I was 11 years old when my tuakana, elder brother, thrashed the living daylights out of me. It was my first no-holds-barred hiding. I don’t remember what started it or what happened past the wild flurry of punches, but I’ve never forgotten it.
Mostly because of what my father did as I was being pushed, shoved, punched and kicked around the front lawn. He just sat there on the porch, rolled a Tasman Dark smoke, watched and waited.
In fact, it was he who prompted my normally docile brother to get stuck in to me—once and for all. I was always getting smart. Pushing him just far enough.
“You’ve got to learn sometime and it may as well be now,” was all the old man said.
And that was my first painful lesson about mana.
It taught me how far my mana, in terms of my own family, extended. My brother the same—though I think he already knew.
It taught me you don’t cross mana. You don’t ignore it, or try to sneak around it. You simply pay courteous respect to it—whether you like it or not.
That might mean such trivial dues as having to give it the biggest eel of the night’s tincan lantern-light catch. Or seeking its assent before speaking at a hui.
In Māori terms, mana is what makes the world go round. Wars have been fought over mana, but mana can stop wars too.
Like one of my tīpuna, Te Rurehe.
He was a fighting chief of Tūhoe, the Urewera bush tribe renowned for their lavishness in dishing out food, dishing out treasures and, especially, dishing out death.
Te Rurehe, who lived about 300 years ago, was famed as an exponent of the taiaha—a long staff weapon.
One day he was caught alone near the Star Lake, Waikaremōana, by a battalion of Ngāti Kahungunu soldiers out to settle a score over another case of trampled mana.
Outnumbered 400 to one, he had a choice to make: die, run or simply see who had the most mana. Deciding on the latter, he calmly lifted his war apron, exposed himself and urinated in front of the enemy.
Satisfied that he had made the right impact, he yelled out to them: “You have now seen the taiaha of Te Rurehe. Do not come forth, for its mana will kill you.”
Nonchalantly, he turned around, broke wind and walked away. Fearing the double-edged threat of Te Rurehe’s mana, not one of the 400 was game to have a go.
It doesn’t matter how you look at it, mana underpins everything.
But mana has many faces. It could be the power and authority you’re given because it’s known that you can prove your point. It could be the charisma, the aura that you have. The respect you conjure up. But the Māori equation used to decide how much mana you have differs from that of the Pākehā.
You may be a rubbish man from Monday to Friday, but the cook at the local marae during all the weekend hui, feeding hundreds of people at a time. As cook you are upholding the very mana of the marae in exactly the same way as the more obvious marae speakers who greet the visitors out the front.
There’s no mana in flash words and no kai. The fact you have little mana in the Pākehā world as a rubbish man is of no bearing.
From the other side in, you could be a businessman who drives a Mercedes, lives on Mortgage Ave and has a lot of Pākehā mana. Yet when you go back to your marae you’re the dishwasher and rubbish man. Your Merc is parked out the back with the Zephyrs and Holdens.
In Māori terms, your mana comes down to how well you care for your family, subtribe, tribe and canoe. Ultimately, other people.
My grandfather, Pateriki Hura, had mana.
His epitaph, written by his tribe as their final words to him, reads:
Te mūrau a to tini.
Te wenerau a to mono.
Te manu tīoriori.
Literally, it means they thought of him as the “dread of the multitudes, the envy of the thousands, the entrancing sentinel bird” of Ngāti Tuwharetoa in the central North Island.
Every time we mokopuna went back to his and nana’s place at Taumarunui, we’d tip-toe around him in awe. And when he wasn’t sleeping in his chair— the one we weren’t even allowed to look at—he was in his office doing something.
That “something”, I found out later, was sorting out land hassles, law hassles and tribal hassles. He’d stopped working in the Pākehā 40-hour-a-week sense at about 40, just to troubleshoot on anything and everything to do with Tūwharetoa firstly, and Māori matters secondly.
It was only last year, nine years after his death, that I was allowed into his office. And there it all was. His life’s work. Land court records, law books, statutes, files—dozens and dozens of them, on every piece of land he had anything to do with in Tūwharetoa.
Forestry. Lakes. Legal wrangles. Waitangi Tribunal matters. Fighting laws that threatened lands and waterways. Tūwharetoa’s huge timber potential. The seeds were sown in that office.
Majestic Tongariro was covered in cloud the day he died in November 1980.
Thousands came to his three-day tangi at Waihi Village, the home of the Tūwharetoa subtribe Ngāti Turumakina on Taupō’s western shores.
I remember the cars lined up tip-to-bumper along the five kilometres of road from the marae to the cemetery up the Kakaramea Hill. And the speeches and songs that drew pictures of koro and made him breathe again.
