By Maakarita Paku
Apr 2017

Gifts from our Grandmothers and Grandfathers

Nā Maakarita Paku

Nō Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Muriwhenua, Lakota Oyate

Tūāhu ki te kainga

When the trees begin to shed their leaves and the evening breezes we have become used to bites like a sharp needle after sundown, our natural world is speaking, it’s telepathic wonder through our senses, because the Autumn equinox is stirring.

Preparation for pregnancy and birth is similar.  Our environment and surroundings take new forms we maybe never noticed before.  Physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental processes are inevitable and is what shapes human form.  Whakapapa documents every phase and manifestation passed down in each person’s blueprint.  The stories of our grandmothers and grandfathers are gifts because their knowledge is instilled in us so that when we need to access information it is simply there waiting for us to pay attention and maybe ask the right questions.  The endearment – mokopuna (grandchild, beloved) is one astounding nuance of te reo Māori reminding us that we are moko, the blueprint DNA masterpieces of the great unlimited source of pure energy descended from generations of very deep, sophisticated knowledge systems as expressed in the word puna.

The following whakataukī is a traditional view kaumātua and whānau consider, stating the qualities sought to raise a healthy child.

Moea te tāne ringa raupā e, whiria te whaea o te whenua.

Marry a man with callused hands, choose a woman who nurtures.

In this offering, tūāhu – an altar is the state of hapūtanga which elevates a woman and her child as precious and treasured.  We are revered because it is an event to be honoured and celebrated.  As a vessel we are monumental, te uwha tapu as told in the pūrākau of Hineahuone known to most iwi Māori as the first female human being in creation.

This article does not set out to define all or any of the mātauranga around the origins or instruction of tūāhu, for it is knowledge specific to women and their own whānau, hapu and iwi.  The building of tūāhu and its purpose held varying significance and importance to iwi of Aotearoa as well as our indigenous relatives around the world.  However, in order to raise an awareness amongst Māori birthing women today, reclaiming and reaffirming as many positives and resources that are accessible is a priority.

Captured here, are a few considerations to empower, inspire and promote well-being above all in a space that can easily become overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, pain, and trauma.  It is also a response to the harrowing statistics across the nation highlighting the poor state of Māori women’s health in pregnancy and birth.  We have to take responsibility for the well-being of our whānau by teaching each other how to live healthy in order to be healthy and grow healthy babies.  I write this because where systems or agencies may be failing, Māori as a people need not fail ourselves by being a statistic that is regurgitated here, there, and everywhere.

There are many ways in which this can be accomplished, the prescription as mentioned earlier is sitting within our DNA waiting to be activated.  We can take control of our own health care by doing the best possible to reduce risks within our own means before having to access public health services.  Simply taking better care of ourselves is a start and even on a zero health budget it is achievable.

He aha te tūāhu?

It is a sacred space or structure placed or created as an endowment for a specific purpose facilitating spiritual, emotional, physical, and family well-being.  Celebrated by some as te whare tauawhiawhi it aligns fittingly as an instrument that embodies the philosophy and Māori well-being model of Te Whare Tapa Whā by Dr Mason Durie.

Taonga or tools chosen to aid and enhance the birth experience can be both medicinal, spiritual, and practical.  Your tūāhu may be fashioned to meet the mood, emotional, physical, or spiritual needs based on a number of situations that may require a concerted effort to accomplish safe passage.

Some examples of taonga also sourced as teaching aids, comforters, or healing tools;

    • tōkere
    • pūrerehua
    • porotiti
    • muka
    • ipu whenua
    • hue
    • ipu pito
    • wahakura, waikawa
    • takapau wharanui/whāriki takapau
    • poi piu
    • whakaahua
    • pīkau
    • ake rautangi
    • pounamu, kōhatu, iyan sha
    • kawakawa, rongoā Māori
    • oneone
    • waiora
    • huruhuru manu
    • kaakano

Ipu Whenua made by the children

Traditional Takapau Wharanui

Contemporary Takapau Wharanui

Placed carefully in an area selected by the birthing woman but not restricted to others, the setting and pathway for whakatau mauri and whakawhānau tamaiti is established.  Refer to a previous article – Te Whare Pora.[1]

The tūāhu is then transformed into a birth or medicine bundle, one’s own basket of birthing knowledge and necessities.  In todays contemporary terms a tūāhu can be likened to a birthing kit!  There’s the birthing kit that a midwife carries consisting of a check list of regulatory medical and clinical equipment such as resuscitation apparatus.

There are no wrong or right ways of laying out the intention of a safe, manageable birth using our tūāhu.  The exercise alone is grounding and user friendly to children.

In the past I have utilised the tūāhu as a navigational tool in both homebirth and hospital deliveries.  Taonga can be laid out as a visual affirmation.  I have used them as dials to map out my labour and birth.  Wonderful for assisting in raising, easing, or transferring the intensity of energy levels for the woman, her baby and anyone else in the room.  Water as a carrier holds such great importance in its use because it contains and releases energy aiding women during our birth time in many ways that are extremely beneficial.  Its absence as an element that moves and changes form, shifts from hot to cold would impact.

