Historically, Māori society was known for its acceptance of sexuality and sexual diversity. Carvings, traditional waiata and karakia, and stories were explicit about sexuality.
Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine
One tradition about Kahungunu, the eponymous ancestor of Ngāti Kahungunu, illustrates how sexual exploits were openly discussed by men and women. Kahungunu had a large number of wives. One of these, Hinepuariari, was asked by friends what Kahungunu was like as a husband. She replied, ‘Kāore hoki tērā te hanga o taku tāne, kāore e rūpeke mai ana, takoto noa mai te nuinga i waho.’ (The remarkable thing is that the treasure of my husband could not be admitted and the major part of it was obliged to remain outside.) The news of this comment travelled and was heard on Māhia Peninsula by Rongomaiwahine, a woman of great status. She remarked, ‘Nā te mea anō rā he kōpua pāpaku, mehemea e taka mai ana ki te kōpua hōhonu a Rapa e tuhera atu nei, pokopoko ana ia ki roto.’ (It is because it is a shallow pool; should it have fallen into the deep pool of Rapa (her father) now opening towards him, it would have been lost out of sight.) Kahungunu later heard about Rongomaiwahine’s remark and, accepting the challenge, wooed and eventually married her.
Tūtānekai and Tiki
Tūtānekai is best known for his romance with Hinemoa, who swam to Mokoia to be with him. Before he married Hinemoa, Tūtānekai had a close male companion, Tiki. This relationship is seen as reflecting a traditional example of same-sex attraction. In a manuscript by 19th-century scholar Te Rangikāheke, Tūtānekai says to his father:
Ka aroha atu a Tutanekai ki a Tiki, ka mea atu ki a Whakaue.
Ka mate ahau i te aroha ki toku hoa, ki a Tiki.
Tūtānekai loved Tiki, and said to Whakaue
I am stricken with love for my friend, for Tiki.
Later Tūtānekai refers to Tiki as ‘taku hoa [my friend] takatāpui’. The term takatāpui was defined in the Dictionary of the Maori language compiled by missionary William Williams (1844) as ‘an intimate companion of the same sex’.
Sex between men and women was celebrated in traditional haka, waiata and chants. Some also referred to homosexual love. An example is a lament composed for a young man named Papaka Te Naeroa, who died in battle. It describes him as ‘Ko te tama i aitia e tērā wahine e tērā tangata.’ (A youth who was sexual with that woman, with that man). The original term ‘aitia’ was later replaced with the term ‘awhitia’, meaning ‘hugged’ or ‘embraced.’ when it was incorporated into Ngā mōteatea – a significant collection of traditional songs. Another waiata says:
Ehara koe i te tane, he puhi koe nāku,
Te ipo ki te moenga.
You are not a man, but a maiden who belongs to me,
Beloved in bed.
Sexuality in carving
Aspects of sexuality were represented in traditional carving. They often depicted male and female sexual organs, and also sexual acts. On Te Puawai o Te Arawa, a carved storehouse in Auckland Museum, a couple are depicted having sex, and a waka huia (treasure box) in the British Museum shows a male and female having sex. A papa hou (carved box), also in the British Museum, depicts male figures having sex. A bargeboard from Rangitihi showed two male figures entwined in a sexual manner. The bargeboard was cut in two, with one section sent to a museum in Leipzig, Germany, and the other to St Petersburg, Russia.