Kaumātua are elders in Māori society. Male elders are also known as koroua (or koro for short), and female elders as kuia.
Whether a person can be considered a kaumātua depends on age, knowledge of tribal history and traditions, and the presence of other potential elders for younger generations to turn to. People aged in their mid-60s or older would be universally accepted as a kaumātua. Some elders may be considered kaumātua purely based on their age, while others, despite their youth, have knowledge and leadership abilities which see them considered kaumātua at an earlier age.
The general term for Māori elders is kaumātua, but there is a range of terminology, some tribal-specific, that denotes someone as an elder, grandfather or grandmother. Some examples are:
Ancestor/grandparent: tipuna/tupuna, matua tupuna.
Grandfather: tipuna matua/tupuna matua, koroua, kauheke, koroheke, koro, koko, karanipā, koeke, korokoroua, pōua.
Grandmother: tipuna wahine/tupuna wahine, kuia, karanimā/karanimāmā, perekōu, tāua, ruruhi, ruahine, kui, kuikuia, ngoingoi.
In Māori society elders are held in high esteem. They are recognised for their life experiences and the knowledge they have accumulated over the years. Age brings not only respect and recognition, but also expectation. Their guidance is often sought on all manner of topics in daily life, as well as the more esoteric and ceremonial matters of Māori tradition. Elders are expected to perform certain roles and duties within the wider family and tribal community.
Kaumātua had an important leadership role. Kaumātua, both male and female elders, were the leaders of the whānau. They would make decisions concerning the whānau land, the control and use of whānau property, the rearing and education of children, and were the spokespeople for the whānau in tribal councils.
Additionally, Kaumātua would mind children during the day while parents were working or during warfare. It was traditional for the kaumātua to raise their first-born mokopuna (grandchild). Kaumātua were the storehouses of tribal knowledge, genealogy and traditions.
Lengthening life expectancy has had an effect on the age at which a person is considered kaumātua. Before European colonisation, 40 years old would have been considered old age, and some in their 30s may have been considered kaumātua.
In the 1980s when a government department organised a hui for kaumātua they set the minimum age at 70, which excluded one of the best-known Ngāpuhi kaumātua of the time, Haimona Snowden, who was in his 60s.
Elders feature in Māori traditions as both nurturers of the young and keepers of knowledge to be passed down.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Kaumātua, both male and female elders, were the leaders of the whānau. Leadership was focused on the oldest members of the whānau, often as patriarch or matriarch possessing the wisdom and experience to guide the younger generations. Kaumātua made the decisions concerning the working of family land, the control and use of family property, and the rearing and education of children. They were the spokespersons for the whānau in rūnanga (tribal councils).
Kaumātua played a significant role in rūnanga. John Savage, a surgeon, travelled to New Zealand in 1805. He spent two months in the Bay of Islands before returning to England in 1806 with a Māori named Moehanga, the first New Zealander to visit England. He observed: ‘The elders have great weight in the councils of the chiefs, and in all affairs, excepting those of a military description, they decide independently of them, though the authority of the chiefs would undoubtedly enable them to prevent the elders from carrying any projected measure into execution, should they feel disposed to exert this authority.’1
Kaumātua were often involved in arranging appropriate marriages. In some cases they might stand up to betroth an infant grandchild during a function, particularly where such a union might be politically advantageous to the whānau, hapū or tribe. In other cases a young man or woman might first talk to his or her kaumātua of their desire to marry someone. The kaumātua would arrange the marriage rather than the parents, if the match was acceptable.
Kaumātua also played a prominent role in social control and dispute resolution. Parties in disputes drew on the wisdom and guidance of kaumātua, and in most cases deferred to their judgment. Merimeri Penfold commented on her elders dealing with misdemeanours during her childhood in the 1930s: ‘Every Sunday they would have this gathering of elders and bring up elements that need to be addressed by them – like these guys who had been tampering with Māori tapu or raiding the hen run … this is the talk around the family, everybody knows about [the family member involved] and he was brought to meet the elders after church and that was sort of punishment, too.’2
Many kaumātua endured cultural dislocation as a result of the urbanisation of Māori in the later 20th century. Kaumātua, who should have been expected to be familiar with tribal history and traditions, have admitted that when they were young they had no time for, or were unable to hear, many of the stories of their old people: ‘Gone are the days when we could, but didn't often bother to, sit and listen, as beautiful words and phrases flowed forth from a heart and mind, well versed in the things of his generation and with songs that were history and geography in themselves! … A new era has dawned for us!—“Ka pu te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi.”’1
As early as 1907 Te Rangi Hīroa had foreshadowed this problem, making a plea for Māori elders to pass on their knowledge:
[K]aua e kaiponutia nga taonga a o tatou tupuna. Tukuna mai ... Ma kona ka mau tonu ai a tatou korero, ka mahue iho ai hei koha ki nga uri e tipu ake nei, kei moumou te hari atu a nga kaumatua ki te reinga a ka mahue kupu kore matou nga mokopuna.
(Do not over-zealously hold on to those treasures of our ancestors. Hand them over … So that our stories will be captured and left behind as a bequest to the next generations, and not wastefully taken by the elders with them to the departing place of spirits leaving the grandchildren with nothing.)2
From the mid-1980s it became popular for many public institutions to call on kaumātua to perform Māori ceremonial rites such as karakia, blessings and pōwhiri (welcoming ceremonies) as part of their drive to become, or at least to appear, more bicultural and responsive to Māori. Some question the cultural integrity of such performances, particularly where they have been perceived as tokenistic. Some have cynically referred to this activity as ‘Dial-a-kaumātua’.
In some communities a younger generation has been forced to step forward, to perform certain ceremonial roles in place of their kaumātua. In others, tribes have sought to build the capacity of their elders. Te Arataki Manu Kōrero o Tainui, instigated by the late senior Ngāti Maniapoto kaumātua Tui Adams, brought together Tainui elders to improve their knowledge of Tainui tikanga (customs) and history and to ensure the continuity of Tainui traditions and identity.
Kaumātua remain important to the cultural strength of Māori tribes and as cultural symbols of Māori identity. Mason Durie said: ‘The standing of a tribe, its mana … relates more to the visible presence and authority of its elders … it is the older generation who carry the status, tradition and integrity of their people.’3
In the 1970s marae communities began establishing kaumātua flats. In 1975 Matiu Rata, the minister for Māori affairs, commented on the motivation behind them: ‘[T]he desire to keep our elders where they become the ones who keep our maraes, our communities and our lands warm with their presence. Not for us the Eventide homes, the boarding houses where the elderly are put on their own, the communities consisting solely of the aged and the infirm. Elders are part of the community … The need for them as the link between the old and the new and as the stabilising group which will perpetuate Māoritanga is greater now than ever before.’4
Durie, Mason. ’Kaumātuatanga. Reciprocity: Māori elderly and whānau.’ New Zealand Journal of Psychology 28, no. 2 (Dec 1999): 102–106.
Kohere, Reweti T. ‘Nga titotito a te Maori: te oriori a Hinekitawhiti mo tana mokopuna mo Ahuahukiterangi.’ Te Ao Hou 7 (Summer 1954): 60.
Mead, Hirini Moko. Tikanga Māori: living by Māori values. Wellington: Huia, 2003.
Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck). The coming of the Maori. 2nd ed. Wellington: Maori Purposes Fund Board and Whitcombe and Tombs, 1950.
This site showcases kaumātua engaged in kapa haka (traditional Māori performing arts). It was developed by He Kura Te Tangata Charitable Trust, a national organisation dedicated to supporting Kaumātua Kapa Haka throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.