When a baby is born to the people of this land (tangata whenua), to Maori, it is customary to bury the whenua or placenta in the earth, to return it to the land. Most often the whenua is buried in a place with ancestral connection, and is considered a physical and spiritual link to the place of birth. This act has deep cultural and spiritual importance, as the land is a source of identity for Maori. Being direct descendants of Papatuanuku (Earth Mother), Maori see Maori as not only of the land, but as the land. The living generations act as the guardians of the land, like the tipuna (ancestors) were before them. The uri (offfspring/descendant) benefit from that guardianship, because the land holds the link to their parents, grandparents and other tipuna, and the land is the link to future generations as well. This tradition comes forth from the idea that tangata whenua were first made from earth, from the body of Papatuanuku, who birthed all creatures and living beings. This leads us to understand why the word whenua has a dual meaning, meaning both the placenta – the tree of life that supports a baby through pregnancy, and also the land that connects us all. From earth people come and to earth they return.
Ma te wahine ka tupu ai te hanga nei, te tangata;
Ma te whenua ka whai oranga ai.
Whai hoki, ki te tangohia to wahine e te tangata ke,
Ka ngau te pouri ki roto i a koe.
Na, ki te tangohia te whenua e te tangata ke,
Ka pau to pouri ano.
Ko nga putake enei o te whawhai.
Koia i kia ai, He wahine he oneone, i ngaro ai te tangata.
Woman alone gives birth to humankind,
Land alone gives humans their sustenance.
No man will lightly accept the loss of
His beloved wife, nor that of his sacred land.
It is said truly that man’s destroying passions
Are the love of his wife and love of his land.
Whenua were traditionally placed in hollowed out hue (gourds), earthen pots or woven baskets and then buried to return them to Papatuanuku. These vessels are called ipu whenua. The whenua and pito (umbilical cord) of the first human created from earth were buried in the earth. This is the origin of the proverb ‘He taonga no te whenua, me hoki ano ki te whenua’ (What is given by the land should return to the land).
During the colonial period in New Zealand, the practice of placenta burial was taken away from Maori. Placentas were treated as medical waste, and the burial of whenua was considered primitive, unhygienic and superstitious. Whenua burial found a resurgence when in 1984, a group calling themselves Te Whanau o Maungarongo first promoted the idea of recreating ipu whenua. The group was initiated by Paparangi Reid (Te Rarawa), now Head of the Medical School in Auckland; the late Heraina Marsden (Ngai Takato, Te Aupouri, Patukoraha), daughter of the renowned tohunga (expert) the late Reverend Maori Marsden; and kaihanga uku (clay worker), Manos Nathan.
These three championed the idea of ipu whenua coming back to the people, especially when Manos and his wife were entering into the realm of childbirth. “It seemed the most logical thing to do to start creating ipu whenua and reinvestigate the rituals or practices within Maoridom… The concept of these vessels for whenua (the placenta) is the binding of a person to place, affirming whakapapa (genealogy) and links to turangawaewae.” Manos Nathan
Their initiative encouraged whanau to make ipu whenua in uku (clay) in order to hold the whenua until it could be buried in a place of significance. This practice is now very commonplace, not only with Maori and within the Maori midwifery community, but it’s also gaining ground in non-Maori in New Zealand.
Making your own ipu whenua can be a simple and loving activity, undertaken whilst pregnant as preparation for the journey of labour and in honour of welcoming a new child into the home. For a tutorial on how to make your own, easily constructed and price conscious placenta vessel, this tutorial is a great place to start.
You can also make a vessel out of clay, and because the ipu whenua does not need to be fired, very little equipment is required – some clay, a plastic mat and some shaping tools at the most. Some regions have workshops available. Lisa Kelly of Te Ha Ora has offered some photographs from the workshops she runs in Eastern Bay. These workshops which are focused on kaupapa Maori, offer an antenatal and parenting education programme for hapu mama and whanau. Phone 0272293086 for bookings or enquiries.