Champion of Knowledge.

By Kelly Tikao
Mar 2014

I was challenged the other day to make a choice – and that was to stand up for myself or be put down in front of other people.  I didn’t plan to start my day like this and was feeling great five minutes before the minor confrontation arose. The cause neither here nor there but the wero (challenge) was laid before me.  I made the decision and confronted my contender.  I had a fly on the wall perspective of myself that was trying to come across as powerful – hands on hips, legs wider than hips apart, chin level and my words defiantly launching from my mouth.  However, in truth my heart was pounding, and my tear ducts were tingling.

Later whilst reflecting on my 30 seconds of courage and the emotion it stirred within.  I decided to write about champions – people who have passion and are passionate about a particular topic, issue, political matter, or belief. For me there are champions of te reo Māori and needless to say, we need more champions according to the latest round of figures from Stats NZ.  Champions of te reo Māori work tirelessly to keep one of New Zealand’s three official languages alive.  Sadly, 75% of Māori are unable to speak te reo Māori, and although there has been a huge resurgence in making te reo Māori more accessible, the reality is learners of te reo Māori are declining.  A global snapshot highlights that of the 6000 languages spoken around the world today only 1000 are predicted to still be a live in 100 years (Mataamua, 2010, Statistics New Zealand, 2013).

Why do teachers of te reo Māori, writers and speakers dedicate so many years and energy towards this kaupapa?  Well, similar to any passionate person with a cause, te reo champions believe in the absolute – that te reo Māori is pivotal to the survival of the Māori culture. Te reo Māori describes who we are.

So how does championing te reo Māori and home birth relate?  They both evolve, they both communicate, they both sustain their lineage/whakapapa and they both need empowerment and nurturing to survive.

Whilst studying for my Masters in Traditional Māori Birthing Practices I read about many champions of knowledge all around the world.  People who study and articulate new knowledge and those who have helped preserve old knowledge. One group that stood out for me during my Masters research was a collective of people, mothers, fathers, families, and professionals who stood up against the fast current of new knowledge and techniques in maternity care and held fast to their autonomous home birthing practices. I was impressed by the courage of the Homebirth Association pioneers who started a movement based on reclamation and rights.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         I still see the Homebirth collectives situated around Aotearoa as champions for homebirth who have been steadfast in their morals, placing the needs and desires of the birthing woman and her family at the forefront.  Jane Stojanovic wrote about the medicalisation of birth and the profound effect anaesthesia had on women’s perception of birth at the time of its introduction.  Anaesthetics according to Stojanovic (2010) took the control away from woman and gave it to those administering it.  This kōrero highlights the power loss, and I see supporters of homebirth as people eager to delve deeper into human energy and our intrinsic knowledge around reproduction and birth.

Photo of her home birth generously supplied by Kelly Tikao

I see many midwives of all cultures raise their hand to support women and their families pursue their individualised birthing plans.  Many also champion old ways in current contexts and support hapū wāhine and whānau to explore their cultural traditions.  Not all midwives feel comfortable and able to work with whānau Māori who have a strong preference for cultural practices but in my birthing experiences I have been blessed with open-minded, openhearted strong wāhine.  Of those ten midwives only one affiliated to te iwi Māori. They are my champions.

After the birth of four of my five tamariki I was given an opportunity through a Masters in Science Communication Degree to investigate further my interest in traditional Māori birthing practices.  A thesis and a 25-minute student film came out of this degree (and lots of hard work in between) and will soon be followed by another academic stint (I know, I’m a beggar for punishment). I will share some taonga below from my Masters research – it is these taonga and others that I hope to elaborate on in the “stint” mentioned above.

Oriori are ancient chants that were used not only in hapūtanga but were given as a gift to visiting hapū and iwi. Oriori sung during hapūtanga carried significant whānau and tribal knowledge deemed important for that particular child.  Oriori were sung to the wāhine prior to conception, to the pēpi in utero, at the time of birth and during infancy. These chants often re-laid the whakapapa of the child, past significant war battles and the desires and hopes for the child’s future endeavours.

Oriori always felt to me to be pathways laid down before a child’s entry into Te Ao Marama (our current world) that acted as a guide for the child, and helped the child understand from whence they have come and laying before them their future.  I liken the oriori to the aboriginal alcheringa (Aranda term) concept for dreamtime or dreamline using song to aid a mapping of the land and to remember important tribal stories (Ellis, 1984, Elkin, 1969).

Whāriki or kaokao were woven mats made from harakeke (flax) or the finer whāriki were made from the inner fibres of the harakeke leaves or other natural fibres easily obtained in the village area.  They were designed specifically for birth. Kaumātua Te Moana Nui a Kiwa McClean spoke about the birth symbols woven into the whāriki representing birth and growth. These whāriki would be used to birth the pēpi directly onto and would be kept and used in whānau for generations.  Some hapū rolled the whenua (afterbirth) with the whāriki and buried both together.  Other whāriki made from muka were soft and used more like elaborate blankets to wrap the newborn in. It was also noted that if a pēpi was born sooner than planned a korowai (cloak) was thrown down for the pēpi to be born upon (Mclean, 2011, Palmer, 2002, Stone, 2011).  Some hapū gathered a soft moss that was used to line a shallow pit to which the wāhine squatted over and birthed her pēpi upon this prepared bed.

