipients to their genealogy, known as whakapapa. The designs are curvilinear and contour the body. The spiral form, koru, is one commonly used design. According to some sources the fern frond, a perfect spiral from which buds unfold into new life, is one model for the koru. The pūhoro, on the other hand, refers to a storm and is tattooed onto the buttocks and thighs of men. Even the interiors of Māori meeting houses are often adorned with paintings, carvings and decorated figures that refer to nature. For instance, take Rauru which can be seen in the Museum at the Rothenbaum in Hamburg. The carvings in Rauru are similar to tā moko designs.

Nowadays, you often see tattooed Māori designs that do not convey genealogical roots. Often, these wearers do not identify as Māori, which raises some questions: what does it mean when these designs no longer reflect a lineage? If the wearer is not Māori, is it still tā moko? In these cases, the tattoos are known as kiri tuhi, which translates to 'skin drawings'.

My father, a kaumatua, an elder of our iwi, states that: "Tā moko is one of the many attributes of Māori culture. It is a physical signifier of tūhonohono (connections) between the wearer’s taha whānau, taha tinana, taha hinengaro and taha wairua." The four mentioned components encapsulate human well-being through a Māori lens, and represent familial ties, physical, mental and spiritual health, respectively.

There are many designs that have been passed down over generations with minimal changes. Various symbolisms are attached to each design and can represent spiritual protection, history, astronomy, and more. Across New Zealand, colonisation and modernity have attached a stigma to the practice of tā moko. Those who opt to undergo the procedure continue to feel the pressure of social and economic prejudices. Fewer and fewer tā moko were sighted between the 1940s and the 1980s. This was mostly due to discrimination and the false assumption that tā moko were signs of gang affiliation.

With each generation of Māori, the fabric of the tā moko gains a new strand

In truth, wearing tā moko is a sign of dignity and cultural identity, but, due to social stigma, it was rarely seen for decades. The matriarchal hapū (sub-tribe) Ngāti Hinemata from the North Island of Aotearoa-New Zealand, was one of many communities who have borne the brunt of racism. Many of the women from Ngāti Hinemata wore moko kauae, but it has only been over the last ten years where Ngāti Hinemata women have resumed this practice. They still face social pressures, but their strength to commit to their culture and heritage continues to overcome adversity. Public education about Māori culture and the Treaty of Waitangi will hopefully ease these unwarranted social pressures in the future.

In the past, many Māori received their tā moko from their papa kāinga (ancestral village) to renew and reaffirm their connections to their ancestors. Today, you can receive tā moko at various places and events, including Te Matatini, a biennial competition for performing arts. Potential wearers identify places that they have strong connections to, in order to reaffirm this tie. With each generation of Māori, the fabric of the tā moko gains a new strand, thus linking the new with the old. The interpretations and the style of the designs have changed over time, but these alterations do not affect the real meaning of tā moko and its role in safeguarding Māori heritage and culture.

Translated by Jess Smee

Revised version from July 2020



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