Early women composers
There is a strong tradition of Māori women as poets and composers. In his collection of traditional Māori waiata (songs), Ngā mōteatea, Āpirana Ngata noted that women dominated as composers. He suggested students of the Māori language ‘delve into the songs so as to discover the nature of the spirit of womankind (as expressed) in the songs they composed.’1
Songs are also major sources of tribal oral tradition, history, geography, and political and social commentary, and are testament to Māori women as knowledge bearers and leaders. One such composer in the 19th century was Puhiwahine, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Maniapoto. Pei Te Hurinui Jones commented that her compositions ‘show that she was well-versed in the history of her tribes and had a good knowledge of genealogies. She also had a good knowledge of tribal land affairs; took an intelligent interest in what was taking place in the alienation of the lands of her people, and felt that she should warn them against the ‘ways of the Governor’ and the ‘lure of rent’.2
More recent composers
The tradition of women as composers continued with the likes of Tuini Ngāwai and her niece Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi. In the 1980s Pēwhairangi wrote popular songs including ‘E ipo’, sung by Prince Tui Teka, and ‘Poi e’, made famous by the Pātea Māori Club.
In the early 21st century Whirimako Black, Moana Maniapoto, Hinewehi Mohi and Maisey Rika were singer-songwriters who promoted Māori music and drew on their identity as Māori women.
The most obvious public expression of mana wahine is the customary practice of karanga, the first cry of welcome on the marae. Dr Wi Repa, in an obituary for his wife in 1929, spoke of the inherent mana of the voice of women: ‘[N]o mua iho ano te mana o te reo o te wahine ... ma te wahine e powhiri te manuwhiri, ka maru’3 (the mana of woman’s voice is ancient ... the woman welcomes visitors, and protects).
A woman’s ability to make the marae ātea (ground in front of the meeting house) tapu with her voice and words during the karanga complements the role of men with whaikōrero (speeches) during the rituals of encounter. The karanga is an exchange between tangata whenua and manuhiri (visitors) to ascertain the nature of the visit and the visitors, thus providing the basis for the whaikōrero. It is also a chance for women well-versed in the art of karanga to express their own opinion on topical matters.
In some tribes, such as Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu, women of mana perform whaikōrero. However, not all iwi permit their women to do so, in order to protect them, and because of the tapu nature of women as the whare tangata (motherhood). Whaia McClutchie and Mihi Kōtukutuku of Ngāti Porou and Niniwa-i-te-rangi of Ngāti Kahungunu were all renowned orators.
Controversy has arisen over the gender aspect of the welcome. One of the best-known was in 1998, when Leader of the Opposition Helen Clark was challenged by Titewhai Harawira over speaking rights at Waitangi. Harawira argued that Māori women should be allowed to speak if a Pākehā woman was.
Guiding the kōrero
Māori women’s influence may also be felt behind the scenes in advising or dictating whaikōrero. In 1874 the resident magistrate in Raglan, R. S. Bush, reported the attendance of the sister, wife and daughter of the Māori king, Tāwhiao, to open the house Tokanga-nui-a-noho (which symbolises the peaceful intentions of the Kīngitanga) at Aotea. Bush noted that during the speeches of welcome Tāwhiao's sister, Tiria, did not take part, yet the spokesmen consulted with her before replying to the speeches.