What is Tikanga?

Tikanga is a Māori concept based around customary practices or principles.

The word “tikanga" is a derivation of the word “tika” meaning ‘right' or 'correct.’ Ultimately derived from Proto Eastern Polynesia tika means ’straight, correct, right;, senses which are also reflected in cognate terms in Mangarevan, Tahitian, Tuamotuan and Raratongan. Although there are variations between different iwi, hapu and marae, tikanga covers a wide range of areas, for example values, culture, protocols, customs, ethics, etiquette, sustainability and law. It supports mana atua (spiritual), mana whenua (connection to the land), mana tupuna (ancestry), and mana tangata (people).

By way of its manifestation in our legal framework, tikanga was introduced in the early 1980s. The term ‘tikanga’ began to be more commonly used in New Zealand because of the need for consultation with local iwi in areas such as resource management. In 2011, the Waitangi Tribunal made recommendations as to the inclusion of the principles of tikanga in reforms of laws and policies relating to many areas such as in health, education, flora and fauna, science, resource management, conservation, heritage and so on, and in the development of our policies in international agreements affecting indigenous rights.

And today for example, Tikanga is incorporated into District Health Boards' best practice policies to ensure the services they provide are responsive to Māori needs and interests.
However, a more spiritual approach is required to truly understand tikanga. Tikanga is sourced from Te Ao Māori or the Māori World. Cosmology and the creation accounts are intrinsic to Te Ao Māori. Cosmology establishes the relationships or whakapapa between people, the environment and the spiritual world. The dynamic between these elements underpins a mechanism similar to that of a social constitution.


Tikanga Māori is a contextual concept. As mentioned, the commonly accepted meaning is “straight, direct, tied in with the moral notions connotations of justice and fairness including notions of correct and right”. This can, however, vary according to the people involved and in relation to particular circumstances.
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.

Another 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 lease 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. 

We are aware that tikanga is a concept that is fluid and dynamic. We are also aware that one journal entry does not sufficiently address the true entirety of tikanga as it is an expression of a māori world view that encompasses a way of thinking, something that can never really be communicated, only lived. Having said this, we think it is important to discuss an approach that brings about balance in nature (and among people), in the face of environmental change and resource depletion.
Kia ora.