Whaikorero: The World of Maori Oratory

Whaikorero: The World of Maori Oratory

by Poia Rewi

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781775582403
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Poia Rewi is a social scientist, a certified translator and interpreter of the Maori language, and an associate professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He has been a judge at regional Maori language speaking competitions as well as at national, regional, and tribal Maori performing arts competitions.

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The World of Maori Oratory

By Poia Rewi

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2010 Poia Rewi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-240-3



This book, Whaikorero: The World of Maori Oratory, explores the complexity of Maori oratory, both past and present. While whaikorero continue s to be a central element in Maori gatherings and culture, there is a notable absence in the literature of an analysis of its depth, its delivery, and its cultural and social context. What makes whaikorero more than merely a theatrical speech is the origin and function of the various components, the rites associated with the selection and qualification of its exponents, and the way it is delivered. This book is an investigation into not only the art of oratory itself, but also related cultural aspects. It delves into the underlying philosophies inherent in whaikorero that impact on, and are influenced by, the culture, etiquette and belief system of the Maori world.

It was my interest in learning about the Maori people in general as well as the tribes with which I have affiliations that provided me with the motivation and passion to find out more about Maori culture and lore. I believe that this passion, this interest, was imbued in me as I traversed the Bay of Plenty, Gisborne and bordering areas as a small boy with the grandfather I knew and loved, Sonny White. We would attend Ringatu days in the Mataatua area where I recall sleeping at the feet of elders. The last thing I would hear at night were Ringatu prayers, and the first thing to enter my ears in the morning were Ringatu prayers again. Although what was going on at the time was not always apparent to me, I think the teaching began there. Perhaps the spiritual elders, with all their knowledge, humility and compassion, thought that their mokopuna, me, might be worth cultivating. I believe they consciously, or subconsciously, opened the corridors of learning to me, and from there I was drip-fed knowledge selectively chosen that was appropriate to the various stages of my maturity. I think that they saw this knowledge as invaluable for my future survival, and perhaps more importantly, for the preservation of tribal information for future generations beyond me.

'One of the fundamental notions of Maori society is the respect for elders whose wisdom embodies the past', says Reilly, and it is with this thought in mind that I will be forever grateful to all of my kuia and koroua who have added to the tukutuku of Maori knowledge that has fashioned me. I sincerely hope that the knowledge they have passed on as the living breath of their words will continue to enhance the sovereignty, independence and honour that will become part of each and every Maori generation hereafter, 'hei putiki korero whakawhiti ki tena reanga, ki tena w hakapaparanga'.

The Search for Knowledge

In order for research on Maori to be conducted in an appropriate manner, it needs first to be unbiased. Durie expressed his view that researchers –

... must come to a better understanding of Maori society if they are to measure past conflict and conduct in cultural context. To understand that society they must look inside its thought concepts, philosophy and underlying values and avoid interpretations from an outward appearance. They must consider the social structure not just in terms of how it looks but with regard for the likely reasons for it. It will be important to consider the poetry, songs, legends, proverbs, idiom and forms of speech-making.

If we align Durie's expectations with the study of whaikorero, we become aware of the diverse factors that are associated with speech-making, including cultural context, values and meaning. Whaikorero is more than mere discourse. One of the purposes of this book is to examine the multifaceted nature of whaikorero – as ritual, as history, as tikanga – which is often overlooked by the very people to whom it belongs.

Where does one search for knowledge about the world of Maori oratory? Much of the literature on whaikorero gives a similar account, almost as if one author has regurgitated the writings of another: there is little newly introduced information and the approaches bear a close resemblance to each other. What also astounds me is the lack of data on whaikorero recorded by ethnographers such as Elsdon Best and John White. Why was this the case when people such as Best and Grey wrote volumes of material on Maori history, Maori lore, Maori belief systems, Maori genealogy? I am inclined to presume that it is because in the nineteenth century whaikorero was a thriving practice with a relatively large number of practitioners. Because it did not face the possibility of extinction, ethnographers felt less compulsion to write about it.

Sir Peter Buck mentions Western scholars' scepticism about the ability of uncivilised peoples to transmit information orally. Despite this scepticism, I view oral information as an integral component of this research, especially in light of the fact that the majority of written literature on whaikorero is repetitive. I would like to believe that the intricacies and subtle differences that give colour to this account of whaikorero come from the oral informants themselves. Conducting interviews, for me, was also a way of reinstating the validity of oral transmission and recognising the power of its mnemonic capacity, especially in the face of sceptics who are reliant on the written word and do not or cannot accept the dynamism of orality. Cox, amongst others, points to the functions and centrality of oral traditions within Maori culture:

It is important to remember that oral tradition has not ceased just because a more 'acceptable' alternative is available. Maori continue to store, maintain, and transmit historical details orally. For Maori, this information is vital to the social, economic, and political well-being of groups, and is consequently a dynamic resource. The same events in which many ancestral figures have played a part are retold through waiata (songs), whakatauaki (proverbial expressions), whakapapa (genealogical tables), and whaikorero (formal speeches).