For one particular pregnancy that eventuated in a miscarriage, my little tūāhu humbly facilitated my traumatic loss consisting of three stones; turquoise (Southwest USA), inyan sha (pipestone of Minnesota USA) and Manitoba rock (Canada).  I was supported by a close friend who lamented for my son and I.  She sang him to the stars as I clutched these stones in my hands bracing and transferring the pain to them in a parked up ambulance on the road side.  These three precious stones helped me manage the pain of an internal bleed until I was swiftly knocked out with anaesthetic.

Wahakura, Waikawa

There has been a great resurgence taking place in communities, one example is amongst Māori health providers across the country for the implementation of wahakura or waikawa.  In Ngāti Kahungunu, Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga and the Hawkes Bay DHB have strategised with the production and supply of Wahakura Rīwā lead by local weaver and tutor, Rīwa Wawatai.[2]  Saving lives and enhancing quality of life is the driving force behind this strategy where at risk whānau are identified and supported.  The wahakura is a safe sleeping cultural device and mahi a tūpuna making a strong comeback, here to stay as promoted by Whakawhetū[3] Mokopuna Ora and the national movement of the Wahakura Warriors community.  The wahakura is an excellent example of taonga tuku iho for the tūāhu and the beauty of it is women are able to learn this art form and pass that knowledge on.

He Tawhito

A tūāhu can be incorporated into the birth plan and should be discussed openly as more Māori midwives and non-Māori midwives become aware, familiarised and more open to our traditions.  Practicality in creating a tūāhu is made easy by the many gifts from nature that are free and limitless.  Some may be family heirlooms, others we or whānau members have created especially for the birth.  Your tūahu is fully dependent on the stretch of your creativity and the resources available.

In addition to the visuals and the tools of a tūāhu there are also the oral traditions that complete and conclude the effectiveness of its purpose through each or all of the stages of pregnancy through to delivery, postnatal care and raising children.  The ceremonies or rites that ground the intention for the woman and baby are, karakia tawhito, mōteatea, oriori, karanga, maioha, whakatau, pōhiri, tauparapara, whakatauakī and mihimihi to name a few.  They can occur at the point of whakatau mauri or when stress levels become overwhelming at any time especially during labour, in other varying situations like a show, when the waters break, if progress of labour and dilation has become stagnant or disestablished, to manage contracting pain as well as any type of discomfort, descent of the baby into the pelvis, engaging of the head, transition, presentation, crowning, birthing of the whenua, cutting of the pito, baby’s first swaddling, bath or mirimiri and name giving to highlight a few.

A few years ago, I was witness to karakia tawhito aiding in the gentle breaking of our grandson’s waiāhuru, recited by his father.  The flow of his waters from his mother’s womb were as gentle as the lull of the karakia and we all celebrated with the understanding that his birth was eminent.

Manaakitanga me Te Mana o Te Wai

So, if you have memories like my cousins and I have of greenstone slabs placed around our Nana’s homestead as door stoppers and why they were placed there, then there are stories full of information waiting to be heard within your own whānau circles.

In January of this year our cousin who is the kaitiaki of our whānau taonga, presented one of the pounamu referred to before all of our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren at one of our marae in Wairoa.  It was there where we shared the tradition of whakatau mauri through the placement of a tūāhu within the meeting house of Te Otāne.  From this ceremony the new stories, laughter, songs, memories, touch, and breath of each family member were recorded.  Our love for each other has been absorbed into our Nana’s pounamu, ready to be accessed again at future gatherings, for future generations.  As mentioned, the use of water from our great river Te Wairoa Hōpūpū Hōnengenenge Mātangirau was the conductor of ceremonies, transferring person to pounamu and person to person.

These traditions and the role of water is constant in the transportation of knowledge and if you ponder a little more of the taonga listed in this article, each of them has their own unique relationship with water whether finite or infinite.  Water is a connector and a key tool that accompanying the work of a tūāhu.  On paepae around Aotearoa speakers reference themselves, their whakapapa, and their people by the following whakataukī.

‘Ko au te awa, ko te awa ahau

I am the river and the river is me’

Mni Wiconi! Water is life.

Mitakuye Oyasin! We are all related!

[1]  https://homebirth.org.nz/magazine/article/te-whare-pora/ACTIVE WILL CHANGE

[2]  https://www.facebook.com/artbyRIWA/ACTIVE

[3]  http://www.whakawhetu.co.nz/ACTIVE


Maakarita is an artist, activist and mother. She is managing director of Te Ihiroa Designs as well as the Midwifery Standards Reviewer at the New Zealand College of Midwives. Her work in the birth field is enriched by her fierce political activism, describing herself as Hunkpapa Lakota Oyate Māori Grandmother, Mother and Artist in transition she brings her heart to the things that matter in life. Birth, Love, Water.  Mni Wiconi!

Her work as an artist can be found here on Facebook page.