Story: Whakapapa – genealogy

Page 6. Scholars and whakapapa

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Problems in publication

Early-20th-century Pākehā writers changed the order of creation from Te Pō (the darkness), then Te Ao (the light) followed by Te Kore (the nothingness) to Te Kore, then Te Pō and Te Ao because their translation of te kore as ‘nothingness’ implied to them that this should be the first order of creation. A better gloss for Te Kore might be unknown potential.

The first Western-trained Māori scholars later taught this version of creation to other Māori, to the extent that today it is widely accepted by Māoridom as reflecting pre-European creation beliefs.

Turning whakapapa into history

Other Pākehā writers, such as Stephenson Percy Smith in Hawaiki (1921), over-historicised genealogies, firstly by assuming genealogies were sequentially human as far back as 50 to 60 generations and beyond, and then by generalising all tribal genealogies into one linear sequence, to say Kupe was the first ancestor to arrive in New Zealand 42 generations before 1900 in 950 CE, followed by Toi in 1150 CE, and a fleet of seven canoes in 1350 CE. Smith’s interpretation of whakapapa became widely accepted by Māori because Māori scholars educated in European institutions promoted it among their own people.

False dates

Pākehā scholars also averaged out long and short genealogies to work out when particular ancestors lived, which often created false dates. Another practice where genealogies varied quite widely in length was to wrongly conclude there were two different ancestors of the same name who lived at different times, which overlooked processes of truncation and elongation. For instance it can be shown that genealogies ranging between 58 and 18 generations for the ancestor Kupe refer to the same person.

Dynamic whakapapa

The problems had an ongoing impact on Māori. For example, genealogies given before the Native Land Court and Waitangi Tribunal became more fixed rather than dynamic, because of assumptions that a Western form of linear history was the measurement of validity. This was also problematic as many of the genealogies given in the Land Court were reshaped to achieve a particular outcome – gaining access to land.

Myth and tradition in whakapapa

The Pākehā model of whakapapa divided genealogy into myth and traditions. Myth referred to the creation of the universe from Te Kore and Te Pō, Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother), the gods of nature, origins of human life and the demigod traditions of Māui and Tāwhaki. According to scholars Bruce Biggs and Ranginui Walker, the myths were timeless. Traditions were more historical and referred to events over the last millennium, including the discovery of Aotearoa (New Zealand), the settlement, founding of tribes and ongoing relationships between them. Margaret Orbell held similar views though she regarded the canoe traditions and many of the ‘historical’ tribal traditions as myth too.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Whakapapa – genealogy - Scholars and whakapapa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 August 2022)

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