Facing the paucity of material in the written record, I decided that oral interviews were the most effective means of eliciting quality information. I conducted 31 interviews over the period 1995 –2003. The majority of interviews were formally structured. Five respondnts chose to divulge the knowledge they had on the subject of whaikorero less formally by way of 'loose chats', rather than following the more standard 'question and response' format. Two elders died just before I was about to interview them, and this prompted me to prioritise the interviewing process. The venue where the interviews were conducted was determined by the informants: they decided on the location where they felt most comfortable, whether it was in the privacy of their own homes, the marae, my home, a hospital, a workplace or at a university.

I would like to express deep gratitude to all of them for making themselves available to my research. The majority of these elders were familiar with me or my family, but there were some who were unknown to me, and I to them. They agreed to share their knowledge, their memories, and even their kai, with me. I must confess that there were times when I felt like a secret forager for information, becoming privy to knowledge that I thought may have been rightfully destined for their own children or grandchildren, or people from their immediate tribe or subtribe. It was indeed a privilege to have these people talk with me, and I will probably spend the rest of my life finding a way to reciprocate. Where words fail to acknowledge such people fully, I must be content, at this point in time, with the moral gratitude that will forever sit close to my heart for all that they have shared.

Most of the people interviewed were chosen because they were renowned as quality practitioners of whaikorero, well known throughout their tribal boundaries, or recognised as great orators because of the memorable whaikorero they had delivered. As a consequence, their fame had spread throughout the country. Some of the respondents were referred to me as people with knowledge about whaikorero. All of these kuia and koroua of the 1990s embodied a link with highly skilled orators they would have witnessed who would, in turn, have been educated by elders schooled in wananga, the special schools of learning of the early twentieth century.

I made initial contact with informants via telephone, and once I had arrived for the interviews they were asked whether they agreed to have the interview tape-recorded. Two male respondents declined to be recorded. Bearing in mind the fact that whaikorero is a male-dominated area of responsibility on most marae, most of the people interviewed were male. However, I also interviewed kuia, and the approach with them was slightly different. They tended to be more informal, and talked about any area of whaikorero they wished to discuss. I sensed some reluctance by two of the kuia to talk about whaikorero, probably because it is generally accepted that whaikorero is a male role in most tribes. There were others who were not approached who, upon hearing that I was researching whaikorero, volunteered information or views they had in regard to the practice. Most informants agreed to divulge their knowledge with the understanding that I safeguard it. It is from this understanding that I recorded the discussions and completed transcription of the dialogue. I still have the records in my possession. Transcribed segments from the interviews have been incorporated in this work. The year that the discussion took place has been provided, and brief biographies of the informants can be viewed in the bibliography section.

Perhaps this is an opportune time to express my one regret in regard to the interview process. Eleven of the informants died before their contribution to this work went to print, and I sincerely apologise for my tardiness in completing the writing. Perhaps if I had been more conscientious and less procrastinating, they would have seen the fruits of their information. Their comments, nonetheless, are central to the text, and I am grateful to them, along with all of the informants, for their contributions, their trust and their openness.

Hohepa Kereopa, an expert on Maori medicine once provided a hint on procuring leaves for the preparation of medicine. It is preferable, he said, to refrain from gathering the leaves off one single tree or plant. The inadvertent effect of gathering leaves from one tree, he went on, means that the person who has gathered the leaves has empowered that one tree to be the sole healer. Because Maori believe that trees have a living form, similar to that of people, this gives that one tree, or plant, exceptional mana, that is, it raises the status and authority of that tree which may then become the target of jealousy and envy. This then gives root to animosity. What Hohepa proposes is that the leaves from different trees are gathered so that many trees, as opposed to one, will then have the power to heal, thereby minimising the likelihood of one tree becoming superior to others. This ensures that the mana is shared. In forming this text, information has been acquired from a range of sources including people now dead or alive, published and unpublished literature, public and private documents, and the internet. Like the trees with their remedial properties, the collective of elders who were interviewed gives authority to the knowledge I have brought together, and the means by which this knowledge of Maori cultural practices and whaikorero can be transmitted over generations..

