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By Donald Phillipps in All Sorts

reflections on mana, whanau and whenua.

In 1949 Apirana Ngata wrote in the autograph book of schoolgirl Rangi Bennett, ‘E tipu, e rea, mo nga ra o tou ao, ko to ringa ki nga rakau a te Pakeha hei ora mo te tinana, ko to ngakau ki nga taonga a o tipuna Māori hei tikitiki mo to mahuna, a ko to wairua ki to Atua, nana nei nga mea katoa.’ (Thrive in the days destined for you, your hand to the tools of the Pākehā to provide physical sustenance, your heart to the treasures of your ancestors to adorn your head, your soul to God to whom all things belong.) This has become much quoted as a vision for Māori youth.

Next year the 150th anniversary of Sir Apirana Ngata’s birth will be celebrated. I came across this quotation some years ago and recorded it for my own benefit. More recently I received through my letterbox (as you may have also) a reprint of his booklet written in 1922 on the Tiriti o Waitangi. It makes fascinating reading, and I suspect both Pākehā and Māori would find the words challenging. He was, as he said, writing in answer to questions raised about it by elderly Māori folk whose parents had signed the Treaty.
My purpose in venturing into the world of Te Reo is because I believe that when allowed to speak directly, and not through the mouth of a translator we will benefit. For those of us who are older, the demands of learning a new language to the level of being conversational in it may seem too difficult. But there are some words that carry such a load of meaning and ‘value’ that we should make the effort to be as informed as we can be.
Over the years, it seems to me, certain keywords have become part of our daily vocabulary. The fact that these words, or something so similar in sound, are found around the South Pacific makes them even more significant. Very briefly I would like to suggest we consider just three at this moment – and I imagine that some of us will have used these words ourselves.
The first in importance, as a younger Māori leader suggested, is ‘mana’. It means influence, spiritual power, charisma. We would all, when asked, be able to speak of a particular person who has that ‘something’. Another equivalent would be ‘presence.’ Whatever word one uses there follows a sense of respect - that person becomes someone we listen to, rather than interrupt. They may be people of fewer rather than more words and who speak more rarely their garrulous neighbour. But what they say is worth listening to, and their actions bear out their words. It was said of the young Jesus that he grew in ‘stature’, and that’s a good alternative. ‘Mana’ doesn’t come about as the result of casting a vote in an election.
The second word is ‘whanau’. Maybe less needs to be said because it is now part of our everyday conversation. The pākehā family may mean just the nuclear family – though for some there will be that tradition of seemingly endless aunts, uncles and cousins. Whanau certainly means the ‘extended family’ – but it goes well beyond strict blood relationships and incorporates all those with whom we share family or local identity - who become part of us when we celebrate, whose needs are our needs, and whose aroha we do not have to earn. ‘Clan’ may be an alternative. Remember the question Jesus asked when his family wanted him back home: “Who is my family?”

Thirdly, there is ‘whenua.’ If ever there were a word that offers a way out of our endless spiral of ‘wants’ it is this. There is a sacredness inherent in the land – it is not a commodity. Land is not defined by the price put on it in the marketplace. In essence, for Māori, I dare to say, we belong to the land - it does not belong to us. As we consider the future of our planet, and the threat of climate change, I believe the answers will come as we realize that Aotearoa is to be respected, not used.
(Donald Phillipps)