Deeper pits called rua were made for wāhine in labour.  Heated rocks were placed inside the rua and then removed, then lined with a whāriki, soft leaves or moss to which the wāhine was then encouraged to lie/sit in the rua.

Scented oils were also used in the rua to be inhaled by the labouring wāhine.  The rua concept was designed as a muscle relaxant and to produce a calming effect.  The rua could be used again post pēpi with the wāhine sitting upon steamed leaves. A technique used to ease the afterbirth cramps and to apply comfort to the bottom and perineum area.

Wāhine Māori mostly birthed in an upright position, kneeling with knees apart or standing leaning over a large birthing rock (a known rock in the village that birthing wāhine would go to), tree branch and/or an attendant.  I have been told some wāhine birthed on their sides with the top leg raised or bent and placed across the lower leg but no stories so far of any wāhine Māori birthing on their backs. It was often noted in historical health literature about the hospitalization of birth that wāhine Māori strongly resisted lying on their backs and were often stereotyped as non-compliant and resistant to what was seen as improved birthing practices (Harte, 2001).

Attendants supporting the birth were often used to support the wahine as she either leant on them or a common birthing position was for the attendant to be facing the wāhine, sitting or squatting, using their knees to gently apply pressure to the top of the abdomen during contractions.

A birthing tool that would do a similar action was the paewhakaruru also known as the paeruru or the paiwhairi.  Elsdon Best (1929) described this tool as an H-shape structure made from wood that would be used to help wāhine bear down during labour. One end was placed into the ground and the wāhine would lean her whare tāngata (uterus) across the horizontal piece.  The brief description of the paewhakaruru by Best makes it difficult to fathom the mechanics of this tool. I have made a very basic proto-type to see if I can better understand how it works.  Needless to say, more guidance is needed but I did get a clearer understanding of its use.

Like te reo Māori by using the language, not being afraid to learn Māori as a second language, aids more language acquisition and according to Dr Rangi Mataamua it opens our neural pathways to learning and expanding the world our children and we live in.  This also applies to learning or being more aware of birthing practices that are unique to our ancestors, to Aotearoa.  We need more champions who are interested in supporting the use of more traditional approaches to hapūtanga and birth.  By being champions ourselves we birth champions – they gain from our strength to follow a pathway and make decisions in their birthing plans that reflect their environment and tell their story.

E kore e taea e te whenu kotahi ki te raranga

i te whāriki kia mōhio tātou ki ā tātou.

The tapestry of understanding can

not be woven by one strand alone.

Kukupa Tirikatene

Kelly Tikao’s body of work “Looking to the Past to Improve the Future Iho – a Cord Between Two Worlds.”  is an important perspective for birth culture in New Zealand as it brings the importance to Tikanga Maori to our current medicalised birth practice. The aims of her ‘Iho (umbilical cord) – a Cord between Two Worlds’ research/film project – is to document traditional Maori birthing practises and explore how they could be integrated into a modern medical model of maternity care.

Through her work Kelly theorises that spiritual and practical aspects of traditional Maori birthing practices lead to good outcomes for infant and maternal health and the wellbeing of the whanau.  A key question Kelly would like to answer is, “Could the adoption of some traditional Maori birthing practices play a positive role in the well being of the whanau and pepi (baby), today?”

I swam from my world to yours. I left my weightless, warm, and beating womb to see you…mama. You embraced me, kissed me and together we cut the connection from my past, so I can grow into your future. With one gentle slice the pounamu blade ran across my pito, papa recited karakia and I heard the departing sounds of Hineraukatauri seep from my whare tangata. Kua tae mai au. I have arrived.


Best, E. (1929). Te Whare Kohanga “The Nest House” and it’s Lore. Wellington, New Zealand: A.R Shearer, Government Printer.

Elkin, A P (1969). Elements of Australian Aboriginal philosophy. Oceania, 40, 85-98.

Ellis, R (1984). Aboriginal Australia; Past and present. Sydney: Shakespeare Head/Golden Press.

Flood, J. (1983). Archeology of the Dreamtime. Sydney: Collins.

Harte, H. (2001). Home Births to Hospital Births: Interview s with Māori Women Who Had their Babies in the 1930’s. (Health Science). Health and History (3), 87-108.

McLean, B. (2011). Traditional Māori Birthing Practices. (Personal Interview ed.) Dunedin.

Statistics New Zealand (2013). New Zealand in Profile 2013 – An overview of New Zealand’s people, economy, and environment. New Zealand Government.

Stojanovic, J (2010). Midwifery in New Zealand, 1904-1971. Birthspirit (5), 53-59.