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Whakatauki – Proverbs… Learning social expectations by looking into the past…

By Rose Blackett.

Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. They have faced social upheaval, decades of conflict and epidemics of introduced disease since Europeans arrived in New Zealand. Māori as a group are over represented in our statistics for crime, educational underachievement and poor health.

According to a prominent Māori educator in New Zealand, Jill Bevan-Brown, a true understanding of the present can only be obtained through considering the past. Whakatauki (proverbs) feature strongly within Māori culture in New Zealand. They may provide a window into the past and offer us all a snapshot of what valuable social expectations within contemporary society might look like.

Whakatauki have historically been used as a reference point within speeches on a marae (the area for formal discourse in front of a meeting house). Whakatauki are poetic forms of Te Reo (the Māori language) and often merge historical events or holistic perspectives with underlying messages, which are influential within Māori society.

The best way to illustrate whakatauki is to share examples with their translation, followed by an explanation of their meaning. The following proverbs were shared recently at the SENG Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Tangata ako ana i te whare, te turanga ki te marae, tau ana.

A person who is taught at home will stand collected on the Marae (meeting house grounds).

A child who is given proper values at home and cherished within their family will not only behave well amongst the family but also within society and throughout their life.

Kaore te kumara e whaakii ana tana reka.

The kumara (sweet potato) does not say how sweet he is.

This proverb accentuates the value of humbleness. It is important to consider this proverb when identifying gifted individuals as we must reflect on the role self-nomination plays.

Ka pu te ruha ka hao te rangatahi.

As an old net withers … another is remade.

When an elder is no longer fit to lead, a healthier leader will stand in his place. We should be future focused and support emerging leaders, while acknowledging and valuing our current leaders.

Ehara taku toa, he taki tahi, he toa taki tini.

My success should not be bestowed onto me alone, as it was not individual success but success of a collective.

Said humbly when acknowledged. This encompasses the concept of collective giftedness, which is accepted within Māori culture. It may be the inter-personal and intra-personal relationships within a group that makes them shine. Sometimes no “one” individual possesses a gift. This is in contrast to the internationally accepted mainstream concept of an individual being “gifted.”

Kua hinga he totara i te wao nui a Tane.

A totara has fallen in the forest of Tane.

A totara is a huge native tree that grows for hundreds of years in New Zealand. For one of them to fall is a great tragedy. This proverb is said when someone of importance passes away. Just as we value our great trees, we must value our great leaders.

Te amorangi ki mua, te hapai o ki muri.

The leader at the front and the workers behind the scenes.

This is a reference to Marae protocol where the speakers are at the front of the meeting house and the workers are at the back, making sure everything is prepared and that the guests are well looked after. Service to others is considered a gift within Māori culture. It is important to note that both jobs are equally important and are like the yin and yang for, without one, everything would fail.

Whakatauki are relevant for all societies. We should consider the past from the perspective of all participants … not just the majority culture. My challenge to you is to consider the concept of giftedness from all perspectives, as it is often from listening to those who walk before us that we gain the most valuable knowledge.


SENG Director Rose Blackett is a registered educational psychologist with over twenty years of experience in the education system. Rose is the current president of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children (NZAGC), founding president of Christchurch Explorers and a committee member for the Canterbury Association for Gifted Education (CAGE). Rose and her husband Rob parent two gifted children and live in Christchurch.

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