What is whakapapa?

Ko te Pu

For the Wananga course I am doing at the moment we have been asked to consider what whakapapa is. I found this resource useful;  https://teara.govt.nz/en/whakapapa-genealogy/page-2

Whakapapa is what binds all things – animate and inanimate, known and unknown, terrestrial and spiritual. It is the line of descent from our beginning. 

It is how we make our connections, recognise our identity, ground ourselves to a place and to people. 

It is the core of our knowledge and that knowledge builds layer on layer through generations. 

There are different ways of presenting your whakapapa.  Here are just a couple.

Whakamoe

This includes all the family tree – the marriages and connections across and between tribes as well as the direct line of descent.

Tararere

One single line of descent with no reference to marriages and connections – this is the most commonly recited one. 

The Wharenui is also a way of telling the whakapapa of an iwi or hapū – the oldest ancestor is on the tetoko – the carved figure at the top of the whare, and then spreading outwards and downwards where the most recent lines are traced. They show how people are linked together. 

Creation Genealogies are like the stories that many cultures develop to try to understand where we all come from.  Many are told in song or waiata;

Ko te Pu  is a sung karakia or lament to acknowledge the creation of life.

Te Pu (root, origin).

Te More (tap root).

Te Weu (rootlets).

Te Aka (creeper, vine).

Te Rea (growth).

Te Wao-nui (great wood).

Te Kune (conception, form).

Te Whe (sound).

Te Kore (chaos, void).

Te Po (darkness, &c.).

Ki nga tangata maori na Rangi raua ko Papa

From this came the people through Rangi and Papa

Ko tēnei te timatanga o te Ao

From them came the birth of the world

Ko tēnei te timatanga o te Ao

From them came the birth of the world

It’s a creation story telling of the origins of life, the whakapapa of the world, our beginnings, so it is for all of us. It talks about coming from the darkness, the void in to the light as Rangi and Papa are pushed apart by Tane. About the growth of the world from the roots, to the shoots as they grow into trees and climb towards the sun, of the wind and the elements affecting nature and then coming back full circle as we descend back into the darkness where our souls leave us. In this way it also represents the circle of life. It talks of how we are kaitiakitanga of the world and everything that came before it, that it will still be there after we have gone and the need for us to look after it. 

I was talking about this to a colleague and we pondered that it is a similar story to many cultures and religions. How the world came to be is a big mystery even now that we have scientific research to help explain it but way back when, we sought to answer the question by creating stories to explain the mystery of life.  It isn’t surprising that many cultures came up with similar stories.  But how does this story sit with us if we don’t believe in religion, in the myths and legends?  How does the scientific ‘Big Bang Theory’ align? 

We wondered if we could look at it this way?

The darkness or nothingness was the time before the big bang.  Then from the explosion the molecules, cells, organisms found tenure in the earth and started to grow, they put down roots (physically for plant life, metaphorically for animal life), they grew and reproduced, took form and shape.  Inevitably, they have a limited life span and so as they die they break down and go back to the earth, back into dark matter to nourish the ground so more life springs. 

I have more questions about how we whakapapa back depending on our culture, nationality.  I few years ago, I started working on my family tree. My Uncle had done some work on one from the maternal side of my family but there was nothing from my Dad’s side.  It is complicated trying to unpack the lines through intermarriages, changes of names and movement between cities and countries. I had some information from Mum and Dad about immediate ancestors – grandparents and great-grandparents but nothing that went back any further.  I dug through census records, Births, Deaths and Marriages, and connected with my cousin who had also started looking into our family tree.  

It’s interesting that in our pākeha, white European world we don’t seem to develop a need to know about where we come from until we are older. That may be too late – the knowledge disappears.  My parents were older when they had me, my grandparents all died when I was very young, my Mum died when I was 20 and my Dad didn’t know very much about his extended family as he had been a ‘late’ baby in his family and most of his older relatives had died when he was young.  My sons are not that interested in where they come from – their grandparents all died before they were in their teens so they didn’t really have a deep connection with them.  Many of our connections have been lost. I remember some stories from my Grandma but I am sure they have become confused in my mind. Now that I have come to Aotearoa where whakapapa is so important in te Ao Māori,  I can see that knowing where you have come from has a profound effect on well-being and identity.  

a collage made up of text and images. It is a house to represent genealogy, the words talk about the connection between places and people
Pepeha

And it’s not just about the people we connect to but the places as well.  In a world where we have travelled, where families have moved to other places to get employment, to seek out new places and cultures, where do we call our ancestral home?  As I have developed my pepeha and given thought about which places I connect to it has made me consider this.  Do I connect to a maunga or an awa that has special meaning to me personally, to my birthplace,  or do I go right back to the furthest back ancestors that I have in a direct line from my Mum and my Dad and use those even though I don’t have any direct connection with them or have any stories connected to them?  

A question was asked in our wananga class – how long does someone’s family need to be in a country before they can claim they are tangata whenua? If a 4th generation kiwi has only ever known Aotearoa, New Zealand, if their great great great grandparents came to New Zealand in the late 1700s  and settled in Whaingaroa, can they claim that Karioi is their maunga and the Wainui is their awa?  Do Māori pepeha back to Hawaiki or to the place they settled when they arrived in Aotearoa?  If my pepeha is a story – and I don’t know if it is or not – of where I come from and the journey I have been on to get where I am now, then how do I tell that story to include all the places my family have called home? I can go back as far as the 1500s on my Mum’s side and the late 1700s on my Dad’s but clearly my genealogy goes back further than that. So, going back to where we pepeha to, if I were a 4th generation pakeha kiwi and I only know my genealogy as far back as my great-great grandparent who settled in NZ in the 1800s, then can I use Karioi and Wainui as my places?

There were no real answers but it was a good question.  I would love to hear people’s thoughts on it. 

2 thoughts on “What is whakapapa?

  1. So how do Europeans know about who they are related too?

    Does this leave the door open to incest relationships?

    WTH.

    1. Europeans know who they are related to in the same way as Māori do through stories and documentation that goes back centuries. We tend to know our close family – cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and often further back too. In modern society just like Māori, people have moved to new areas either through choice or because they have been displaced. In those cases connections to whānau and place are lost and links in the chain are broken. It’s the connection to place that is less important to Europeans perhaps…they don’t have the concept of the story ofwhakapapa in the same way. I can trace my family back to 1500s but I dont really feel a connection to those people as I dont have the stories that go with them.
      As for incestuous relationships, they of course can happen, they always have in all cultures and societies for millennia. In some cultures at some points in history they have even been seen as desirable. Cousins are married off to cousins to keep land in the family or tribe, to strengthen economic positions and bloodlines.

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