Te hā pūmau: Uncovering the meaning of karakia and what it means to be Māori (2023)

They’ve seen people ejected from council chambers, and are often misunderstood. Here, in a blend of analysis, opinion – and a touch of self-discovery – reporter Joel Maxwell finds out about karakia.

Read this story in te reo Māori and English here. / Pānuitia tēnei i te reo Māori me te reo Pākehā ki konei.

Many people talk about respecting facts, rationality and good old science. Unfortunately, good old science would probably scare the bejesus out of many of these same people.

Good old science suggests that multiple extra dimensions were snapped off in the Big Bang, and are now scrunched up, infinitesimally small, inside the pocket of our universe.

Good old science brought us panpsychism​ - the theory that everything is conscious: even light particles have the feels.

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Good old science tells us that if you drop a big enough bowling ball - or planet, or star - into space, it stretches time like toffee.

So we dumped spirituality and let the nerds deal with the universe, and we thought they’d explain it as a simple and intuitive device, a bit of user-friendly technology, fashioned by commonsense: Nature by Steve Jobs. That’s hilarious. The universe only gets more complicated by the year.

Western society outsources dealing with existence to science, while we huddle in a secular cave, but whatever way you look at the universe, you’re gonna have to deal with awe and wonder at some point.

So, welcome to this explainer on karakia.

Te hā pūmau: Uncovering the meaning of karakia and what it means to be Māori (1)

Te Pūtahi a Toi (Massey University) assistant lecturer Te Rā Moriarty says to him, karakia “are a formula of words recited, or delivered, for a specific purpose”. They may be ancient, or they may be composed recently. Also, karakia can be recited in any circumstances we want: Starting or finishing a meeting; farewelling the dead; “to acknowledge the forest when in the forest, to acknowledge the ocean when in the ocean”; or simply to find internal balance.

Personally, as the author of this explainer, I include some life history: I was born 19 Auckland mayoral elections ago in Tāmaki Makaurau, a month before Dove-Meyer Robinson won re-election. I am Māori – Te Rarawa – and also, myself, a nerd.

This crossover of knowledge, culture and the clatter of mayoral chains is pertinent because fast-forward to 2023, the current term of the culture wars, and I wrote several columns about karakia being rejected in council meetings.

Te hā pūmau: Uncovering the meaning of karakia and what it means to be Māori (2)

After the second column, we received an email with a simple but useful question: What are karakia?

Moriarty says this: “Karakia allow us to continue an ancestral practice of acknowledging orally the divine forces that we, as Māori, understand as the sources of our natural environment. We call these forces atua. So, it is a way to connect through the words of our tūpuna to the world that we live.”

Colonisation might have disrupted karakia, he says, but karakia persist as a taonga, and an important part of the lives of Māori people today.

“It is a way we can connect culturally to our ancestral ways, our tikanga, to our environment and to ourselves as the living faces of those that have come before.”

I think this is profound, beautiful – karakia are a drop in the ocean of time.

Victoria University senior lecturer Dr Mike Ross says karakia put into words “those core values, beliefs and principles that a people might believe”.

“I think they are a part of answering those big human questions. Where did we come from, how does the world work and what are the powers that be?”

Te hā pūmau: Uncovering the meaning of karakia and what it means to be Māori (3)

Before cultivating crops, before the birth of a child – so “miraculous” it leaves you in awe – before battle, or before entering the ocean, a place powerful enough to kill you in minutes, the karakia makes you aware of your surroundings, conscious of decision-making, Ross says.

At a council meeting, they’re discussing things that affect people’s lives too. “These are important community decisions. Let’s not go willy-nilly into that space, let’s be considerate and think those things through.”

So logically it makes sense “to pause for a second” and think about what they’re doing and how they’re going to get things done.

I asked Ross what he made of the idea that karakia are inappropriate for secular institutions.

“Making a statement that you’re a secular organisation, that doesn’t make sense. That all you’re interested in is building better bridges, that sort of thing. We want communities that are prosperous, that people feel safe … from a Māori perspective then, it’s a spiritual issue.”

