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It’s About Whakapapa: Moko kauwae is not for Pākehā!


Recent social media spaces have seen the emergence of a heated yet very articulate and informed discussion as to the right of non-Māori to wear moko kauwae, or traditional Māori women’s skin carving. Although instigated by what some would describe as the heinous mistake to apply a ‘chin tattoo’ on a woman lacking any geneology to Māori, national Indigenous Women’s collective, Hina Matarau, say the discussion is much broader than that.

In response to Pākehā or other Europeans wearing Māori women’s facial tattoo, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi Associate Professor Mera Lee-Penehira, states “Moko kauwae is the sole right of Māori women. Not only is it ‘okay’ to make a race-based decision in applying moko kauwae, but it is a ‘requirement’. In my view the gifting of moko kauwae to Pākehā is not the right of any Māori, be they wāhine or tāne, irrespective of what has gone before.”

Yet in this day and age where traditional skin carving and other forms of tattoo are more commonly practised and indeed increasing in popularity, moko artists are often asked to perform specific tribal work on non-Māori. Renowned moko artist (skin carver) Anikaaro Harawira says it is different though when it comes to moko kauwae, “Putting it on Pākehā unravels and aggravates a long history of whakapapa (genealogy). It’s hard enough to receive it as Māori because of the stigma and fear from colonisation, without seeing Pākehā parading it and using it as a business brand! For us it gives us a sense of rangatiratanga that is purely ours through whakapapa. One taonga I won’t allow to be stolen by Pākehā,”

Associate Professor Leonie Pihama agrees stating, “Pākehā women wanting to take on our taonga of moko kauwae and be justified in doing so smacks of white privilege! Māori women have been strugglilng to reclaim this taonga for generations and Pākehā women need to stop their cooption of our taonga!”

The Hina Matarau collective are adamant that Māori and in particular Māori women have a responsibility to maintain the sacred space of moko kauwae. “But this does not mean you have to jump through extra hoops or reach anyone else’s standards except your own and those of your whānau and hapū, in order to wear moko kauwae. As long as you are wahine Māori, this is yours as of right! It speaks to whakapapa Māori, to being Māori!”, says Lee-Penehira.

There is some concern that media discourse generally pre-supposes Māori women need to reach certain milestones before being ‘worthy’ of recieving their moko kauwae. However as long time language advocate Tere Harrison states, ‘kauwae are taonga wāhine Māori, and whakapapa is the guideline for the practice of applying or receiving. There is no other measure necessary.”

Whilst it has been suggested in social media that the group would not encourage fair-skinned Māori to take on moko kauae, as academic and collective member Ngahuia Murphy clarifies, “Skin colour is irrelevant. It is about whakapapa back to the tupuna, atua and our own spiritualities. We have had the taonga of moko kauwae stolen from us as well as our language and lands. The reclamation of this is for us!”

The centrality of genealogy is further iterated by Taranaki artist Ngaahina Hohaia who concludes, “ Moko kauwae is the DNA blue print of Maori Women. It speaks to our whakapapa and stands as a bastion of our survival. Cultural appropriation has pillaged almost every other taonga sacred to our people. The line is drawn here."


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