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Hōkakatanga – Māori sexualities

by Clive Aspin

In traditional Māori society sex and sexuality were openly discussed and represented in art. This changed as Europeans introduced Victorian morals to New Zealand, and traditional songs and stories were censored. In the 21st century sexual diversity was again recognised as an important part of wellbeing.

Sexuality in Māori tradition

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’.

Traditional songs

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.

Early Māori sexuality

Māori sexuality on European arrival

When Europeans arrived in New Zealand they found that Māori views of sexuality were different from Western ideas of the time. Māori chiefs would often have more than one wife. Except for puhi (high-born women set aside for a political marriage), sex before marriage carried no stigma. English and French explorers tried to make sense of the culture they saw. For example naturalist Georg Forster, who was on British explorer James Cook’s second voyage, said, ‘Their ideas of female chastity are, in this respect so different from ours, that a girl may favour a number of lovers without any detriment to her character; but if she marries, conjugal fidelity is exacted from her with the greatest rigour.’1 French explorer Julien Crozet said, ‘[Māori] gave us to understand by signs that we must not touch the married women, but that we might with perfect freedom make advances to the girls.’2 Many explorers, sailors and even missionaries had sexual relationships with Māori. When Cook first arrived in New Zealand sexual activity between his crew and local Māori, both women and men, was a feature of these early encounters.

Children born outside marriage were still considered part of their tribe. Māori whānau continue to play an important role in ensuring that children are raised in close proximity to whānau members to ensure the transmission of ancestral knowledge, whakapapa, tikanga, and te reo Māori.

Historical examples of same-sex relationships

Joseph Banks, a scientist on board Cook’s ship the Endeavour, recorded that one of the sailors had been with a Māori family and had paid them to have sexual relations with a young woman. The ‘young woman’ who retired with him turned out to be a boy. He returned and complained and was given another ‘young woman’ who turned out to also be a boy. When he complained again the family laughed at him. Banks was not sure whether this was evidence of homosexuality, or sharp trading.

There are a number of recorded examples of new settlers cohabiting in same-sex relationships with Māori. The most well-documented example is the Reverend William Yate, an English missionary, who lived with his male companion for two years in the Māori village of Waimate, before being expelled to England for homosexual behaviour. His relationship seems to have been accepted by the Māori community but it was frowned on by his religious peers. An investigation into allegations that Yate had engaged in sexual acts with Māori youths illustrates that there was a more open attitude by Māori to sexuality. Richard Davis observed that ‘[they] showed no shame. They simply declared that they were unaware of any sinfulness in such practices and that Yate had not initiated them.’3

European influence

While on one hand the arrival of Europeans introduced prostitution to New Zealand, it also led to a change in Māori sexual attitudes due to the imposition by missionaries of a code of behaviour based on Victorian concepts of morality. This led to the active promotion of the belief that sexual behaviour should occur between a man and a woman within the parameters of marriage, and that it should be for the purposes of procreation.

These ideas led to active attempts to change Māori culture. Sexual organs in carvings were often covered over or removed. Waiata and karakia, which often had explicit language in them, were often bowdlerised. Despite the openness with which Māori talked about sexuality, the Williams Māori-language dictionary only gave the meaning of sexual terms and body parts in Latin. For instance, the definition for ure (penis) was given as ‘membrum virile’. Europeans collecting Māori traditions often censored them. John White, a collector of numerous Māori traditions and stories, noted, ‘Nearly all my best tales are tainted with indecency’.4

    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Between worlds: early exchanges between Maori and Europeans, 1773–1815. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 76. Back
    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 376. Back
    • Quoted in Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, ‘He Reka Ano – same-sex lust and loving in the ancient Māori world.’ In Outlines: lesbian & gay histories of Aotearoa, edited by Alison J. Laurie & Linda Evans. Wellington: Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand, 2005, p. 7. Back
    • Quoted in John O’Leary, ‘“Tableaux of queerness”: the ethnographic novels of John White’, (last accessed 2 March 2011). Back

Sexual diversity in contemporary Māori society


In the early 21st century increasing numbers of Māori men and women embraced the term takatāpui to describe their sexuality. The term, used by Tūtānekai to refer to his relationship with Tiki, has been reclaimed from the past and is used to describe people who might otherwise describe themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or intersexual. The term takatāpui is important to Māori because it acknowledges both the sexual and cultural aspects of one’s identity, and has both contemporary and traditional connections with the Māori community.

It is important to note that the term takatāpui embraces transgender men and women. As is the case with many indigenous peoples throughout the world, transgender people hold a revered position within Māori society. Transgender people play an important role within both the takatāpui community and wider Māori community as holders and transmitters of ancestral knowledge.

National surveys of high school students in New Zealand have shown that one percent of students identified as transgender and about three percent were unsure of their sexuality.

Contemporary ideas of sexuality

While concepts of sexuality were imposed on Māori by Western ideas, beliefs and attitudes, by the 2000s this had started to change with a renewed awareness of sexual diversity. This is reflected in the growth of organisations and events targeted at Māori within the takatāpui community. A television show, Takatāpui, first shown on Māori Television in 2004, was probably the first indigenous gay, lesbian and transgender television series in the world. In 2010 an exhibition consisting of five gay Māori and Polynesian artists, ‘Mana Takatāpui: Taera Tāne’, was shown at the City Gallery in Wellington. Curator Reuben Friend said the show explored what it meant to be takatāpui in contemporary Aotearoa. Hui Takatapui, a national gathering for takatāpui, is held annually.

The increased visibility of transgender people within contemporary society underlines the importance of ensuring the protection of the rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the case of Māori transgender people it is important to ensure access to culture, including language, tikanga and whakapapa, to provide a buffer against the negative social and health impacts that transgender people confront.

Acknowledging sexual diversity

The move to acknowledge and accept sexual diversity among Māori in the 21st century has been driven by a number of imperatives that include the promotion of health and wellbeing – sexuality is seen as an integral component of achieving good health for individuals and communities.

There are challenges related to sexual and reproductive health, including rising rates of sexually transmitted infections and blood-borne viruses, including chlamydia (for which Māori young people have a high rate of infection) and HIV. Sound health-promotion strategies to avoid these infections must be based on accurate knowledge about sexuality and sexual behaviour. For Māori, this requires an understanding of the role of ancestral knowledge, since this influences individuals today.

Māori Sexuality Project

Research as part of the Māori Sexuality Project undertaken at Auckland University in the early 2000s provided evidence that Māori society accepted sexual diversity. The team of researchers invited people of all ages and sexualities to share their understandings of Māori sexuality. Many respondents were able to recall examples of their kaumātua and kuia talking about people they knew who had a same-sex attraction or identified as transgender. Moreover, they all agreed that these people held positions of importance and status within their whānau and hapū. They were not rejected or marginalised, and were considered to be valuable members of their communities.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Clive Aspin, 'Hōkakatanga – Māori sexualities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 September 2021)

Story by Clive Aspin, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 Jan 2019