Hundreds of years before Scandinavian migrants cleared Te Tapere nui a Whātonga – Seventy Mile Bush – for farmland in the 1870s, a traveller, Tarāwhata, and his pet dog, Mahurangi, passed through this forest covering swaths of what would become Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa.

Mahurangi, it is said, got lost a lot.

Massey University associate professor Hone Morris says there are various English words used to describe karakia: an incantation, a chant, a charm “or even the word ‘spell’”.

“The karakia opens the communication to energies, gods, supernatural beings to be recognised, appealed to, or even commanded to enact some action to effect certain rituals.”

Tarāwhata, he says, used a karakia when pursuing Mahurangi who kept running ahead, getting lost, in Te Tapere nui a Whātonga.

Te hā pūmau: Uncovering the meaning of karakia and what it means to be Māori (4)

“This karakia was called a ‘hiki tapuwae’ which he chanted to quicken his gait and in so doing reconnected with his pet at Te Waha o te Kurī [which roughly translates to the ‘voice of the dog’, near the Manawatū Gorge entrance] and at Rākautātahi on the Takapau Plains.”

Karakia, Morris says, were passed down through generations – delivered by specialist people with knowledge of the natural and supernatural energies.

“There was a time when Māori walked side by side with their gods and, in many cases, still do.”

Victoria University law academic Māmari Stephens (also of Te Rarawa) says you “can’t put karakia in a box”.

She tells me she is an ordained Anglican priest, “but that does not make me an exponent of karakia”.

Te hā pūmau: Uncovering the meaning of karakia and what it means to be Māori (5)

“By the same token that all depends on how you define karakia … in terms of karakia tawhito [older traditional karakia], I’m still on a learning journey there.”

Stephens said a first-year law paper at the university begins and ends with a karakia, composed by faculty members including Mike Ross. “It’s basically a little karakia that says to people ‘leave everything aside, let us concentrate on this task, let's pool our resources, pool our thinking … and get on with it’.”

There’s nothing about the words that call upon any god, or any atua, she says.

“But you bring who you are to the karakia. So for the secular person, it can be a secular affirmation of shared endeavour. But that’s not how I came to it.”

In places like councils, whether you want karakia or not, the important thing is communication, Stephens says.

“I think it’s OK for people to ask why we do X, Y and Z. As long as they know they have a place at the table and that the karakia is not excluding or diminishing their whakaaro [thoughts, opinion] or their spiritual context.”

Te hā pūmau: Uncovering the meaning of karakia and what it means to be Māori (6)

Some believe that inoi, a word more closely aligned with prayer, remains separate from karakia – Stephens thinks karakia have many different forms, and some of those are Christian-based, but still “tūturu [authentically] Māori”.

Regardless, karakia are an “absolutely integral” part of Māori life, but must be intergenerational to survive, she says. So she finishes our kōrero with a question.

“What is it that we want our children to learn about the phenomenon of karakia, and what it means to be Māori and to karakia?”

When I think of Tarāwhata and Mahurangi, I don’t think of just the ancestor and his pet, and karakia. I am haunted by the vast forest cut down by the Scandinavians. Nowadays, there are small towns and long, straight roads criss-crossing those plains. I’ve driven through so many times and never knew what was there before.

My personal explanation of karakia is this: if using karakia is part of being Māori, then to stop someone expressing that is to attempt to deny their Māori-hood. Why would you want to do that?

So partly in answer to Stephens’ question, I wrote a karakia for myself. It is a somewhat impoverished creative endeavour, but I’ll say the words and I’ll believe. Good old science be damned.

Hīkoikoi ai, hīkoikoi ai

Keep marching

Kia whai tonu te hā pūmau, te karakia

To keep the perpetual breath, the karakia

kia raranga mai ki runga, kia raranga mai ki raro

Weaving from above, weaving from below

Hei whakakotahi ai te marea

To unite the many

Mai i te ao kōhatu

From the ancient times

Ki tēnei wā tonu

To now

Mai i te iwi Māori

From the original people

Ki te kanorau, ki te anamata

To the many, to the future

Tihei, mauri ora!

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