Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Whakapapa: A Māori Way of Knowing and Being in the World

  • Lesley Rameka
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_172



Whakapapa is central to Māori perceptions of knowing and is at the very core of what it means to be Māori. The literal translation of whakapapa is to place in layers. It involves multiple layers and interpretations that form the basis of Māori values and beliefs. Whakapapa is a way of thinking and knowing which is fundamental to almost every facet of a Māori worldview. The importance of whakapapa within Māori culture cannot be overestimated. It acts as a basic form of knowing an epistemological template. This entry explores the centrality of whakapapa to Māori of knowing, learning, and ways of being in the world.

Māori Ways of Knowing and Being in the World

Māori ways of knowing and being are fundamentally different to those of non-Māori, influenced and shaped by historical and contemporary interpretive systems. It is these interpretive systems or worlds that Māori learners inhabit, enact, and reflect in their learning. Being Māori can be viewed through a number of interpretive systems. These interpretive systems are not distinct or separate from each other, but rather are interrelated components of a dynamic weaving that encompasses Māori identities both historical and contemporary. Historical ways of knowing and being in the world stress the centrality of relationships with the land (whenua), with people – past and present including the extended family/subtribe/tribe (whānau/hapū /iwi) – and with the spiritual dimension and universe (wairuatanga). The importance of whakapapa to these relationships cannot be overstated. The impact of colonization, assimilation, land loss, language loss, urbanization, and twenty-first-century global and national conditions has worked in different ways and combinations to shape and transform historical Māori ways of knowing and understandings of what it means to be Māori. Contemporary ways of knowing and being Māori therefore are the result of individuals and groups weaving specific combinations of realities, understandings, and experiences. However the critical point is that if one wishes to identify with one’s Māori heritage and has whakapapa, that person is Māori.

Key differences also exist between the Māori and non-Māori perceptions of knowledge and rights to knowledge. Māori, knowledge is perceived as a taonga (precious gift), passed down from ancestors, therefore to be taken seriously, treated with respect and preserved intact. Knowledge does not belong to individuals, neither is the property of the hapū (subtribe) and iwi (tribe). Individuals are the repositories of the group’s knowledge and have the responsibility to use it for the benefit of the group and not for personal gain. Whakapapa is not only a means of passing down knowledge from generation to generation but is also important in structuring Māori perceptions of knowledge, knowing, and knowers.


Whakapapa has many meanings but is generally viewed as genealogy and history.

“Papa” is described as something that is broad and flat such as a board or slab and “whaka” can be translated as “to enable” or “make happen.” Whakapapa relates to the idea of placing in layers or laying one on another. It operates at various levels but is most commonly concerned with genealogical narratives, stories that are recounted layer upon layer and ancestor upon ancestor up to the present day, a genealogical layering of one generation of ancestors upon the previous. Whakapapa is a continuous lifeline from those who existed before to those living today. It encompasses everything that is passed from one generation to the next, from one ancestor to the next and, from the deceased to the living. Whakapapa connects Māori to ancestors; history; the environment, Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother); birthrights; whenua (land); tūrangawaewae (place to stand); whānau (extended family), hapū (subtribe), and iwi (tribe); and moana (sea), awa (river), maunga (mountain), and waka (ancestral canoe).

Whakapapa also denotes the genealogical descent of Māori from the divine creation of the universe to the living world. It outlines the genealogical descent of all living things from the gods to the present day and provides a basis for the organization of knowledge in relation to the creation of the universe and the development of all things. Māori are descendents of the heavens and through whakapapa can trace lineage back to the very beginning of time and the birthing of the universe. This birthing is normally told using a whakapapa format which outlines the process of creation from the beginning of time to the primal parents Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother) and their children including Tāne, from whom Māori descend. The following is an example of the creation whakapapa:

I te tīmatanga, ko te kore—In the beginning there was a void.

Ko te pō—Within the void was the night.

Nā te pō—From within the night, seeds were cultivated.

Ka puta kō te Kukune—It was here that movement began—the stretching.

Ko te Pupuke—There the shoots enlargened and swelled.

Ko te Hihiri—Then there was pure energy.

Ko te Mahara—Then there was the subconscious.

Ko te Manako—Then the desire to know.

Ka puta i te whei ao—Movement from darkness to light, from conception to birth.

Ki te ao mārama e—From the learning comes knowing.

Tihei Mauri ora—I sneeze and there is life. (Ministry of Education 2009, p. 48)

Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother), the primal parents, were next in line followed by their children. There are variations in the accounts of the numbers of children born to Ranginui and Papatūānuku. There were approximately 70 children; however there were six main atua (guardians or gods) who received authority over certain domains of life. They include Tūmatauenga (atua of war), Tangaroa (atua of the oceans), Tawhirimatea (atua of the weather), Rongomātāne and Haumia tiketike (atua of food), and Tāne (atua of the forests). Māori trace their lineage to Tāne and therefore back to the creation of the universe.

