Mana is a fire
A note from the author: In this piece, I address my great-grandfather Teone Taare Tikao, who was trained as a tohuka in our area of Horomaka, Banks Peninsula in the mid-nineteenth century and became an authority on Kāi Tahu cultural traditions.
There is a word. A short word, in the Māori language. A word of four letters. Yet it expresses something very difficult to put into English. I refer to the word mana.¹
You say mana is a fire that no one can stamp out.
You say mana cannot be rubbed out.
You say mana cannot be extinguished.
He ahi tē tineia.
There are three kinds of lightning in the world. In our typical colonised way, we now call all lightning uira. But for you, there were three kinds. Uira can strike a man down. Like the kind that caused the tall metal Zephyrometer on the Wellington Harbour to singe and fray, like a bomb-struck character from a cartoon. Kohara zigzags all over the place, like a power cable cut loose, dancing around at random, sizzling anything that might unwittingly stand in its way. Kapo is the lightning that flashes here and there upon the horizon, until its power is so condensed that it unleashes a storm from that place. Kapo can mean flash and also to grab at something. Ngoi Pewhairangi applied this kupu in her waiata ‘Whakarongo’, which encourages the learning of te reo Māori.
Tirohia ngā tikanga tapu a ngā tīpuna
Kapohia hei oranga ngākau auē
Look to the sacred customs of our ancestors
grab hold of them, as they lift our hearts²
After the storm, the weaker kapo from elsewhere has given in, and become absorbed. The winning kapo is mana. It is a fire. Sometimes I think modern society is like this. Some people cannot cope with the might of the dominant. Capitalists whose greed is without end. Those who are vulnerable in society, along with any mana they possess, are absorbed. The mana, distributed into higher echelons. Historically, the colonists thought they were erasing te ao Māori and indeed it was one of their policies to assimilate Māori into the whole, which of course meant switching to a Pākehā way of life. For a time and in some places they succeeded. But after the efforts of activists and organisations, such as the Māori Language Society and Ngā Tama Toa, some of that mana is being wrestled back.
Mana cannot be washed out.
Mana cannot be rubbed out.
Mana cannot be extinguished.
He ahi tē tineia.
From the beginning of time this fire has existed. It continues still, yet it is of the atua.
You say an earthquake is born of fire – we cannot see it but we have indeed felt its immense power. Te mana o te rūwhenua. If it were to break through the earth’s surface it would be a fire. Perhaps that’s what is experienced in the eruption of a volcano: the mesmerising outpouring of the deadly but beautiful red-hot river. Perhaps it is that same power that engulfs whole forests and communities over in Te Whenua Moemoeā, like the fires at the end of 2019. On New Year’s Day 2020, the effects of the Australian bushfires reached us while holidaying over in Te Tai Poutini, in the form of an eerie golden light that bronzed our skin. Wisps of smoke tickled our nostrils. Although we weren’t caught up in the catastrophe of it, we still felt its dissipated presence.
You say mana is all around the world. Tāwhirimātea, Rūaimoko, Māui and others are at the centre of the circle, standing back to back, getting hold of the mana, then directing the elements to create and manage the weather of the world. Meteorological superheroes. You say that the Hine whānau hold the winds by mana, controlling and loosing them at their will.
You say that Māui is not dead, but that his mana was taken by Hinenuitepō. Perks of being a demi-god? If mana is a fire that cannot be extinguished, and it moves from place to place, or from hand to hand, it seems to me that there is a finite amount of mana to go around, and that it merely gets redistributed. Perhaps it just changes form, like Māui changing from humanoid to bird to lizard.
Do you find it disturbing that Māori kupu can be swallowed into English and spat out again, their meaning bastardised? They become misconstrued through an approximation of a translation that cannot encompass their true or full meaning. When you look up a Māori dictionary, one kupu will often have many different meanings, according to context. Sometimes a kupu can mean one thing, but also the opposite. Kind of like the word sick in modern parlance. People often pronounce mana as if it has a macron on the first a – a stretched out first syllable, like māna, which has a completely different meaning in Māori. Māna means for him/her.
I read an article recently in which the author had written about whāngai as if it was synonymous with adoption. It may be translated as such in the dictionary, but culturally, the two concepts are far apart. In one, a child is still within the care of their extended whānau, and they still know who they are and are raised within their cultural setting. My father was a whāngai to his Nan Tore who lived down the road from their whānau house at Rāpaki. She was a whāngai to you, our pōua, who fetched her as a baby from Waihao. And you were a whāngai to those two tohuka, Tūauau and Koroko. A long line of manaakitaka, all within the protective web of whakapapa. When a child is raised by foster parents or adopted out, particularly to Pākehā, or people outside of their whānau, hapū or iwi, it cannot be considered the same as whāngai. Outside of its original context there is a danger that the new meaning becomes the norm and that the tūturu concept or kupu, in a way, loses its mana.
He mana tō te kupu.
It can begin with a word. A four-letter word misappropriated to mean prestige or power. You say mana is a fire. A fire that no one can extinguish. A fire lit by atua. It can begin with a collision of thoughts and of fluids, wairua sparking escape, edging onto the ātea.
If we leave behind the translation, we can meditate on the origin.
Taste it there; drenched in the saliva of knowing.
1 Teone Taare Tikao quote from ‘Tikao and Beattie’, (1990), Tikao Talks. Penguin Books, p95.
2 My translation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ariana Tikao (Kāi Tahu) is an artist of the sound and word variety, whose first book, Mokorua, was published by AUP in November 2022. She was awarded as a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate in 2020 and is a recipient of the Ursula Bethell/Creative New Zealand Residency at the University of Canterbury for 2023.