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Tapu versus Noa: Finding balance between tradition and progress

Saturday 15 June 2024 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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Tapu versus Noa: Finding balance between tradition  and progress
Thomas Wynne.

What is Tapu, sacred or restricted in use and by whom, and what is Noa or free to be utilised by anyone, be they male or female? How do we make something Tapu and then lift that Tapu to make it Noa or free again? Thomas Tarurongo Wynne writes.

Around 1250 AD, Wairaka and her extended Ngati journeyed to Aotearoa from the island of Mauke onboard the Vaka Mataatua, captained by her father, the Ariki Toroa. The journey from Rarotonga took them via the Kermadecs, landing at Parengarenga ava near Aotearoa’s northernmost points. From there, they sailed to Kerikeri, Hokianga, Whangarei, Kaipara, and the Manukau ava.

The Māori name Whakatāne commemorates an incident that occurred after the arrival of the Mataatua in Kaipara. The men had gone ashore, and the Vaka began to drift. Wairaka said, “Kia akatāne au i au (I will act like a man)”, and commenced to steer the Vaka to safety, something that women were not allowed to do as the Oe was tapu. With the help of the other women onboard, the Vaka was saved. Though other Māori traditions have it that Muriwai, Toroa’s sister, saved the Vaka Mataatua.

Women moving and working, creating and carving in tapu spaces and what is noa, has been the uri’uri’anga, or back and forth conversation, sweeping across social media. As master carver, our Aunty Awhitia from our Kaena line and master carver, Atiu Tumu, Mitaera Ngatae Teatuakaro, Uncle Mike Tavioni are captured in the middle of this maelstrom of tapu, noa, and protocol in Hawai’i – around the question of women and carving and spaces for carving.

Also read: Cultural clash at FestPAC: Respected female carver excluded due to gender protocol

Firstly, I firmly believe that the people of the land hold precedence over protocol and what is considered tapu or noa over manu’iri who visit and arrive on others shores. As Kanaka Maoli, their protocols take precedence, which raises questions also as to how the Kura (Mauri stone), carried upon the Vaka Marumaru Atua, was given back to ourselves, and not the people of the land in Hawai’i. But that’s a whole other discussion.

What happens when modern-day ideas of gender come face to face with indigenous protocols, especially as indigenising language and protocols have been brought into our modern world? But are they in fact fit for purpose in this modern Western world, or is it a dilemma when we akaara or awaken ancient ways that do not fit into a secular, capitalist, gender-fluid world?

It would be easy to lean back on the argument that those ways were colonised by church and empire, or the doctrine of discovery, but there are spaces or vā where that narrative doesn’t fit. Especially when we lean well back into time before they arrived. Or have we become noble savages in our own minds, and in that, do we repeat the narrative of our colonisers, but this time with those parts colonised that are palatable for us to consume in today’s Western narratives about ourselves?

I have often thought if we are to indigenise our views on the ocean and conservation, planting, and relationships with each other, then what about conflict? What about warfare, what about Utu or balance that we once delivered at the end of the Korare, Momore, and Vero? If we are to indigenise our world, then is it only the spaces and places that are palatable to our modern palate, or can I take vengeance and exact or aka’oko situations in traditional indigenous ways? I’m not suggesting that we do, but for those that want to drive this indigenous narrative, do we just apply it in spaces modern Māori feel comfortable with or across it all? For one thing the gospel did bring was lasting peace, and that is a fact ‘Au’au or Mangaia is celebrating this week.

From Tangiia offending his brother Tutapu by taking what was not rightfully his and killing him in Tumutuvarovaro, to Wairaka aboard the Mataatua, what is tapu and what is noa is dynamic and fluid as I believe it has always been and highlighted by Ta’unga Ngarima George this week.

Nonetheless, we must uphold the mana of the people of the land, and their protocols must be respected no matter what we think or practice. However, we must also allow the challenge to these cultural norms to flow, because patoi or argument, uriruir’anga or komakoma is distinctly being Māori also.