Today in Pawarenga, I had the privilege of attending a dual event: the birthdays of two kaumātua (elders) in their 90’s, and the unveiling of the headstone of one of my treasured mentors and esteemed wahine rangatira (female leaders), Gloria Areruia Herbert.
It was a wonderful day filled with numerous highlights, too many to mention. But one stood out, due to the significance and sensitivity of the subject matter – but also because of the way humour was employed to enable everyone to be included in safe, open and friendly debate.
The kōrero (talk) happened at the urupā (cemetery), and concerned the often hot and entertaining topic (among Māori at least) of where an esteemed kaumātua should be buried.
It was unexpectedly revealed that birthday boy Jim (Gloria’s husband) had reserved himself a burial spot right next to his wife. Upon hearing this, the Godson (himself a well-respected member of the community, and very knowledgeable in local tikanga Māori / Māori tradition and whakapapa/ genealogy) boldly but courteously stepped forward to make the case for Jim to be buried near Owhata Harbour (a location some distance north in the Herekino area). The reason: Jim’s whakapapa, and the tikanga of the tūpuna (ancestors) demanded it (bear in mind, this is just a summary – I’ve truncated the detail of the banter quite significantly!). The enthralled crowd was then promised that, on his death, a contingent of whanaunga (relatives) would come to claim Jim and carry him back to Owhata.
Jim immediately stood to present his arguments as to why he should remain by his wife’s side, and called on all present to uphold his desire and instructions to bury him there, next to her. The Godson, perhaps sensing that Jim was gaining the upper hand, once again rose to his feet. However, this time he changed tack: remaining firm in his resolve, he instead reminded everyone that exercising this particular tikanga was less about who ‘won the fight’ over Jim, and more about the kaupapa (the reason, purpose) of the tradition, i.e. an act of such great love and respect for Jim, demonstrating the enormous lengths they would go to, to have him be buried with them.
In other words, one of the biggest compliments a community could show their dearly departed was how hard they fought to keep him. If they ‘lost’ the fight, so be it. But to exercise tikanga - that is the right and appropriate thing to do, no matter one’s prospects of ‘winning/losing’.
It was astounding just how much value was to be gained from the process of the contenders amicably yet passionately teasing out their respective arguments (both of which had compelling pros/cons):
§ Family and friends present were educated about the whakapapa that connected them,
§ Functional community ties were strengthened,
§ Onlookers got priceless training in the art of expert rhetorical debate (a skill that society would do well to revive in my view), and
§ We were all taught about how humour can be employed to help free up otherwise clunky conversations, thereby expanding the space in which to explore ideas and reach resolution.
Traditional customs and practices are gaining increasing recognition internationally for their value in building local resilience. This is especially significant as we confront the many converging crises humanity is facing, and the inevitable conflict arising from these crises that will need to be effectively navigated in a logical, fair and respectful manner.
Today’s unveiling proved to be another classic example of such valued tradition in action. And it’s heart-warming to recognize the wisdom and teachings of our elders - whether they’re here with the living, or whether, like Gloria, they continue to provide oversight and influence from the Great Beyond.
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