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Māori Concepts about the Land and Sacred

The relationship between Māori and the land is a sacred one, and one which acknowledges both the past and the needs of present and future generations.


In the Māori creation myth Ranginui (Father Sky) and Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) were joined together and their children dwelt in the confined darkness between. It was only when they rebelled and pushed their parents apart that light was able to enter and life to flourish.  

The god Tane Mahuta (forests/creativity/fertility) was the child instrumental in this separation.


The myth acknowledges that we, as humans, live in the space between, with our feet on our Mother, the land, which provides for our physical needs, and our heads in the sky, which provides our intellectual and spiritual nourishment. Thus for Māori the geographical land and the spiritual significance are inseparable. Respect is therefore due and humans have a sacred responsibility to care for the land.  


The Māori culture is centred on the iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe) and whanau (family) and the relationship with the land acknowledges the human and spiritual, as well as the importance of tupuna (ancestors). Māori talk about facing the future with their eyes on the past, and in preserving this sacred relationship between past, present and future.


Kaitiakitanga is important to Māori. The word contains two concepts: kaitiaki, meaning guardianship, and tanga, which can be loosely translated as culture or way. For Māori, the land is not a possession, to be abused or exploited through individual ownership in a single generation. For Māori, it is important to respect the land and use it in such a way that its gifts are preserved, protected, and made available to future generations.


Kaitiakitanga contains natural principles of conservation and concern for the welfare of the land, for its resources, and the importance of passing those benefits on to the people who will follow. While this may embrace modern agricultural practices, true kaitiakitanga means adopting these in such a way that no harm is done to the land, and any development takes place for the benefit of both present and future families.


When Maori talk about family, they use the term whanau, which is significantly different to the European idea of the nuclear family. While whanau can be blood relatives, and often will be, they may well equally be friends, or people from distant places who had been adopted, emotionally and psychologically into the family. The concept of whanau is an inclusive one, which contains the idea of a loose, all-embracing warmth and support.


The word tapu is the Māori term for sacred but it has a much wider meaning than the European concept of sacred.


"The origins of tapu date back to the time of creation and the gods: Ranginui - the sky father, and Papatuanuku - the earth mother, and their offspring Tane Mahuta - god of the forest, Tangaroa - god of the ocean, and their divine siblings. Tapu is closely linked to the Māori concept of mana (respect / authority) and many view tapu as the mana derived from the gods.


"In early Māori society, almost every activity, ceremonial or otherwise, was connected to the maintenance and enhancement of mana and tapu. To maintain the sanctity of tapu, certain behaviours or actions were prohibited. To disregard the rules of tapu was an offence to the gods."


A place can be declared to be tapu but people, objects or even customs can be tapu. That which is tapu will be off-limits/forbidden to all but those permitted. Tapu will remain in force until lifted by a tohunga (Maori healer/priest) or other suitable person.


"Māori believe everything in existence has an intrinsic tapu sourced from the connection it has to the gods. Mountains are of the earth, so their intrinsic tapu is sourced from the mana of Papatuanuku - the earth mother. Fish are the children of Tangaroa - god of the ocean, so their tapu is drawn from him. The more significant an object, whether it is for cultural, historical or any other reasons, the higher the level of tapu. All human beings are born with a level of tapu."


"Fresh water has a special connection to tapu. It has the power to neutralise tapu to levels that are no longer dangerous to people." A gravesite or urupa will often be tapu and is to be approached with reverence and respect. Visitors to urupa may well find containers of water at the entrance, and it is important, when leaving, to wash one’s hands to remove any traces of tapu.


"For Māori, many locations have strong spiritual significance and tapu."



~ material in quotes from

Christchurch City Libraries

More on these concepts ... 

Kaitiakitanga Tapu - Sacred Thesis on Tapu dritwood and moon, Okuru Tapu - Sacred