Story: Whakapapa – genealogy

Page 4. Recalling whakapapa

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Whakapapa links to landscape were recalled in waiata, particularly oriori (chanted to children), and in stories. Waiata embellished the meaning of whakapapa. Kōrero (stories) and traditions were recalled which also added meaning to whakapapa.

When Māori were laying their claims to land in the Native Land Court hearings, whakapapa, waiata and kōrero were all given in evidence. Claims to land were often based on take tipuna (rights through ancestors) and so it was necessary to trace whakapapa to illustrate particular rights to land or other resources in a given area.

Oral lore

Scholar H. W. Williams noted that Māori formally trained as repositories of oral lore could recite hundreds of names in interlocking genealogies. Ethnographer Elsdon Best described one Māori informant who dictated from memory 341 waiata and karakia (prayers). Tamarau Waiari of Ngāti Koura recited 1,400 names before a 1890s Native Land Court hearing, in a dense interwoven genealogy including all living persons descended from a single ancestor about 20 generations earlier.

These individual experts had contemporaries in their whānau, hapū and iwi, with other traditional knowledge, meaning that the overall collective genealogical memory of tribes was much larger than these impressive individual examples.

Whakapapa experts often had rākau whakapapa, which looked similar to walking sticks, but had small ridges running along the shaft. When recounting whakapapa these experts would use each ridge to represent a particular ancestor.

With the introduction of writing, whakapapa soon began to be written down in manuscripts and books. These books were considered tapu and were handled carefully. In many cases, when their owners died the books would be buried with them or burnt because of the level of tapu they were considered to have.

In the late 19th century, when important people passed away, their whakapapa links to the most important tribal canoes were sent to be printed in the newspapers.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Whakapapa – genealogy - Recalling whakapapa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2015