Normalising Moko Kauae

By Amokura Panoho

In 1972, New Zealand historian Michael King collaborated with photographer Marti Friedlander to publish Moko, a photographic essay of   women who were seen as the last generation to wear the traditional chin tattoo. Now, in the 21st century, wearing a moko kauae is being considered as a ‘rite of passage’ for Māori women to reclaim their identity. Amokura Panoho explains why.

In pre-colonial times, Māori wearing ‘tā moko’ (Māori traditional tattoo) was considered an individual’s visual expression of their identity. The patterns identified the wearer to others, with specific male and female designs generally derived from a repository of oral traditions unique to that person.

Traditionally, the dye would be etched into the skin using the wing bones of an albatross that were strong enough to be shaped into a needle-like sharpness called an ‘uhi’. The

By Amokura Panoho

In 1972, New Zealand historian Michael King collaborated with photographer Marti Friedlander to publish Moko, a photographic essay of   women who were seen as the last generation to wear the traditional chin tattoo. Now, in the 21st century, wearing a moko kauae is being considered as a ‘rite of passage’ for Māori women to reclaim their identity. Amokura Panoho explains why.

In pre-colonial times, Māori wearing ‘tā moko’ (Māori traditional tattoo) was considered an individual’s visual expression of their identity. The patterns identified the wearer to others, with specific male and female designs generally derived from a repository of oral traditions unique to that person.

Traditionally, the dye would be etched into the skin using the wing bones of an albatross that were strong enough to be shaped into a needle-like sharpness called an ‘uhi’. The person skilled in using this instrument was known as a ‘tohunga tā moko’ – tohunga referring to a specialist in a particular craft or skill.

For women, the facial tā moko known as ‘moko kauae’ is worn on the chin (kauae). For men, tā moko that adorns the whole face is known as a ‘mataora’, mata meaning face and ora representing lifeforce. There are many Māori terms associated with other embellishments to the face – some are specific to the wearer’s tribal affiliations.

Some tā moko were more elaborate than others and took many years to acquire. As a result, elderly men and women tended to be much more adorned than their younger counterparts.

Despite the variations, moko was a part of everyday Māori life. In pre-colonial times, it was normal (Nikora, L. W., Rua, M., & Te Awekotuku, N., (2007).

With the impact of colonisation, and the practice during the Victorian era in selling preserved tā moko heads of Māori men to international markets, wearing a mataora put a price on Māori men’s heads, literally. With the influence of Christianity and legislation introduced to marginalise Māori from their customary practices, for example, the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907, the traditional practice of wearing tā moko started to vanish from the daily lives of Māori communities.

By the end of the second world war, the practice of Māori men wearing mataora had disappeared and only a few elderly Māori women remained still adorned with moko kauae. Hence, the interest in Michael King’s book Moko. Considered at the time a milestone in New Zealand publishing due to little interest from New Zealanders in our country’s history, this pictorial catalogue helped establish King and Friedlander’s reputation across the literary and academic world.

However, in the late 1970s facial tā moko made a resurgence – but not in a way that was understood by many Māori communities and the wider New Zealand public. When Mongrel Mob and Black Power gang members with a large Māori male membership started wearing facial tattoos as a statement of rebellion against losing their culture, the subsequent negative media coverage led to a general perception that tā moko was associated with criminality.

Despite this negative stereotyping, by the early 2000s the renaissance of tā moko was coinciding with a general change happening socially, politically, and culturally across contemporary New Zealand. It was becoming cool to be Māori and gracing yourself with tā moko to reaffirm your cultural identity was trending. The stigma was diminishing.

Nevertheless, in today’s world, taking the next step as a Māori woman to adorn your face is not without its challenges.

For many Māori women – especially those in high profile roles – this decision is not an easy one to make for many reasons.

Labour minister Nanaia Mahuta, the first Māori woman to wear a moko kauae as a member of parliament, knew first-hand the impact. In an interview in 2017 with Newshub’s Shannon Redstall, she said:

“There was a time in New Zealand history where people wearing moko kauae were not well understood; they were judged. In fact, doing normal day-to-day things became quite stressful because people made judgements on who they were because they wore a facial tattoo and that was likened to gangs.

“It’s been a slow and progressive movement, but this movement is bigger than any individual. What you will see is a lot more Māori who will live confidently as Māori and want to share the very best of what we have with the world.”

Now, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, having a moko kauae has set her apart from her predecessors and international colleagues, and presents to the world our country living up to its potential.

Partners Theresa Patu (left) and Raewyn Kawana

Theresa Patu, a community development advocate living in Waitara, Taranaki, likens her journey to receiving a moko kauae as a rebirthing from the impacts of colonisation.

“I think of this taonga (treasure) as our given right, a reclaiming of our traditions that is our birthright. My partner Raewyn and I are proud to be part of a growing movement looking to normalise moko kauae within our tribal communities.”

Making the decision to have a moko kauae is not always straightforward but the emergence of moko papa wananga (learning meetings) across marae throughout the country, creates a more inclusive opportunity for Māori women to undertake this ritual practice alongside other women that whakapapa (genealogically linked) to that marae.

The unravelling of perceptions and expectations about worthiness and whether that is a legacy of colonial or Christian thinking has also been part of wider wananga discussions and at times public debate.

For myself, while growing up in Taranaki I never met anyone who had a moko kauae. They only existed in the photographs that adorned the walls of our wharenui (meeting houses) or our family homes. They were a symbol of the past, and no one discussed with my generation how they might become part of our future.

As a result, the practice was mysterious, almost tapu (sacred), and symbolised a tradition that required cultural knowledge and language fluency that my generation had been denied.  It was perceived as a taonga lost to us.

In a conversation with a grand aunt a couple of decades ago, she talked of how she had been asked to take on the moko kauae in her youth, but the tohunga tā moko became unwell so the hui that had been called at Parihaka had to be cancelled. She lamented the lost opportunity and wondered how that occasion might have helped maintain cultural heritage in a region that had suffered such significant land confiscation.

Now when I turn on the television, I see young Orini Kaipara, the first Māori woman with a moko kauae as a news commentator on a mainstream programme, and I rejoice. She is a contemporary of my children who have become proficient in their culture and language because of their total immersion education at Hoani Waititi Marae in West Auckland. They live and express their identity as Māori – that is their normal.

Just as wearing moko kauae should be seen as normal. A beautiful and natural thing for sure.

 

 

Source: Renewal and resistance: moko in contemporary New Zealand. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology