Maori Perspectives

The Importance of Whakapapa - An Explanation by Egan Bidois

For Maori – indeed for all cultures – the integral questions of “Ko wai au?” “Who am I?” and “No wai au?” “From whom do I come?” hold importance beyond a basic surface level.

Those questions are the cement of our existence, the foundations upon which we stand – they are our reason, our relevance and relationship. They are ultimately our right to be.

Within Whakapapa/Pepeha are names, are places and events that serve as timelines and locators of where we, where our people, where your people came from and where they exist today. Often included are geographical features such as maunga/mountains, or awa/rivers. Names of Iwi/tribal rohe/areas. Names of tipuna/ancestors from whom we descend.

All bring about an increased understanding within those who listen to and experience your Whakapapa of ‘Ko wai ia’ ‘Who is s/he’ and ‘No wai ia’ ‘Where does s/he come from’. It is through this exchange of Whakapapa that connections are made and reaffirmed.

Another perspective on the importance of Whakapapa can be found by examining the word itself.

One of the beautiful aspects of our language is the depth and layers of meaning that are contained within the words we use. Our words – our kupu – did not just appear out of thin air. They were created. They were formed. Often they are combinations of other kupu, other contexts.

Let’s take the kupu whakapapa. Bearing in mind that we all have our own understandings, our own knowledges, and so I acknowledge other understandings and knowledges – this is just one.

Whaka can mean ‘to create, to cause, to bring about, to action. Motion’. For example: Whakapai – To make good, to improve. Whakahaere – to make go, to drive (Kaiwhakahaere – Manager)

Papa can refer to firmament. Ground. Solid base. (Papatuanuku – Mother Earth)

From one perspective and understanding, Whaka-papa can be seen to mean ‘To bring about grounding’ ‘to provide a solid base’.

A solid place to stand, solidity and security below our feet is often the first requirement to recovery when all else around you is shaky and insecure.  Having that firm foothold upon which to stand, to walk and to journey upon can facilitate forward movement. Whakapapa is our certainty when all else may be questionable.  Whakapapa is our truth during those times our hold upon such may slip.  Whakapapa is the anchor and the rock upon which we can tether ourselves to in the storms of confusion that may come during times of crisis.  Hence the importance of Whakapapa to Maori.

It serves as an acknowledgement and a reminder of whence we came, of our lineage and our heritage. Of our history and of the ions upon ions our chain of being has existed. That our chain of whanau, of blood and of birth has remained – unbroken - from the beginning.

The obviousness of its resilience is found by looking into any mirror. There you will see a culmination of all that has gone before. You will see the faces of your tipuna embodied in your own. The wisdom and the knowledges, the good and the bad, you stand as a collective – not as an individual. As is reflected via this whakatauki:


‘Ehara taku toa I te toa takitahi - engari he toa takitini ke!’

‘My strength/being is not that of one person – but of thousands!’


It is from this understanding that strength is drawn.

It is from this acknowledgement and realisation that courage comes.

It is from this line in the sand, this stake in the ground, this exclamation of existence that empowerment can eventuate.

Whakapapa is identity. Whakapapa is collective. Whakapapa is also duty. We are born of others. So too were they born of others. As such we inherit not only the physical characteristics but in many ways the spiritual characteristics also.

There lays another key component in the importance of Whakapapa – the inheritance beyond the physical. For some Tangata Whaiora what they experience could be considered ‘Genetic Disposition’ in European Clinical terms.  For us as Maori we may term that ‘x-factor’ Whakapapa, we may term it Wairua.

Being aware of ones Whakapapa can help bring about understanding and awareness of what you may experience. It can help bring about a sense of peace with and acceptance of it thereby facilitating ones own recovery journey – and perhaps more importantly it leads you from a journey of recovery onto perhaps a far deeper journey of self-discovery.

And so there are strands to Whakapapa.

You have your physical whakapapa – the blood, bones and flesh. The seen.

You also have your spiritual whakapapa – the Wairuatanga components of who you are. The unseen.

Knowledge, experience and ability can come in so many ways.  It can be lived and it can be learnt. It can be gifted and it can be gained. It can be brought with you and it can be born into.  From a Maori perspective knowledges are a culmination of all. Of past, present and future.

Generation after generation of Maori – and indeed for so many cultures – have been born seeing. Born hearing. Born experiencing and born knowing.  Those experiences may by one perspective be seen as Psychosis, they may be clinicalised and pathologised in an effort to define and confine what *it* is.  Another perspective is that *it* simply just is.  Is it for us to define, or is it for us just to experience? That is a key question.

For those born within experiences, what they experience can also be seen as inheritance.  I may be born with my father’s hair, my mother’s eyes, my grandfather’s skin, and my great grandfather’s facial features. All are visual tangible characteristics and components of our physical construction.  We may also be born with less tangible qualities.

Some may be born with less explainable characteristics.  For instance, some may be born with unexplainable *feelings*, unfamiliar memories, seemingly illogical responses and reactions to certain events, people, places. And yet when looking back through their whakapapa some sense may actually be found.  Their unexplainable fear or like/dislike of a specific person may well stem from that person’s tipunas interactions with their own.  Their unexplainable unease they feel within a specific place may well make some sense when they discover that one of their tipuna had died there.  What they experience – from one perspective – may well be the ripples of events merely passing through those waters of time until they wash upon that experiencer.

I may hear, or I may see, feel or ‘know’ in such a way that others perhaps do not.  To view that experience as purely an individual one – external of the context of whakapapa – and to then compare such experiences to what is ‘normal’ will inevitably result in your own abnormality. In being an anomaly. 

What some may find is that the sight, the hearing, the knowing – in the context of their whakapapa – is not anomalous at all. They may find that they are merely the next link in the chain. They may be experiencing what their mother, or father, or grandfather may have. What you experience and how you experience it may well – in the context of your whakapapa – be quite normal indeed.

Genetic Disposition – Whakapapa.

Po-tay-toe, Po-tar-toe.

Another point to make is a place of strength for those discovering their Whakapapa.  For many people there are questions around their Whakapapa – how do I find it? Who do I ask? What and where is my Whakapapa?  These questions while certainly important – and at times may bring feelings of angst or even loss and shame of not consciously knowing - should also be softened with an acceptance that Whakapapa IS.

YOU are your Whakapapa. The journey and discovery isn’t about finding something lost – for it is never lost. It is there. Always has been and always will be.  You are not ‘less-than’ if you are yet to fully hold firmly the understanding of who you are as you already hold it within you.  You are not so much seeking it as you are savouring it. Bit by bit, bite by bite.  The bounty of your Whakapapa is already laid waiting on the table you are already seated at. Like any good meal it comes in courses.  So take your time to look around the buffet table before you. Walk around it. Lift up the platter lids and discover what waits below.

Be assured that your validity does not rest upon your conscious knowledge. Your validity simply exists.


‘E kore au e ngaro – he kaakano i ruia mai i Rangiaatea’

‘I shall never be lost – a seed scattered from Rangiaatea’


Find some comfort in the above whakatauki. No matter where your journey takes you, you are already ‘home’. You are already ‘found’. You never were ‘lost’.

Na reira, nga mihi aroha ki a koe, ki a koutou katoa, ki ou koutou tipuna hoki! Nga mihi, nga mihi, nga mihi ki a tatou katoa!

Therefore, greetings of love to you, to you all, to your ancestors also! Greetings, greetings, greetings to us all!


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