Maori Philosophy

Carving on Meeting House at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds honoring an ancestor

[Written by Bob Sessions:]

One of the reasons I was excited to go to New Zealand is that I’ve been teaching a course on Native American philosophy for years and was keen to meet New Zealand’s indigenous people and learn about their perspectives on the world.  I was not surprised to find many similarities between the beliefs and practices of these disparate first-nation peoples, but I also found many unique practices as well.

Maori call themselves tangata whenua, people of the land.  Members of the various tribes distinguish themselves from other Maori by referring to the canoe that brought their ancestors to Aotearoa (New Zealand) and to special landmarks such as a river or a mountain.  In other words, they tie their collective and individual identities to ancestors and places. When they are formally introduced, for example, they often will give not only their name, but also the names of their mountain and river.

As with most cultures, you can learn a great deal about the Maori by studying their creation stories. The Maori say that Earth (Papa) and Sky (Rangi) originally embraced so tightly that in order for their children (all earthly beings) to have lives, they had to be pried apart, a deed accomplished by ancestors of the magnificent kauri tree (Lori wrote about this a few days ago).  John Patterson, a New Zealand philosopher, interprets the story this way in his very readable and insightful book, People of the Land:

[The children of Earth and Sky] are closely confined between their parents, shut off from the light and unable to grow.  So the children take the drastic step of separating their parents, creating an open environment in which they can flourish… .all creatures are the descendants of theses original parents and their imprisoned children, so that we are bound to the planet and to all creatures by ties of kinship, and must accept the associated responsibilities; but on the other hand, we sometimes have to follow the example of the first children of Earth and Sky, and treat our kin badly in order to flourish ourselves.

This creation story provides the basis for Maori philosophy: all creatures are kin, all beings have mauri, life force, and all are sacred (tapu). The Maori’s “original instructions” follow from this seemingly simple story.  People must respect all beings and relate to them in a proper ritual manner, always aware of our mutual interdependencies and always seeking harmony.  Yet we also must live and sometimes this requires us to have “vigorous relations” (Patterson’s term) such as killing and eating our kin (other creatures) as long as we do so in the proper ritual manner that includes being sure that proper ecological balances are respected.

The concept of mana is at the center of Maori philosophy.  Your mana depends on the spark of life you are born with and your choices and actions, but the mana of each being is fundamentally determined by relationships, both with those living and with your ancestors.

When we were greeted by each Maori tribe we visited, the greeting they sang to us and our sung response was mainly about our ancestors; and as we were greeted individually in thehongi head-touching ceremonies they were welcoming the ancestors we carried.

This deep, ritualized and self-conscious awareness of our interconnectedness to all beings is found in many indigenous traditions (see, for example, the Apache version of this in V.F. Cordova’s How It Is) and also in the Buddhist notion of dependent origination.

If everyone (and everything) is kin, and if our original instructions are to preserve and enhance harmony, then being welcoming and hospitable is much more than a quaint formality we trot out on holidays.  It is essential. Lori and I were overwhelmed at the genuine and incredibly warm welcome we received throughout our week among the Maori from five different tribes.

We were also taken aback at the power of continually acknowledging ancestors.  Egotism is very difficult to maintain in an atmosphere of constant reminders of all who brought us here, those who make our lives possible today, and those who will follow after us.

Think about it: what if our status (mana) was based on how well we paid attention to all our relations, living and dead?

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