In traditional Māori knowledge, as in many cultures, everything in the world is believed to be related. People, birds, fish, trees, weather patterns – they are all members of a cosmic family.
This linking was explained in tātai (genealogies) and kōrero (stories), collectively termed whakapapa (meaning to make a foundation, to place in layers). Experts recited the whakapapa of people, birds, fish, trees and the weather to explain the relationships between all things and thus to place themselves within the world. This helped people to understand the world, and how to act within these relationships.
Gods and their families
The entire world was seen as a vast and complex whānau (family). In the Māori story of creation, the earth and sky came together and gave birth to some 70 children, who eventually thrust apart their parents and populated the world. Each of the children became the god of a particular domain of the natural world. Their children and grandchildren then became ancestors in that domain. For example, Tangaroa, god of the sea, had a son called Punga. Punga then had two children: Ikatere, who became the ancestor of the fish of the sea, and Tūtewehiwehi, who became the ancestor of the fish and amphibious lizards of inland waterways.
The meaning of whakapapa
Whakapapa (genealogies and stories) express our need for kinship with the world. They describe the relationships between humans and the rest of nature. In one tradition, some tribal groups and the fish of the sea claim descent from Tangaroa, the god of the sea.
Whakapapa also explain the origins of animals, plants and features of the landscape. To tell a story about the origin of a bird, for example, is to invoke its true essence or character.
The value of oral traditions
Although many of the stories are myths, they also have a practical function. They can pass on knowledge about the natural world, such as where to find kererū (New Zealand pigeons) and how to harvest them.
Although science is another way of understanding the natural world, the traditional principle of interconnectedness is still important and meaningful to Māori. For example, the genealogy of fish and sea animals makes clear the kinship of people and other creatures. It also points out values that guide people’s interaction with other species, teaching respect and correct conduct.