Story: Kaumātua – Māori elders

Page 3. Kaumātua as repositories of knowledge and nurturers

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Storehouses of knowledge

Traditionally kaumātua have been the storehouses of tribal knowledge, genealogy and traditions. Those who are experts sit on the paepae of marae (front row on a marae) as kaikōrero (speakers). This knowledge is required in the performance of ceremony and ritual. Younger members look to their kaumātua to interpret, protect and preserve the cultural practices and protocols of their tribe.

Guardians of tikanga

The role of kaumātua as guardians of tikanga (Māori customs) is described by Hirini Mead: ’Older individuals generally have a greater familiarity with and knowledge about tikanga because they have participated in tikanga, have observed interpretations of the tikanga at home and other tribal areas. The kaumātua and kuia, the elders, are often the guardians of tikanga.’1

Sayings about kaumātua

These are some traditional sayings about kaumātua.

‘Ka eke anō i te puke ki Ruahine.’ The person is ascending the mountain at Ruahine. Since in winter the Ruahine Range is tipped with snow, this is a metaphor for growing old.

‘He rākau tawhito, e mau ana te taitea i waho rā, e tū te kohiwi.’ An ancient tree with sapwood just adhering on the outside, only the heartwood standing firm. This is a metaphor for an old person whose body is infirm but whose spirit is indomitable.

‘Rākau papa pānga ka hei ki te marae.' A weapon discarded can be an ornament on the marae. An older person who has followed a career of a certain skill but is no longer agile enough or strong enough can teach young persons the same skill.

‘Ka haere te matatahi, ka noho te matapuputu.’ Youth rushes in where age deliberates.2

Waiata oriori

To continue this transmission of knowledge, a ‘waiata oriori’ or lullaby would be composed or recited by an elder for his or her new mokopuna (grandchild). These waiata would recall tribal history and genealogy, and remind the infant of his or her responsibilities and the tribe’s expectations. Hinekitawhiti of Te Auiti composed a waiata oriori for her granddaughter Ahuahukiterangi, who lived at Te Ariuru in Tokomaru. In this oriori the grandmother encourages her granddaughter, bids her to call on her relatives from Tokomaru to Raukōkore, and imparts her knowledge of senior tribal figures and historic places on the way.

Selecting youth

Kaumātua not only passed on knowledge to the younger generation through storytelling, poetry and waiata, but also through their participation in everyday activities. In special cases a promising young man or woman would be taken aside for private tuition. Pei Te Hurinui Jones recalled how much of his childhood time was spent with his koroua or grand-uncle Te Hurinui Te Wano, up until his death in 1911. With him, he attended many tribal gatherings, conferences of tribal elders and various other tribal functions in many parts of the country. Much of Pei Te Hurinui’s knowledge of esoteric Māori traditions and history can be attributed to the teachings he received from his koroua.

Kaumātua as nurturers

Traditionally, the grandparents nurtured the children while the parents attended to the day-to-day physical work, or went away to fight during times of warfare. It was also traditional for grandparents to raise the first grandchild, whose first-born status meant it was important for the child to be steeped in tribal traditions and genealogies. Many other children were adopted by grand-uncles and grand-aunties and brought up in their homes.

Relationship between elders and mokopuna

Kaumātua were probably the most influential people in the upbringing of children. The relationship between elders and children was generally characterised by care and affection with appropriate discipline. Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) recalled: ‘When I was told that an aged visitor whom I had never seen before was a tipuna to me, my heart warmed towards him. I placed him in the same category as my other tipuna who resided in the same village and had lavished affection upon me. He was a member of the family.’3

  1. Hirini Moko Mead, Tikanga Māori: living by Māori values. Wellington: Huia, 2003, p. 14. Back
  2. Hirini Moko Mead, and Neil Grove, Ngā pēpeha a ngā tīpuna. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001. Back
  3. Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck), The coming of the Maori. 2nd ed. Wellington: Maori Purposes Fund Board and Whitcombe and Tombs, 1950, p. 342. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Paul Meredith, 'Kaumātua – Māori elders - Kaumātua as repositories of knowledge and nurturers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

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