April 2014 Māori Law Review

Book review – Te Mātāpunenga – A Compendium of References to the Concepts and Institutions of Māori Customary Law


Te Mātāpunenga – A Compendium of References to the Concepts and Institutions of Māori Customary Law

Compiled, Edited and Introduced by Richard Benton, Alex Frame and Paul Meredith – Te Mātāhauariki Research Institute, University of Waikato.

Victoria University Press 2013 (ISBN: 9780864738899)

Reviewed by Matiu Dickson, Senior Lecturer, Te Piringa, Faculty of Law, University of Waikato – Ngāiterangi Iwi


As the time got nearer to the publication of this book, I was excited because it would be a rare addition to the written knowledge of Maori customary law or Maori tikanga law, adding to the much used writings of Hirini Moko Mead, Dame Joan Metge and others.  As a lecturer in a Law Faculty teaching Maori tikanga law in the mainstream of legal studies, I expected that such a publication would assist in explaining the meaning of Maori tikanga practice and further, it might show how Maori tikanga practice could fit into the present legal system. In the past I had relied on my own knowledge of Maori tikanga practice when teaching law students and naturally my knowledge was based on my own iwi or tribal experience.

Most Maori tikanga customs or values, like aroha, manākitanga and whanaungatanga for example, are universal in Maori society but there are also important tribal differences which students should know, giving them a fuller understanding of what Maori believed and why they carried out certain practices.  The colonial experience affected tribes differently in the practice and retention of their tikanga practice.  In my own tribal area of Tauranga Moana, where the tribes are Ngāiterangi, Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Pukenga, contact with the Pakeha community was limited after the land wars in the 1860s and the two peoples lived separately by choice.  The strength of tribal tikanga practice and language or reo was retained in isolated pockets of the community like Matakana Island where I was raised by my grandparents, until about the 1940s. Conversion to Christianity, initially to the Anglican Church and then to Catholicism, of the tribal people added another layer of influence.  Tahupotiki Ratana brought his religion to the district in the 1930s and converted various parts of the tribal community. Thus our experience was different to our relatives of Ngāti Awa, Te Whakatōhea, Te Whānau a Apanui and Ngāituhoe in the rest of the Mataatua area or rohe.

To properly reflect tribal differences in tikanga practice, I had to rely on an array of written texts and articles by authors past and present, Maori and Pakeha.  Authorship is always a potential issue as to the interpretation of Maori tikanga practice. Hopefully, gone are the days when Maori tikanga law was interpreted with the ‘real’ law in mind by some writers and comparisons and conclusions were made without reference to Maori themselves and to their views.  However, even now there are certain authors who still write in this way and show Maori tikanga practice in a negative light rather than as an opportunity to improve a lot of social issues that affect Maori and to reinforce cultural identity.

Recent publications by Government departments, like He Hinātore ki te Ao Māori – A Glimpse into the Maori World (2001) by the Ministry of Justice and the Study Paper 9 Maori Custom and Values in New Zealand Law (2001) by the Law Commission, also added to the useful resources but those dealt with Maori tikanga law in a very general way.  The former using made-up examples of Maori tikanga practice, to illustrate important points but these were not the same as the ‘real deal’.  I too used examples of a personal nature in teaching and these always proved to be useful for students in furthering their understanding.  Students themselves have reiterated this view in their appraisals of my teaching.  As a consequence, I firmly believe that Maori themselves who have these experiences and can refer to them in an interesting and relevant way are probably the most effective teachers of Maori tikanga law.  Those teachers require a working knowledge, or preferably a speaking knowledge of the Maori language.

When I received a copy of the finished book I was not disappointed.  It is a written record of the culmination of a series of discussions (Pū Wānanga) held by members of the Te Mātāhauariki Research Institute and Maori leaders, many of whom have passed on.  The Institute was based at the recently established (in 1990) Law School at the University of Waikato, the Dean at the time was Professor Margaret Bedggood.  I participated in several of these discussions as it was intended that staff members, particularly Maori staff members, of the Law School would also be part of the new research ‘whanau’.  It was appropriate that this Law School should host this Research Institute since the School had several foundations goals prompting its beginnings.

These goals (the law in context and professionalism) were the result of the findings in the Te Matahauariki Report compiled in 1988.  In that report the Maori stakeholders to the University supported the establishment of a new Law School if the law were taught in its bicultural context.  This would make the new School unique as compared to the other existing law schools in the country.  As a graduate of a ‘black-letter law’ law school it was this goal that attracted me to teach at this new law school.  It was new, innovative and relevant to me as a Maori.  The research from this institute would contribute immensely to promoting this goal.  It was a privilege to be part of the discussions with such notable leaders as Dr Tui Adams, Bishop Manuhuia Bennett, Dame Evelyn Stokes and others listed in the book’s introduction.  As I had been taught by my elders, as a young person my role was to listen and to listen well!  In 2012 the Law School’s name was officially changed to Te Piringa, Faculty of Law adopting the name, meaning coming together of the people, given by the late Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu at the time of the opening of the Faculty buildings.

This book has been set out so that it can be used easily as a reference resource.  The authors have avoided commenting on whether the customs they have recorded are ‘true custom’ and they have endeavoured to merely record what the writers of the time asserted to be customs themselves.  It is for readers to carry out further research to satisfy themselves as to the truthfulness of the authors’ assertions.  Thus, in this way the book is the starting point of the research journey.  It does not claim to be the complete research resource on Maori tikanga law, however for me it sparks the interest to research further.

When I received the book I went right through it in one sitting, checking on the entries and subjects which interested me most. The authors have been judicious in their choice of entries and the variety adds to the interest. But more importantly, for me, it shows the knowledge and orderliness of traditional Maori society.  That is, it reinforces the wisdom of the elders, more so that this knowledge was orally handed down through the generations.

 I have used the book as a reference book in the teaching this year of a 4th year law paper titled ‘Maori Customary Law/ Ngā Tikanga Māori’.  This paper was introduced several years ago to cater for the growing number of Maori-speaking law students enrolling in the Law Faculty.  It was intended that the paper should be taught by me in te reo.  I had taught as a guest lecturer in te reo in the Master’s degree in Maori Laws and Philosophy offered at the Te Wānanga o Raukawa and I had enjoyed the challenge.  Initially nearly all of the students taking the paper were Maori, however for the last several years student enrolments in the paper have been mostly Pakeha students.  Thus the interest in Maori tikanga law has shifted to all of the students across the Faculty.  Students already have compulsory parts of their 1st year papers covering Maori tikanga law and now a number of students want to specialise in this area of the law.  This is both a great challenge and an admirable achievement for the Law Faculty.

One of the topics of discussion in the class has been the negative fallout from the Takamore case and the obvious need of the general public to understand Maori burial practices.  The references in the book to tangihanga are extensive and coupled with the illustration chosen is a very useful resource indeed.  At page 184 is the illustration drawn by Horatio Robley of a tangi at Matapihi.  I can add that the tangi is that of Tamati Mauao my great (x3) grandfather whose daughter Hārete bore a child to Robley whose name was Tamati Ropere.  His descendants still live in Matapihi.  And so it goes on. As I mentioned earlier, this book is the beginning of interesting research and I recommend it to other readers.

He taonga te mātauranga i tukuna iho ki a tātou hei raukura mo te māhunga!  (Knowledge is a gift given to us by our ancestors as a feather for our heads, a sign of chiefliness.)