Whakapapa and Ways of Being

Whakapapa identifies who one is and where one is from and thus identifies the place one belongs to. Whakapapa connects Māori to the land providing a sense of unity and harmony with the environment. It has been viewed as verification of the continued existence of Māori not only as a people but also as tangata whenua (people of the land) in Aotearoa. It affirms kin ties to iwi, hapū, and whānau and to tūrangawaewae (tribal lands). It reifies connections to past generations and those generations to come and asserts that Māori will continue to exist as long as the land continues to exist.

Whakapapa informs relationships and provides the foundation for inherent connectedness and interdependence to all things. From a traditional Māori perspective, it is your whakapapa that makes you who you are. Reciting your whakapapa is a way of shaping your identity. Through telling and retelling whakapapa, the connections to ancestors, to the land, and to the deities become apparent. Whakapapa is fundamental to being Māori. It is the connection to people and the land, past, present, and future, and to the spiritual world and the universe. It is key to Māori ways of structuring and knowing the world and ones place in it:

Whakapapa identifies who I am, where I am from and in doing so identifies a place that I can proudly call my tūrangawaewae (place to stand). It is this whakapapa knowledge that gives an individual or collective a sense of purpose that… grounds us to Papatūānuku (earth mother)… my whakapapa and iwi (tribal) affiliations are my biological and kinship credentials that form my Māori identity. (Graham 2009, pp. 1–2)

Whakapapa provides a continuum of life from the spiritual world to the physical world and from the creation of the universe to people, past, present, and future. Not only does whakapapa permit Māori to trace descent through past generations, it also allows movement and growth into the future. Identity, past, present, and future, comes from whakapapa links – to the past through ancestors, to the present through whānau, and to the future through children and grandchildren. Spiritual beliefs are a central feature of a person’s overall well-being and identity. The spirits of the dead are accepted as real as the living. Life is a movement, passing and moving from generation to generation and person to person. Key to this concept is the understanding that time has no boundaries, being both past and present. From a Māori perspective, the opposite is the case and the past is ahead not behind. It is therefore in the past that one finds one’s models, inspiration, and guides. As only the past and present are knowable, they are viewed as “mua,” or at the front of consciousness. The future which cannot be seen is therefore behind or “muri.” We are from this viewpoint traveling backward in time, and the present unfolds in front, linking to the past.

This conceptualization of history, time, of the continuous cosmic movement does not leave the past behind; rather one carries one’s past into the future. The past therefore is central to and shapes both present and future identity. The strength of carrying one’s past into the future is that ancestors are ever present, and one’s place in the kin group is acknowledged and affirmed. Whakapapa is therefore not only about personal identity but also connects to whānau, immediate family grouping, as well as hapū and iwi, who share a common genealogy. Through these connections whakapapa establishes personal, collective, and whānau identities, positioning, and connectedness.

The creation stories with its layering of metaphor and symbolism provide the backdrop to the interrelatedness and indeterminacy of the natural, spiritual, social worlds. From a Māori perspective, people are not superior to other entities in the wider world but related through whakapapa to all aspects of the environment, themselves imbued with spiritual elements. Māori are part of the environment, connected to everything in it; therefore it requires respect. In this sense man belonged to the earth, and although man could use the resources of the earth, man did not own them:

In Māori cosmology, the gods (ngā Atua) are the origin of species. For example, the offspring of Tāne, Tū, Tāwhiri, Tangaroa, Rōngo, Haumia (and some 70-odd others) eventually populated the universe with every diverse species known. Under this system, humans are related to both animate and inanimate objects, including animals, fish, plants and the physical environment (land, rocks, water, air and stars). Thus there is no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds; in the holistic Māori worldview they are continuous. (Cheung 2008, p. 3)

Whakapapa and Ways of Knowing

The whakapapa of the universe is understood in terms of a movement, from nothingness or potential to the world of light. An example of this is the way the creation whakapapa is utilized to represent the process of conception and birthing, not only of the world “te ōrokohanga,” but the birthing of the child “te whānau tangata” and the birthing of learning of the child “te āhuatanga o te tamaiti” (Ministry of Education 2009, p. 50). These birthing concepts emphasize evolving consciousness and learning rather than a physical evolving of matter. The child can be viewed as moving through realms of learning to a space of realization and understanding which expresses Māori ways of knowing, being, and doing.

Whakapapa is acknowledged as a way of thinking, a way of storing knowledge, and a way of debating knowledge. This holistic, outward-looking perspective of knowing is intimately connected and continually developing. These can be viewed as a double spiral on three levels. The first level is the level of the human person, where we move from nothingness through different stages and experiences into the night, then the world of light, to a state of oneness with others. The second level is the level of the cosmos. This movement and unfolding from the “nothingness, to the night, to the world of light” on this level symbolizes the unfolding of the cosmos and the universe. The third and final level, that of Io (the supreme god), is the core, the source of all energy (Shirres 1997).

