Uncovering nearly lost stories of Indigenous sexuality
Māori have lost so much from the attack on our language and culture. Part of that loss was what sexuality and gender identity looked like prior to the arrival of Europeans to Aotearoa. Many Māori activists and researchers are beginning to uncover and relearn much of what we thought was once lost. We are beginning to understand how historically, Māori society was known for its acceptance of sexuality and sexual diversity. Recounts are being unveiled with our traditional waiata, carvings, and karakia, which contain narratives pertaining to Māori perspectives prior to colonization.
With regards to sex, Māori perspectives were vastly different from European views. For Māori, sex before marriage was common and carried no stigma for women. George Forster, a British explorer on James
Cook’s Crook’s second voyage, said, “Their (Māori) ideas of female chastity are, in this respect, so different from ours, that a girl may favour a number of lovers without any detriment to her character”. Those bonded through political marriages were, however, forbidden from extramarital affairs. In pre-contact Māori society, young unmarried men and women had a high degree of sexual freedom. With the exception of a few high-born women who were ceremonially betrothed, pre-marital sex was considered socially acceptable, though blatant promiscuity was frowned upon and a certain level of discretion expected.
Whilst uncovering pre-colonial Māori perspectives on sex, emerging histories indicate that being good at sex was something Māori took a lot of pride in. Being able to practice with different partners was key in being able to exercise one’s sexuality and identify how they wanted. It was a point of pride and skill to be able to please one’s partner.
When Cook first arrived in New Zealand, sexual activity between his crew and local Māori, both women and men, was a feature of their early encounters. Many explorers, sailors, and even missionaries had sexual relationships with Māori. An example of this was missionary William Yates, who lived with his male companion for two years in the Māori village of Waimate, before being expelled to England for homosexual behaviour with Māori men. When these men went to court, Māori whanau showed that they had no problem with homosexual intercourse. Not only that but within Te Ao Māori, there was no punishment for participating in same sex intercourse. What this tells us is that Western beliefs regarding homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny were not embedded into Māori society pre-European arrival. Having no punishment for same sex intercourse, The Christianisation of New Zealand appears to have been the biggest factor in introducing stigma towards same-sex relationships.
The implementation of Christianity and Western views drastically changed Māori structures regarding family, gender roles, identity, and sexuality. Māori were forced to assimilate to a nuclear family structure, consisting of two parents and their children, which is now the norm within New Zealand. This runs adjacent to the Māori family structure called whānau. This term conceptualises the family to include all extended family through blood ties, in-laws, even extending to those who share whakapapa as well as strong social bonds with each other.
Māori sexual narratives are represented in much of our arrange (weaving) and Whaikairo (carvings). It was common for the female vulva to be depicted on the entrance way to meeting houses. Penises, sometimes erect, were also depicted in wood carving as a sign of virility and strength. In some cases, copulating couples were also depicted. These things were deeply troubling for European missionaries who went out of their way to have the “offending” carvings altered or removed, and depictions of sexual organs or acts destroyed, in accord with their own “sensibilities”. This was coupled with an effort to remove any representation of Māori gods and figures as these missionaries saw it as a depiction of god in a form that was not correct in their eyes. The Catholic Church’s efforts in Northland meant that marae in these areas did not display Māori art and carvings on our marae, further contributing to a loss of our culture and identity.
These Western notions led to vigorous attempts to change Māori perspectives and culture. Sexual organs in carvings were habitually removed or destroyed. Waiata and karakia that had explicit language in them were often redacted. Despite the openness with which Māori talked about sexuality, the Williams Māori-language dictionary only gave the meaning of sexual terms and body parts in Latin.
Overlapping with this loss of culture and identity, wāhine were stripped of their influence in many aspects. Men took on the primary roles within post-European-arrival society. Power began to shift from wāhine to tāne even within Māori families. Wāhine were pressured into assimilating towards British ideals of women in the Victorian era.
It is widely believed that men and women’s roles were both equally valued and respected in traditional Māori society. The most powerful indication of this is embedded within the Māori language, as both the personal pronouns (ia) and the possessive personal pronouns (tana/tona) are gender neutral.
Takatāpui is a traditional Māori term meaning “intimate companion of the same sex” and has been increasingly reclaimed by Māori and adopted by those who are lesbian, gay, trans, and intersex, although the discourse is ongoing. “Takatāpui”, which originally referred to a close companion of the same sex, fell out of use for many decades, but since the 1980s has been reclaimed as an inclusive term used by gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and intersex Māori who feel the term is more representative of their identity than a Western label. It is a term that encompasses Māori spirituality and culture as well as sexuality. Takatāpui rangatahi are weaving together both Māori and LGBTQIA+ communities to promote the identities, health, and well-being of Takatāpui using an intersectional approach that takes into consideration the overlapping forms of oppression that these communities have faced.
The challenge for Māori now is in continuing to rediscover and reassert our identity as Māori in a form that is true to ourselves, our culture, and our perspectives, in a form that distances ourselves from forced Westernisation. We must understand that an existence where men have power and authority over women and children is not in accordance with tikanga Māori. We must recognise that European beliefs and ideals have been imposed upon us: laws with which we have no affinity and that we have every reason to reject.