Cultural Journeys Part One: Whakapapa 101

En route through the ngahere to the Hakarimata summit, Ngaruawahia.

Taking a Massey University paper on Māori Resource and Environmental Management (Whenua) in 2022 is part of an ongoing journey navigating cultural terrains. The context for these blogs is that I’m Pākehā, from a whanau firmly situated in a concrete, Eurocentric world. My arrival in Aotearoa was simple: on a sofa in an Auckland house, born to European parents who had arrived a year earlier for work. Speed through a few decades of growing up in Tāmaki Makaurau, witnessing the seismic shifts and collisions in what is disconcertingly packaged as “race relations”. I’m old enough to remember when news readers’ pronunciation changed: place names in te reo Māori stopped sounding like they’d been run over by a ute. I’m deeply relieved we’ve moved on from our myopic monolingualism to reshaping the cultural landscape Aotearoa. So, no rei ra tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

Cultural politics were never a discussion topic at the dinner table, let alone at school, so the foundation for understanding the complexity of Te Ao Māori, the Māori world and world view has been a slow process of accretion.

Who am I and from where have I come? The first essay for the Massey University course centred on teasing out the what, why and how of whakapapa.

Whakapapa answers those questions… who am I and where have I come from? … It seeks meaning… [and] sheds light on that inner spiritual world of human consciousness where security is procured in the understanding of the world that surrounds oneself. (Royal, 1992)

In the non-indigenous, non-religious world, the concrete is distinct and separate from the abstract; human beings from other sentient beings, as well as gods and spirits; facts are separate from fable, and the living from the dead. A world categorized this way may be both easier to conceptualize and consequently, less complex to manage. Secular genealogy creates a chain of family members connected over time until the trail is lost in the non-documented past, while in the non-secular realm, generations are colonised by non-human entities that may reach back to eternity. In Te Ao Māori, an entry point to understanding whakapapa is genealogy – a journey that describes the relationships between people, those living and their ancestors, traversing actual time and mythical time to the spiritual origin.


Te Parapara: showcasing traditional kumara growing practices at the Hamilton Gardens. Image sourced from

In gathering different researchers’ investigations and interpretations together (see further reading at the end of this post), at their most fundamental, whakapapa are all-encompassing narratives. For a culture necessarily rooted to the land and sea, knowing your whakapapa, being able to situate yourself in time and space is ultimately about survival: the daily sourcing of food, medicine, and fibre. So the whakapapa journey includes deities, the sentient and non-sentient: from the various children of Rangi and Papa, four atua/gods came into being: Tane (ancestor of the forest, trees, birds, insects and in some tribal genealogies, human beings); Tangaroa (the sea, creatures within it and in some tribal genealogies, human beings); Rongomatane (cultivated foods such as kumara, taro and uhi/yam), and Haumiatiketike (uncultivated foods such as aruhe/bracken fern rhizome, ti kouka/cabbage tree) (Roberts, 2013). Whakapapa for many individual elements now only survive as fragments but for kumara/sweet potato whakapapa provides the spiritual origin of the species and guides cultivation (Roberts et al., 2004).


In pre-European times, whakapapa throughout the Pacific passed orally from generation to generation. They were taught through wānanga (but only to select individuals), sung, chanted and spoken with many different forms describing the different relationships over generations (Mahuika, 2019, Moorfield, 2001).


Now, capturing words, ideas and concepts on paper or screen is cemented into everyday life. The shift from oral to visual has enhanced access to whakapapa and prevented information loss (Te Rito, 2007). However, the many methods of documentation (e.g., through minute books of the Native Land Court, family whakapapa books, tribal charts, newspaper and journal articles) have also exposed whakapapa to interpretations based on different values and understandings. At times, whakapapa are pared down “…in order to massage them into coherent accounts that often erased or misinterpreted the nuances that inform and acknowledge competing tribal identities” (Mahuika 2019).


The iconic cone of Rangitoto. There are over over 53 volcanoes in the Auckland volcanic field. All are extinct… except Rangitoto, which just lies dormant. Image: Chris Gin_Flickr_CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the next post, I’ll delve a little further into whakapapa and connection to the whenua/land. To wrap up this post, I’ll share my pepeha – I’m personalising it further as I learn more:

Ko Tiamana te whakapaparanga mai
Ko Tāmaki Makaurau te whenua tupu
Ko Rangitoto te maunga te rū nei taku ngākau
Ko Tamaki te awa e mahea nei aku māharahara
Kei Kirikiriroa au e noho ana
Ko Monica Peters au

My ancestry is German, but I grew up in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland – it’s still “home” despite residing in Kirikiroa/Hamilton for over a decade. I maintain my connection both to Rangitoto and the Tāmaki estuary – they are the landscape markers of my childhood.

Kia pai tō koutou rā

Further reading

Mahuika, N. (2019). A Brief History of Whakapapa: Māori Approaches to Genealogy. Genealogy, 3(2), 32.

Moorfield, J. (2001). Te Kākano (2nd ed.). Pearson New Zealand.

Roberts, M. (2013). Ways of Seeing: Whakapapa. Sites: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, 10(1), 93–120.

Roberts, M., Haami, B., Benton, R., Satterfield, T., Finucane, M. L., Henare, M., and Henare, M. (2004). Whakapapa as a Mäori Mental Construct: Some Implications for the Debate over Genetic Modification of Organisms. The Contemporary Pacific, 16(1), 1–28.

Royal, T. A. C. (1992). Whakapapa. In G. C. Palliser (Ed.), GRINZ Yearbook 1992 (pp. 21–25). Genealogical Research Institute of New Zealand.

Te Rito, S. J. (2007). Whakapapa: A framework for understanding identity. MAI Review, 2.

Walker, R. (1996). Ngā Pepa a Ranginui: The Walker Papers. Penguin.

One response to “Cultural Journeys Part One: Whakapapa 101

  1. Pingback: Cultural Journeys Part Two: Naming and claiming the land | monicalogues·

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