Many kaumātua endured cultural dislocation as a result of the urbanisation of Māori in the later 20th century. Kaumātua, who should have been expected to be familiar with tribal history and traditions, have admitted that when they were young they had no time for, or were unable to hear, many of the stories of their old people: ‘Gone are the days when we could, but didn't often bother to, sit and listen, as beautiful words and phrases flowed forth from a heart and mind, well versed in the things of his generation and with songs that were history and geography in themselves! … A new era has dawned for us!—“Ka pu te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi.”’1
Transfer of knowledge
As early as 1907 Te Rangi Hīroa had foreshadowed this problem, making a plea for Māori elders to pass on their knowledge:
[K]aua e kaiponutia nga taonga a o tatou tupuna. Tukuna mai ... Ma kona ka mau tonu ai a tatou korero, ka mahue iho ai hei koha ki nga uri e tipu ake nei, kei moumou te hari atu a nga kaumatua ki te reinga a ka mahue kupu kore matou nga mokopuna.
(Do not over-zealously hold on to those treasures of our ancestors. Hand them over … So that our stories will be captured and left behind as a bequest to the next generations, and not wastefully taken by the elders with them to the departing place of spirits leaving the grandchildren with nothing.)2
From the mid-1980s it became popular for many public institutions to call on kaumātua to perform Māori ceremonial rites such as karakia, blessings and pōwhiri (welcoming ceremonies) as part of their drive to become, or at least to appear, more bicultural and responsive to Māori. Some question the cultural integrity of such performances, particularly where they have been perceived as tokenistic. Some have cynically referred to this activity as ‘Dial-a-kaumātua’.
In some communities a younger generation has been forced to step forward, to perform certain ceremonial roles in place of their kaumātua. In others, tribes have sought to build the capacity of their elders. Te Arataki Manu Kōrero o Tainui, instigated by the late senior Ngāti Maniapoto kaumātua Tui Adams, brought together Tainui elders to improve their knowledge of Tainui tikanga (customs) and history and to ensure the continuity of Tainui traditions and identity.
Kaumātua remain important to the cultural strength of Māori tribes and as cultural symbols of Māori identity. Mason Durie said: ‘The standing of a tribe, its mana … relates more to the visible presence and authority of its elders … it is the older generation who carry the status, tradition and integrity of their people.’3
In the 1970s marae communities began establishing kaumātua flats. In 1975 Matiu Rata, the minister for Māori affairs, commented on the motivation behind them: ‘[T]he desire to keep our elders where they become the ones who keep our maraes, our communities and our lands warm with their presence. Not for us the Eventide homes, the boarding houses where the elderly are put on their own, the communities consisting solely of the aged and the infirm. Elders are part of the community … The need for them as the link between the old and the new and as the stabilising group which will perpetuate Māoritanga is greater now than ever before.’4