This unfolding and continuously evolving world has also been linked to the growth of a plant “te pu, te more, weu, aka, rea, waonui, kune and whe meaning primary root, tap root, fibrous roots, trunk, tendrils, massed branches, buds and fronds” (Marsden 1992, p. 134) and the conception, gestation, and birth of a child. The child is viewed as moving from “te kore, ki te po, ki te ao mārama,” from nothingness or potential, to the world of light, from conception to birth:

The miracle of childbirth was equal in importance to the creation of the world to our tohunga mystics. The power of the child being born in our tradition cannot be stressed enough. The child is Tāne, a very real representation of Tāne, the god who brought light into the world. The child follows the entire path of Tāne during the Night ages, from its conception, its occupation in the heated darkness or womb, to the struggle for daylight during childbirth. Therefore the whole Māori scheme of creation actually coheres to the process of a child being born. (Robinson 2005, pp. 307–308)

This understanding of the universe and the evolution from “nothingness, into the night, into the world of light” connects strongly to the unfolding of consciousness and thought as well as an unfolding of matter. The development of the physical world therefore paralleled understandings of the development and emergence of patterns of human thought. This concept of creation and the gradual development of full awareness and understanding are expressed in the following whakapapa, as translated by Taylor (1855):

Na te kune te pupuke

From the conception the increase

Na te pupuke te hihiri

From the increase the thought

Na te hihiri te mahara

From the thought the remembrance

Na te mahara te hinengaro

From the remembrance the consciousness

Na te hinengaro te manako

From the consciousness the desire

(cited Shirres 1997, pp. 24–25)

The creation whakapapa provides a three-dimensional perspective of the world Māori. The first dimension or realm is te korekore, the realm of potential being and energy; the second, te po, the realm of becoming; and finally te ao mārama, the realm of being. An important point in this unfolding world is that it related to continuity, where the world is continuously being created and recreated. This relates strongly to children’s learning, and therefore assessment, in that like the universe, children’s ideas and understandings are continuously being created and recreated, defined, and redefined. Like the universe there is no end point to children’s learning, thinking, and understanding; rather it is an ongoing lifelong process. Another point is that the universe is dynamic. It is a stream of processes and events that are lineal rather than cyclical. This lineal movement is a two-way process, with the spirits of the departed descending to Hawaiki and those in a state of becoming ascending to the world of light. This idea also strongly links to the dynamic nature of knowledge acquisition and learning and the two-way traffic of ideas, thinking, and understandings. Some ideas ascend from potential being into the world of becoming where they challenges and stretches thinking and into the world of being, of enlightenment and clarification. Other knowledge and understandings descend from the world of being, from a place of knowing and certainty, to a world of becoming, or uncertainty. It is here that once firmly held views and opinions may be challenged and interrupted and, if unable to stand up to the critique of becoming, are relegated to the world of potential being, or nothingness. In this way learning is not just an accumulation of ideas and understandings but a dynamic process of continuous germination, cultivation and pruning.

Whakapapa and Learning

The realms of “te korekore, te po, te ao mārama” provide a frame from which to view Māori learning, one that is deeply embedded within a Māori worldview and which expresses Māori ways of knowing, being, and doing.
  • Te Korekore: Potential Being

    Te korekore is the realm of potential being, between nonbeing and being. This realm is where all things gestate, where there is endless potential for learning and growth. This is a time of potential and possibilities, a time of openness to new ideas and growth. It is the seedbed of learning and development.

  • Te Po: Becoming

    Te po is the period of becoming, of stretching, of challenge, and of growth. There are many sub-realms within te po, “te Po te kitea, te Po tangotango, Po whawha, Po namunamu,” meaning “the night of unseeing, the night of hesitant exploration, night of bold groping, night inclined towards the day” (Marsden 1992, p.135). These nights provide an insight into the realm of te po, which is marked with uncertainty, hesitancy, apprehension, and negotiation. It does however also have a sense of stretching and swelling and unfolding potential and consciousness. This is the growth period of the seed of learning and development. Learning can occur simultaneously on different levels; on different topics or subjects; on different planes including physical, emotional, and spiritual; and in different intensities. Like the contractions of birthing a child, the birthing of ideas and understandings is challenging, very rarely without pain, and comes in waves, surging and ebbing.

  • Te Ao Mārama: Being

    Te ao mārama is the realm of being, the realm of realization, enlightenment, and clarification. It is not, however, viewed as the end point, but rather as part of a continuously unfolding stream. The universe is likened to a stream of processes and events never static. Furthermore Māori did not develop the idea of a goal of history, so not only was there no end point, there was no final objective or goal. Each element is an integral part of the whole. So to know something is to locate it within space and time. Knowledge of whakapapa is critical to this.

Teaching, learning, and the learner are located within the context of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, their children, and their descendents. Whakapapa situates the learner within this world. Learners can place themselves in the world and so are able to relate to any aspects of life or nonlife including mountains, the rain, the sea, and all creatures and things in the world.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Te Hononga Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of EducationWaikato UniversityTaurangaNew Zealand
  2. 2.University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand