Before the arrival of the settlers in Aotearoa, different relationship structures such as what we might call ‘monogamy’ or ‘non-monogamy’ today, likely existed, writes Ataria Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi).
Of course, they weren’t called that. The word ‘monogamy’ originates from Greek and European thought.
There was no introduced European thought in pre-colonial Māori communities—no existence of the bible or Victorian moral code associated with family values and sexual repression.
No missionaries to spread the theologies of Christianity—no British soldiers or system of law to enforce colonisation and its patriarchal roots.
Dr Clive Aspin, associate professor in the school of health at Te Herenga Waka, says “we can be pretty sure that expressions of sexuality were radically different then from what they are now”.
“This happened here and in other Indigenous cultures around the world,” Aspin says.
“Colonial rules and regulations, along with stigma and discrimination, led to a narrowed form of sexual orientation.”
This story accompanies our new docuseries, Queer Academy.
Fluid sexual intimacy and gender expression
Kahungunu, the charismatic and influential leader who married nine women, is one example of multiple relationships.
His romance with the beautiful Rongomaiwahine at Māhia Peninsula is well-known in Māori history.
Pūrākau is a traditional form of Māori narrative that communicates ideas of shared meaning and identity.
Dr Aspin notes that pūrākau, like the many romances of Kahungunu, demonstrate the possibility of multiple relationships in pre-colonial Māori society.
The book Sexuality and the Stories of Indigenous People, edited by Aspin and Jessica Hutchings, shows the rich diversity of takatāpui stories written by contributors from Rangitunoa Black and Georgina Beyer to Anton Blank.
The introduction says the word takatāpui was included as far back as the 1832 Dictionary of the Māori Language in reference to ‘an intimate companion of the same sex’.
Dr Elizabeth Kerekere and her groundbreaking PhD on takatāpui identity highlights that “fluid sexual intimacy and gender expression existed among Māori in pre-colonial and post-contact time and has continued ever since”.
“It was accepted without punishment.”
For Kerekere, uncovering and promoting the narratives of tūpuna takatāpui provides essential role models to support takatāpui resilience in encountering discrimination.
One role model is Tūtānekai and his hoa takatāpui, known as Tiki, in a telling by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku of the well-known Te Arawa love story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai.
In Mana Wahine Māori: Selected Writings on Māori Women’s Art, Te Awekotuku elaborates on the meaning of this version.
“Isn’t that another, intriguing way of looking at this story? And isn’t that a way which we, our community and tradition, have been denied?”
From sexual relationships between Māori and the settlers, historical examples of same-sex relationships and the imagery of sexual organs in whakairo, much evidence shows that Māori attitudes toward sexuality and relationships differed from European thinking.
Aspin says “when the colonists saw our beautiful artwork, the first thing they did was chop off genitals”.
“This shows a display of genitals to be perverse. They emasculated many of our carvings based on a so-called sense of morality.”
From this, Aspin says, “I suggest it would be difficult to accept anything other than a monogamous relationship among men and women”.
For my Master’s thesis on mana wahine and the atua wāhine, esteemed tohunga Hinewirangi Kohu-Morgan shared her view that colonisation had changed how sex was perceived in Māori communities.
“The idea of making love was not a thing. We didn’t make love,” she says.
“We did what our bodies were naturally to do. And guess what? We did it anywhere! Because it was normal. It was as normal as it was to eat or drink.”
By removing moral codes and judgement from sexuality, likely a hangover of a colonial past, we enforce the right to tino rangatiratanga or sovereignty over our bodies and relationship choices—with takatāpui communities and tangata whenua leading the way.
Ataria Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) was born in Te Whanganui-a-Tara; she now lives in Hikurangi, Te Tai Tokerau. Ataria has a Master of Arts and spent a year researching mana wahine and atua wāhine. Her first novel Hine and the Tohunga Portal by Huia Publishers, was a finalist in the 2022 New Zealand Book Awards for Youth and Children.
Queer style used to be a subculture. I don’t think it is anymore.
“Queer people are good at sexual health because for a lot of us, we were forced to in the ’80s.”
"It’s still painful for me to revisit, because it was something that was supposed to be precious.”