Taonga
Extract from: Ko Tawa - Taonga From Our Ancestral Landscapes
(Tapsell, P. Auckland. David Bateman Ltd. 2006)

A taonga can be any item, object or thing that represents the ’ancestral identity of a Maori kin group (whanau, hapu or iwi) with their particular land and resources.Taonga can be tangible, like a cloak, a greenstone weapon or a war canoe, or they can be intangible, like the knowledge to be able to carve, to recite genealogy or to sing a lament. As taonga are passed down through the generations they become more valuable as the number of descendants increases.

All taonga possess, in varying degrees, the elements of mana (ancestral prestige), tapu (spiritual protection) and korero (genealogically ordered narratives). The greater the ancestors, the greater the mana of associated taonga. Taonga are protected through karakia (rituals and incantation), which invoke the element of tapu and ensure they are treated with due reverence. They are seen as the spiritual personifications of particular ancestors, either as direct images or through association. Descendants experience this wairua (ancestral spirit) as ihi (presence), wehi (awe) and wana (authority).

Thus taonga are time travellers, bridging the generations, allowing descendants to meet their ancestors ritually, face to face.Furthermore, taonga are vital threads from the past, acting as here (guides) to interpreting the past. They assist descendants to understand the often complex whakapapa (genealogical relationships) that remain patterned across whenua (ancestral lands) of modern tribal New Zealand. This is most apparent during tangihanga (death rituals), when taonga are ‘performed’ by descendant elders on marae (ritual courtyards), summoning appropriate ancestors from Hawaiki, the Maori spiritual homeland, so they might collect the newly deceased and take him or her home.

Tracking the pathway of taonga through the Maori universe of time and space is like tracing an aho (a single thread) in a korowai (cloak). The aho, like the flight of the tui (a native bird of New Zealand) through the bush, appears and disappears, time after time, in a repeating pattern that interlocks with other threads, or taonga, descending from one layer of whakapapa to the next. As with any garment, this woven korowai of taonga has two sides; one is for public display, while the other remains hidden.

The visible outer side, like the gliding climb of the tui when its wings are briefly spread out in a dazzle of brilliance, is displayed at life crises, where taonga allow descendants to embrace particular ancestors ritually before they once again disappear from view. Each taonga represents a single genealogical thread, stitching sky to earth, atua (gods) to mortals, ancestor to descendant, generation to generation, in the descending pattern of the tui’s flight.

The successful marae orator captures this pattern, weaving all the ancestors together into an interconnecting korowai of complementary relationships upon the land. To turn the cloak over is to uncover how the aho between life crises is connected. Just as the tui dives from sight in between its gliding climbs, taonga also become invisible for periods of time, and are carefully maintained in tapu repositories hidden from public view.

While the tui provides an excellent metaphor for understanding the trajectory of taonga that have remained at home, the image of a comet far better approximates the flightpath of taonga that have been presented beyond tribal boundaries. Only the most valued taonga, ancestrally connected to particular lands and carrying the mana of the collective tribe, are ever considered worthy to be released to another kin group. The more valuable the taonga given, the greater the prestige bestowed upon the receiver and upon the occasion, and thus the recipient’ becomes obligated under the lore of utu (reciprocity of indebtedness). When such taonga were presented to other tribes, these taonga were literally launched on an unknown orbit beyond the horizon of home consciousness, sometimes for many generations.Concern about the future well-being of these taonga was never an issue because the recipients understood their obligations as hunga tiaki (custodians). They were aware that the mauri (life essence) of these items was protected by powerful karakia (prayer) designed to maintain the physical and spiritual security of taonga on their faraway travels.

Then one day they suddenly reappear, charged with the spiritual energy of past ancestors, returning home to their descendants in a comet-like blaze of rediscovery. Generations of the original kin group may have been born, lived and died without knowledge of their taonga’s continuing existence in another part of the universe. Suddenly it streaks back into their lives, often as a result of some significant life crisis, reaffirming the kin group’s connections to the ancestors who were originally associated with the taonga. This creates not only high respect for the gifting kin group who have allowed the taonga to return, but also an obligation upon the receiving tribe to repay the indebtedness that such a presentation can create.

Upon their return, especially after an absence lasting generations, these taonga are more than items once used by ancestors – they are ancestors.Pareraututu, Murirangaranga and other ancestors featuring in this exhibition and its associated publication – Ko Tawa – are such taonga. Before leaving home they travelled through time like tui, skimming over the bush canopy of life, weaving the land with the heavens – now you see them, now you don’t. Then one day they were launched beyond their tribal horizons and into the custodianship of Captain Gilbert Mair before ending up in the Auckland Museum.

For over 100 years these taonga have been frozen in a museum orbit of foreign values until they were again brought to life through the Ko Tawa exhibition, reuniting with descendants and ancestral landscapes of origin. Each of Mair’s taonga presented in the following pages represents the identity, spirit and actions of revered Maori ancestors of our nation, Aotearoa New Zealand. They embody the very essence of what makes our islands unique compared to any other culture, people or country of the world.

Such is the power of taonga.