Revering the older members of society, whether whānau or not, is a key part of Māori culture, writes Stacey Morrison.
When ageing is mentioned in magazines, it’s often in the context of “anti-ageing” or “turning back the clock” on your physical self, but this is a love letter for the Māori view that kaumātua, or elderly people, are our guiding lights and mentors to be treasured.
I was once told the term “kaumātua” is made up of kau (none) and mātua (parents), describing the generation that has got to the stage in life where their own parents are gone, making them the oldest left. Kaumātua isn’t a gendered term, yet somehow saying “kaumātua and kuia” (kuia being older women) has slipped in to common usage, but isn’t really correct, because kuia are kaumātua too, so that’s like saying “older people and older women”. But using kaumātua for a singular, or multiple elderly people is correct and good usage of the word.
You may have seen kaumātua carrying out key roles such as kaikarakia, the person who recites incantations; kaikaranga, the woman who delivers ceremonial calls; and kaikōrero, the speaker at pōwhiri and tangihanga. Their wealth of experience is comforting at times like that; their mere presence connecting us to our past and centring us.
Not all kaumātua can speak te reo Māori as a result of the language loss many of our people have suffered, which sometimes means younger generations step into those public-facing roles. When that does happen it’s a delicate interaction to respect the wisdom inherent in our kaumātua, have aroha (compassion) for the opportunities to speak and learn te reo Māori that weren’t afforded to them, and ensure tikanga is upheld in formal situations. Not being a fluent speaker of te reo Māori doesn’t mean they don’t hold deep mātauranga (knowledge, wisdom) and respecting kaumātua is a key value of our culture. Seeing an ope (entourage or contingent) of kaumātua at any hui warms my heart, and reminds me of the resilience they’ve shown to be there, and makes me gravitate to hear what cheeky insights and good gossip they may be sharing!
There’s a kaumātua flair I appreciate too, with dapper koroua (elderly men) and kuia wearing iwi colours – perhaps in the form of scarves with known colours of that tribe – when moving in a ope. I found my kuia easy to buy presents for because she had such signature style, draped wraps, immaculate hair – sometimes adorned with heru (hair combs), kōmore (bracelets) and whakakai (earrings) that sometimes were Māori in essence, niho makō (shark’s teeth) or tāniko (embroidered weaving) but in her case, could easily be turquoise she’d got overseas at an Indigenous Peoples hui.
Kaumātua may be people you are related to, but some of our most cherished mentors have been from other iwi or whānau but generously shared with us. Professor James Te Wharehuia Milroy was one of those influences for my husband and myself, to the extent that our son carries one of his names in tribute. He was a great teacher to us both, but the relationship he and my husband Scotty had meant that when he died in 2019, Scotty vowed not to speak on marae for a year, in mourning for someone who held such an important role in his life.
James confirmed our choices of names for all of our children, giving us his interpretation of the layers of meaning he placed on each, validating them for us. He was so well-known and regarded that he created proverbs of his own. Whakatauākī is a proverb where the author is known, such as “Whakahokia te reo mai i te mata o te pene, ki te mata o te arero – Bring the language back from the tip of the pen to the tip of the tongue.” And that is exactly what he continues to inspire us to do.