Royal is critical of people who research and publish work on Maori culture and history and consequently 'have attempted to create a common version of tribal traditions, thereby undermining tribal diversity and ultimately tribal authority'. It is my hope that the main focus of this text falls sharply on whaikorero in the areas of its core values and principles, its intricacies and nuances, its diversity and variability. By allowing difference, complexity and context, and by examining both oral and written literature, it is my hope that I will be able to paint a worthwhile insight into tribal and individual uniqueness and specificity, as well as to reveal comparative differences and similarities. Perhaps this will encourage a shift from 'standardising' the way whaikorero is delivered.

The tribal affiliations of the informants include Tuhoe (Ngai Tuhoe), Kahungunu (Ngati Kahungunu), Te Arawa, Ngati Porou, Ngati Awa, Waikato– Maniapoto, Te Whakatohea, Nga Puhi and Ngati Whare; the majority being from the Tuhoe tribe. The general belief, when I began, was that Tuhoe have managed to evade the assimilation process, in comparison with other tribes, and therefore orators from Tuhoe were referred to me as knowledgeable in the arena of whaikorero. I am not totally sure why the other tribes were represented, but I am compelled to believe that the participation of informants from outside of my immediate tribal affiliations is the work of my taha Maori, my Maori side, and that it is likely that I have genealogical ties to those tribes. Two of the kuia who were interviewed are from Ngati Porou. Another kuia lived in Te Tairawhiti and has connections to Ngati Kahungunu. Yet another is from Tuhoe. It must be stated here that although I intended to gather information representative of all tribes, informants from Ngati Whatua, Taranaki, Whanganui, Rangitane, Muaupoko, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Te Waipounamu, Wharekauri and Rakiura were not included in this research.

Who Does Knowledge of the Past Actually Belong To?

Regardless of the venue or the speaker, I have always wondered who the knowledge of the past actually belongs to. I have heard the accolades of people seated around me being generously accorded to various speakers as they delivered whaikorero, lectures and seminars, or wananga, extended discussion forums. Some of this awareness has arisen because I know I have listened to similar utterances being expressed by other speakers, and what is being said on this occasion is, in part, merely the regurgitation of eloquent and profound material that is part of the cultural canon of whaikorero. It has always seemed a little unjust that there is no acknowledgement of the predecessors from whom these intelligent views and philosophies originated. But it is not my intention to censure the repetitions and similarities, since without them, the treasured history of former times may have perished along with the memories of those esteemed repositories.

My aim here is to share the credit between My aim here is to share the credit between both the source of the information and the speaker, should they not be the same person. How can we not give due recognition to the current repository of that knowledge and its role in transmitting that knowledge to future generations so that they will be proud in their heritage as Maori? And likewise, it would be a disservice not to acknowledge those ancestors with their wealth of experience and knowledge who coined beautiful phrases, who received knowledge from numerous people before them, and who opened the portal to esoteric knowledge of the Maori people which was secured and passed on from generation to generation.

When knowledge is passed on, it is not only its content that is important, but also the manner in which it is transmitted, that is, the ethos, integrity and spirituality that make those teachings so special. It is as a result of this passing on of knowledge that Maori are distinctly Maori and that individual tribes are unique and distinguishable from one another. These distinct tribes and subtribes also define us as special individuals. Such characteristics are also the cornerstones of identity for future generations of Maori that they will be able to use as treasures and as signposts that will enable them to know forever who they are and where they come from. This is held together by a genealogical thread that ties Maori to the primal gods Rangi-nui and Papa-tu-a-nuku, to their offspring, and then down to the human form fashioned from mother earth, Hine-ahu-one, from whom Maori people believe their very existence came to be. This text follows the same path in that this is a collection of knowledge and heritage passed down.

We know that the transmission and dissemination of knowledge is a vast topic and this focus on whaikorero is merely a ripple in that great sea of knowledge. We might extrapolate from the comment by King that education 'is a direction, not a destination', that not all knowledge can be acquired in its entirety. The journey is, in itself, satisfying, and its progress is just as important as the knowledge which may or may not be acquired along the way. A learned man, Te Wharehuia Milroy, once said to me, 'ki te kore he bwhakakitenga, ka mate te iwi',


Excerpted from Whaikorero by Poia Rewi. Copyright © 2010 Poia Rewi. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Half Title Page,
Title Page,
Explanatory Comments,
Map of Tribal Lands,
One Introduction,
Two What is Whaikorero?,
Three How to Learn Whaikorero,
Four Whaikorero as Rituals of Encounter,
Five Who can Perform Whaikorero?,
Six What Skills are Required for Oratory?,
Seven The Mana of Whaikorero,
Eight Protocols of Place,
Nine The Structure of Whaikorero,
Ten The Future of Whaikorero,
Appendix Sample Whaikorero,

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