Mana Wahine: The Female Moko in Māori Culture

Mana Wahine: The Female Moko in Māori Culture

Tā moko represents a woman’s mana (status or power) and her whakapapa (ancestry and forebears) in society. This is best highlighted by the time when the chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi with their mokos in 1840.

The Moko Kauae is a chin tattoo traditional reserved for Māori women with mana (high status and power) and older women of experience and achievement. Although in a contemporary view, this can be seen as the birthright of all Māori wahine regardless of their age, experience or achievements in life.

Mana Wahine: The Female Moko in Māori Culture

Traditionally, female healers (tōhunga) had a close relationship with the gods (atua). As such, they were too sacred (tapu) to receive the Moko Kauae.

Europeans assumed that Tā moko was symbolic of a warrior status. However, Māori who were considered incredibly high rankly were often considered too tapu (sacred) to receive tā moko.

Mana Wahine: The Female Moko in Māori Culture

Healers (tohunga) would be responsible for tattooing. In ancient times, the tribe would summon all of the local tōhunga to come and practice their art.

People would offer treasures (taonga) such as weapons, cloaks, greenstone or kai (food) in exchange for the delicate and intricate tattoo. Only the best artists would continue to be in demand.

Since the 1990’s, tattooing of the moko kauae has been a part of a widespread renaissance of Māori culture. It is not only fashionable for a Māori woman to acquire moko kauae – it is also a culturally powerful way for her to reassert her identity, femininity, whakapapa and the mana of her iwi (tribe).

Mana Wahine: The Female Moko in Māori Culture

Contemporary tā moko artists are in high demand in New Zealand. Nowadays Māori tattoos aren’t popular only on the face for women, but also all over a woman’s body. In recent years, women of non-Māori descent have taken it upon themselves to get a moko kauae.

Controversy: Do Pākeha women (white women) have the right to wear a Moko Kauae?

According to Leonidas Pihama, no they do not, and them getting it is a symptom of the white privilege they have. She is unequivocal in her condemnation of an Australian woman who recently decided to get a moko kauae and the Māori Tā Moko artist who gave her the tattoo.

“The raging debate over whether Pākehā women should be accorded a privilege to carry moko kauae is also located within this context. I use the word ‘privilege’ deliberately as it reminds us that any Pākehā women seeking to or wearing moko kauae do not do so as a right, they do so as a privilege. Moko kauae is the right of Māori women. It is not a right for anyone else. Moko kauae is the reassertion of an indigenous right that has been marginalised, demeaned and denied by Pākehā colonial dominance. It is not a right for Pākehā women. The resurgence of moko kauae is a resurgence of Mana Wahine. It is not a resurgence for Pākehā women.”

Sally Anderson, an Australian life coach got a moko kauae after she started a business targeting Indigenous people for life coaching. In case you’re wondering what I think…yeah I do think it’s a bit racist to get a sacred cultural tattoo like a moko kauae when you’re not Māori.

Controversy: Who of us wahine deserve to have a moko kauae?

According to writer Tina Ngata, the moko kauae is denied to wahine based on a false set of colonial myths about those who are deserving, and those who aren’t:

“There are statements that infer, or outright declare, that Wāhine Māori should be examining their own behaviour or pathways before they take on moko kauwae.
Statements that outline what is acceptable for a Wāhine mau moko to do, or what she MUST do now that she has taken up this birthright.

“Statements about how much Wāhine must achieve in other peoples’ eyes, or how much she must contribute to her community before she takes up her birthright.

There really is no way to make these kinds of statements without first making a judgement about Wahine in general and that is…

“That in your natural state of Wāhine – you are not enough.

“That as a member of a line of wahine who descend down from Hina – you are not enough. That as a survivor of multiple generations of attempted genocide, as a survivor of this very specific battleground of settler colonial racism and patriarchy – you are not enough. That as a vessel for the continuation of our existence as Māori – you are not enough.

And to that I say: E Hine, You ARE enough.”

Note: I always felt ostracized from this conversation and a feeling of not being Māori enough to get a moko kauae, now I realise this was just legacy of colonialism.

Maori Television: New Videoclip Showcases Moko Kauae

Teara: The Ecyclopedia Of New Zealand

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

22 thoughts on “Mana Wahine: The Female Moko in Māori Culture

  1. I think they look really elegant on women. I remember when i was a kid there were a few magasine articles on the last remaining women who had moko done with an old technique. I guess they had been born in the 1870s-1880s. Nice to see it coming back again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes really elegant. Sometimes it adds to beauty but without a doubt it adds to the mana that you feel wearing it. It would be really tough having it done the old way with no anaesthetic and with sharp implements. I went to Te Matatini cultural festival last time it was on and a lot of wahine have it, younger women it really is a great thing. I would be reluctant to do it so young myself though. I hope one day to earn the privilege of a moko when I am really old and have hopefully done a lot with my life.