I knew that Gaga (that’s his mokopuna’s nickname for him) belonged to the chiefly lines of Tūwharetoa, the House of Te Heuheu, but I didn’t really know what that meant.
Until his tangi.
Besides whatever mana he was conferred with by the tribe for his works, demeanour and persona, he had another sort of mana. An inherited mana accrued from all his tīpuna down the Heuheu line, starting with his great-great-grandfather, the founder—Te Heuheu Herea.
The present paramount chief, Sir Hepi Te Heuheu, is the absolute holder of all that mana by direct inheritance father to son.
I listened to the stories of Te Heuheu and got an inkling of the feelings borne by the tribe to the tangi. The images conjured up in their mind as speakers spoke and singers sang.
And understood in my heart, not head, that Te Heuheu’s mana could move the stars, cause thunder and lightning, even change the very colour of greenstone.
They sang Herea’s death song. Herea, who took paramount chieftainship of the tribe after beating another contender, Wakaiti, in single combat with a pointed staff, pouwhenua. Herea, who tried to bite Wakaiti’s head to debase his mana to that of a slave.
And the song of Mananui, Herea’s son. Te toka to moana—the sea-held, immovable rock that no wave dared break over. Mananui, who succeeded to the throne through his inherited mana and ability as a war general and caretaker of his people. And who was gifted the godlike mana and powers of his tohunga priest uncle Taipahau, after biting the right ear of the old warlock as he lay on his death bed. That was the act that got him the name Mananui—Big Mana.
(Taipahau it was who blasted and withered the healthy leaves of a ti-tree before the disbelieving eyes of Bishop Selwyn. That was just a little show of the mana of his gods. In death, Taipahau sealed himself in the rock wall face you see just as you turn off the main highway into Waihi. Pākehā using earthmoving machines tried to smash down that face to lay the road there. Not surprisingly, it wouldn’t budge.)
I listened to my koroua read the 70 or so ancestral carvings in Waihi’s meeting house, Tapeka. I watched old biddies hongi them; others just cry and hug them.
There was the trickster Tama Te Kapua, the captain of Te Arawa canoe, the canoe which carried Tūwharetoa’s tipuna from Hawaiki. It was he who tricked and all but kidnapped the Tainui canoe’s tohunga chief Ngātoroirangi so that the mana of Te Arawa might be elevated more than the others.
It was he who tried to steal from Tainui the thunder mana of landing first at Aotearoa. On Te Arawa’s arrival they found a whale stranded, beached and tied to a nearby tree. Seeing the mana of the moment slipping away, Tama Te Kapua made another rope, roughened it to make it look old and used, tied it to the whale and buried it under the other. When Tainui turned up to collect their whale, the debate started. All in the name of mana.
There’s Tia, the finder of Lake Taupo, whose land claims form the basis of Ngāti Tūwharetoa’s mana whenua, their right to be where they are.
There’s the man Tūwharetoa himself, whose physical beauty and prowess led him into marriages, elopements and illicit rendezvous—from one of which sprang Tutanekai, of Hinemoa and Tutanekai fame.
And Rereao, a grandson, who agreed to give his daughter in marriage to a man he had just buried alive, head above ground, in a hangi.
Also Pikihuia, a priestess, whose mana was such that warriors going into battle first crawled beneath her legs to keep them safe under tapu.
All these tīpuna were there the day koro died, their collective mana the magnet which drew the people. A celestial mana. A spiritual mana. A land-derived mana. A deeds mana. A knowledge mana. And, at the everyday level of conduct, a mana that expresses itself in humaneness, justice, caring, giving, sacrifice.
A mana that makes grandfathers fight tooth and nail over land. Over language retention. Over values. That makes them cry with pride when they see their mokopuna doing the haka. And mad when they see the All Blacks debauching it. And cringe when the Pākehā tongue slurs through Māori words. Shake the head in disbelief over having to get a fishing licence for Lake Taupō.
It’s a mana that makes Māori people walk the length and breadth of Aotearoa. Take umpteen days off to go to tangi. Leave our jobs during the week to wash thousands of dishes at marae over the weekend. Lead two lives—a Pākehā one for sustenance to stay alive. A Māori one for sustenance to live.
It doesn’t matter that you may have been born in a dirt-floored shanty and been uneducated, as koro was. Mana comes through hands-on commitment to your own people.
Its tests are your own actions.
Its testers, the people around you.
As a kaumātua once said: “It’s not easy being Māori today. You’ve got eight hours to earn money to live, eight hours to sleep to live and only eight hours to do all that living. As yourself. A Māori.
“We must have a lot of mana to have got this far!”
No reira e koro! Return to the veil! The dread of the multitudes. The envy of the thousands. My sentinel bird!