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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.