  2. Powerful and empowering👍 I would never get a tattoo (I have many) that would be an insult, or a tattoo that have strong connections with a culture which I do not belong to… I have been two times to NZ and have great respect for the Maori, hence I will never get a Maori tattoo. Hope to come back to NZ one day and visit a Marae again. Great post👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked this piece Ørjan, it’s so wonderful that you enjoyed your time here and connected with Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) so deeply. Yes it’s a weird thing, with Pākehā people getting these tattoos, they were never intended for them, and to me it looks really weird and sort of gross in a way. I guess if people want to hold this as sacred (tapu) then others need to respect that. The same could be said for other indigenous cultures. I wonder how it is with Nordic symbols in tattooing, do you feel that this should only be reserved for people from there or who practice Nordic pagan beliefs? It’s the same for Samoan tattoos as well they are sacred, I wonder how it is for other cultures and if they have these same ideas too? Take care Ørjan thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I cry a little every time I watch Whale Rider, it is strange the deep connection I feel with NZ and the Maori culture. I think in general that one should take care if you consider having a tattoo with symbolic meanings that have strong connections with other cultures or heritages than your own. And some tattoos and cultures have stringer connections with tattooing and the meaning of tattoos and symbols. I think that if a man or woman belonging to other cultures should not have tattoos with deep cultural meanings that do not «belong» to them. Being Maori, Samoan or Inuit (who have the same type chin tattoos like Maori) or other. I do not see Nordic symbols in the same light, since they are not connected with a «living» culture in modern times, even though I think it is strange to see an American with runes and a hammer of Thor on his arm for instance. It is widely considered fact that the Vikings and Northmen in general, were heavily tattooed. However, historically, there is only one piece of evidence that mentions them actually being covered in ink.

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      2. I cry too with Whale Rider, I look very similar to the girl in it as a child. That was filmed not far from where my tribe comes from on the East Coast. I get what you mean with living cultures and I agree. The language, the cultural traditions almost disappeared here due to the prevailing dominant culture but thankfully it has come back and now everyone wants to claim Māori ancestry, to learn to speak Māori etc it is wonderful. However it’s not a kind of utopia by any means, there’s enormous disparity in wealth, education, health, longevity, between Māori and Pakeha, the suicide rate for Māori is one of the highest in the developed world. It’s like a two-tiered society in a way so New Zealand still has a lot of work to do. There’s still racism here, it’s just more on the down-low.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I would love to visit one day. Would love to learn more on Maori culture. It is the plight of so many first people around the world, it makes my heart bleed. So much injustice and robbing of ancestral lands, whole ethic groups wiped out, and still reparations are nowhere near what is owed. In Norway we have the Sami people of the north, and they suffered in the same way as many other ethic minorities, not allowed to speak native language, not allowed to be nomadic etc. unfortunately like you say, racism lurks in every corner. Makes me sad.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t feel like blond lady has the right. Especially to promote her business. Maybe Henna would’ve been a better choice for her. I wonnder where this goes, if she has different ventures in 2 years or so …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I felt the same way it feels a bit rough and sort of makes a joke of it when people take cultural traditions out of a culture that doesn’t belong to them and use them for profit, it’s probably different for other cultures, I don’t know. Yes, it’s an odd thing to do and I wonder how her business is going now. I don’t wish harm on her for what she did, just feel a bit disappointed as these things happen out of ignorance and a lack of respect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I watched a documentary about a Western Camp (German people playing Indians & Cowboys) and it is a whole way of live for these people. Including immaculate costumes, incredible historical knowledge and accuracy and some odd old-fashioned understanding of the role of women. These people take that incredibly serious. However, if you were of Native decent, I bet my bum this romanticized version of their lives would hurt a lot of feelings.
        White people are pretty good at thinking they were tolerant. This lady probably meant no harm. Erm … I think?!?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Western Camp 🤯 Whoa that documentary sounds like it would be cringeworthy alright! Now this has piqued my curiosity and I want to watch it. It’s a bit gross these kinds of things. It’s making a joke of cultural traditions of people who were already colonized and made to feel ‘less than’ important, who had their land and culture taken from them…sounds like a sad documentary

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Maybe it’s better you don’t see it. You can stream in in the ARD Mediathek but with copyright and area restrictions you don’t have much of a chance. Might be better that way …

        Liked by 1 person

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