Story: Kaumātua – Māori elders

Page 2. Kaumātua in early traditions

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Elders feature in Māori traditions as both nurturers of the young and keepers of knowledge to be passed down.

Kaumātua and Māui

In all of the stories of Māui, kaumātua feature either as leading characters or as imparters of knowledge. The discarded baby Māui, who had been cast out to sea by his mother Taranga, was discovered by his grandfather Tamanui-ki-te-rangi when he washed ashore in his mother’s top knot. Tamanui-ki-te-rangi raised the child, passing on his vast knowledge of chants and incantations for the realms of the sea and the forest.

Later, Māui sought knowledge from his kuia Muriranga-whenua and received her jawbone, which he used to fish up the North Island and slow down Tamanui-te-rā, the sun. Through trickery, Māui acquired the secret of fire from Mahuika, another female elder. Finally, Māui attempted to achieve immortality through conquering Hine-nui-te-pō, another one of his kuia, but was crushed to death.

Song about children mocking an elder

The following is a song of an elder, about children laughing at him and his greyness. ‘Ngā taru o Tura’ are the weeds of Tura – grey hairs reflecting getting closer to death.

Waiho rā ia nei au, e koro mā,
Māku au e haere, ki mua o te ara, whanga mai ai,
Ka tata ki a koe, ngā taru o Tura,
Ko te hina, ko te mate, te whanga iho nei,
Ka poro rā hoki taku akutotanga,
Ka taiapo rawa mai, ngā karukaru, nō Kahutauranga,
Waiho noa e raro, kia takoto ana,
Hei mātakitaki mai ki a au, e-i-i.


In the Tāwhaki stories, Tāwhaki and his young brother Karihi decided to climb up to the heavens. Before the climb, they found their blind grandmother, Whaitiri. The grandsons restored her sight, and in return Whaitiri advised them how best to make the climb into the sky.

Toi and Whātonga

The affection between elders and their mokopuna or grandchildren is highlighted by one version of the story of Toi. His grandson Whātonga and a companion, Turahui, had been taking part in a regatta at Pikopikoiwhiti lagoon in Hawaiki, when suddenly a storm blew them out to sea. Filled with anxiety and determined to find his much-loved grandson, Toi set out in search of his mokopuna, making the perilous journey to Aotearoa.


In one tradition an ancestor named Tura landed on an island inhabited by a people who never aged. He married one of the women and some time later she found grey hair in his head an asked what it was. He explained that it was a sign of aging and ultimately death. A saying based around this tradition is: ‘Ka tata ki a koe ngā taru o Tura, ko te hina, ko te mate.’ (The weeds of Tura approach, grey hair, followed by death.)

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Paul Meredith, 'Kaumātua – Māori elders - Kaumātua in early traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Paul Meredith, published 5 May 2011