Tikanga Māori is a contextual concept. The commonly accepted meaning is “straight, direct, tied in with the moral notions connotations of justice and fairness including notions of correct and right”, however, this can vary according to the people involved and in relation to particular circumstances.
Dr Valmaine Toki is Ngati Rehua Ngatiwai ki Aotea, Ngapuhi and Professor in Law who holds a BA LLB (Hons) MBA LLM PhD and writes researches and teaches within the area of indigenous rights and tikanga Maori - Valmaine was the first New Zealander and Maori appointed to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. We discuss the concept of tikanga with her further.
What is tikanga Māori?
First, I can only talk to what I have learned through my Ngāti Wai and Ngā Puhi whakapapa, but in simple terms Tikanga means the correct way of doing things; it is derived from the word ’tika’ meaning correct, or right and it is derived from the Proto Eastern Polynesian language. On the surface it is taken to mean the correct way of doing things, and the customs and practices that go with living in a group. It is a system prescribing what is considered normal and right, and these practices are similar to those followed by our ancestors so there is precedent. However, to fully understand Tikanga, you have to understand the mechanisms that support the Tikanga as well. And this often comes with living in a way that allows for those mechanisms to exist.Understanding Te Ao Māori and Māori cosmology are fundamental to what the ‘tikanga’ is because it creates a nexus or reason for why certain mechanisms and protocol are there; and they fundamentally revolve around how Māori see their place within nature. Examples of mechanisms are things like mana, ihi and wehi and tapu to name a few, but they all have a role in establishing the foundations that Tikanga sits upon. It is also really important for Tikanga to be fluid, as protocols change, and society changes, Tikanga must change with it. But the pillars or Kawa that Tikanga sits on does not.
How does tikanaga relate to the concept of ritenga?
Correct practices that have been derived from the accounts of how the cosmos emerged are known as ritenga. Whereas tikanga is a system prescribing what is considered normal and right, it is defined and influenced by contextual factors inferring flexibility; ritenga refers to those practices that are similar or equivalent to those followed by ancestors, providing a ‘standard’ or ‘precedent’ in the same way as a legal precedent. The use and implementation of this standard or ‘precedent’ gives effect to kaupapa, ground rules or ‘body of principles that create the law’.Ritenga, together with kaupapa, provides a framework by which further concepts such as mana, tapu and mauri are given effect. Mana is defined as a key philosophical concept combining notions of psychic and ritual force and vitality, recognised authority, influence and prestige, thus also power and the ability to control people and events. Within the Māori world, mana is simply effective power and authority sourced from the presence of ancestors in a person, taonga, event or place.
Can you give some detail of a mechanism or protocol?
One example of a mechanism that is used to enforce protocol is the concept of tapu. A key concept in Polynesian philosophy, it indicates states of restriction and prohibition, who’s violation will result in retribution. Within the Māori world, tapu refers to the presence of ancestors. Mauri describes the essence which gives a thing its natural character (encapsulates two distinct ideas; the life principle of being and a physical object in which this essence has been located) and whakapapa (the complex network of reality linking animate and inanimate objects through a relational construct) are also mechanisms through which the expression of tikanga manifests. Through a legal lens, tikanga is the ‘legal structure’ that gives effect to basic principles or ground rules. And concepts like mana and tapu assist in the regulation of the relationships between people, the environment and the spiritual world. The aim of tikanga is to achieve balance. The regulators - tapu and mana - assist in the restoring of any imbalance and are relevant for any dispute resolution process.
In your opinion, how can Tikanga Māori be applied in a modern setting?
I believe it depends on what interpretation of Tikanga you are using. ‘Principles’ of Tikanga have been imported into legislation like the Resource Management Act, as well as District Health Boards’ best practice policies on how they serve people within their constituency. So it is being applied, but perhaps only the surface level aspects. It is hard to really practice Tikanga unless you understand why it is there in the first place; for example a principle of Tikanga is Kaitiakitanga (stewardship) of the resources of the earth. But it isn’t there because being ‘sustainable’ is now socially acceptable, it is there because of how Māori see their place within the cosmos; that Māori are ultimately children of Papatūānuku and Ranginui, and therefore there is an obligation to make sure the life force remains, and practice of these principles enables the life force of certain areas, (lakes, rivers, fauna) to remain in balance. It is not for us to determine what is sustainable, it is a spiritual understanding and connection to the earth.
How is it related to mana whenua?
The connection between tikanga and mana whenua is significant. Mana whenua really means authority over the land, but it is derived from tikanga passed down through generations. The experience of our elders and our ancestors inform the way we act. There are other ways of exercising mana, such as winning conflicts, or becoming an expert in a certain area, but the Tikanga again determines the rules of how one can exercise mana whenua.
Tell us about your time at the United Nations?
I led the UNPFII (United Nations Permanent Forum for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) for two consecutive three year terms. It was humbling and an honour to do so. We lobbied for the recognition of these rights within policies and constitutions enacted by government and legislative bodies. We spent time with significant entities like the WHO, World Bank, UNESCO, World Intellectual Property Office to effect these mandates. For me, what was incredibly fulfilling was actually implementing concepts like tikanga within the work I personally undertook. For example, we developed certain protocols with the UNPFII that allowed us to all connect with our own whakapapa and remain grounded within the work that was dynamic and in a constant state of flux.