In the past, koha has been described as a Māori term for a gift or payment.

It’s used on the marae, in return for a service or goods.

A common misconception is that koha is only monetary, but it can vary from food, items, clothes, and even land once upon a time.

Re: News spoke to Whatahoro Cribb Fox and Matariki Cribb Fox, researchers for Te Atawhai o Te Ao, independent Māori Research Institute about what koha is and how to use it appropriately. 

Matariki Cribb Fox (left) and Whatahoro Cribb Fox (right). Photo credit: Rawhitiroa Photography

What is koha? 

When I think of what koha is I always think about the scene in the movie Shrek where Shrek has just retrieved Fiona from her dragon-guarded tower. 

She hands him a handkerchief and says “I pray you take this favour as a token of my gratitude”. 

Essentially koha is a gift given as a token of gratitude for having received goods or services within a cultural context. It can also be used to express endearment or respect, it doesn’t need to be just a form of payment for goods or services. 

It is actually culturally correct when visiting someone to go with a koha. 

Would you say koha is mainly used by Māori?

Non-Māori might say they do something similar, where they exchange goods for services or other goods. To me, that’s more like bartering, which Māori also do, but that’s not koha. 

Koha is where you offer a gift out of respect or gratitude but what you give is not stipulated or predetermined. The tricky part is that koha as a tikanga (traditional practice) is an unwritten and usually unspoken rule and it’s just expected that Māori will follow. 

Because koha is a token of your gratitude, it reflects the level of gratitude you have for what you have received but just because it isn’t stipulated what should be given in exchange, doesn’t mean to say you just give whatever you can. 

For example, it would be considered a cultural faux pas to give a $20 gift card as a koha for having received facial moko. 

What forms of koha are there?

Koha can come in any shape or form. In this day and age, the most common form is monetary. 

Traditionally, it would vary across an array of treasured items from pounamu to rare bird feathers, to intricately woven cloaks. In special cases, it could even be land. 

The idea is that you give from whatever resources you have while still ensuring it meets the appropriate value. 

When giving koha, you would also consider what would be deemed as valuable to the receiver. 

For example, kaimoana (seafood) is deemed a delicacy and highly valuable to many Māori, however I, myself, am an avid diver and there’s always kaimoana in my freezer, so a koha of kaimoana wouldn’t have the same value to me as it would to others.  

What is the history of koha? Where did this come from? 

In the pre-European Māori culture, a lot of the time they expressed themselves through gestures rather than just words.

Kind of like a “don’t tell me, show me!” mentality. So koha became the way our ancestors would express their gratitude or pay their respect. 

The greater the koha, the greater the gratitude or respect.

There are historical narratives of koha ending wars, or, the other way around - an inadequate koha starting a war. Some koha were remembered for generations and created inter-tribal alliances. 

The core principle of koha is that you are expressing yourself through your actions, and you’re offering the respect and gratitude you have for someone. Culturally, we recognise and acknowledge the virtue of your actions more than anything else.  

Why do manuhiri (guests) give envelopes of koha to the haukāinga on the marae?

On the marae is probably the most common place where we would see the offering of koha. But this might cause a bit of confusion because, on the surface, we don’t see an exchange of goods or services. 

However in Māori culture, when we attend someone else’s marae and they have the responsibility of hosting us, we don’t expect our hosts to carry that responsibility alone, or we don’t expect our hosts to cater to us for free. 

We recognise in advance the services they’re providing when hosting us and we offer koha to contribute to that responsibility. Our koha also signifies our respect for the occasion, or the person who has passed in the case of a tangihanga.

Do you think koha is used fairly these days? 

Those who have a sound understanding of our culture and tikanga (traditions) use koha appropriately.

Those who misuse koha and take advantage of this cultural practice are those who don’t have a sound understanding of these things. 

Most of the time that’s because they weren’t fortunate enough to learn the true meaning of these things and they don’t usually misuse koha intentionally or with malice, but there have been occasions where people have used the concept of koha to get away with paying as little as possible for a cultural service. 

 Why do some people who have used koha as a form of payment, change back to firm prices?

From what I can tell, in the conversations that I’ve had with people who have done this, it’s because of the very reason I just mentioned. There is too much misunderstanding about what koha actually is and therefore, they are taken for granted and their services are underappreciated. 

Many of the cultural services these days are actually the main occupation of the service provider. It’s their bread and butter and how they make their living. So it would have gotten to a point where they couldn’t risk not being able to pay the bills just because some people misunderstood the true meaning of koha. 

How should people be giving koha in a fair and even way? 

Either take the value of the goods and services you’ve received and reflect that in the koha you give, or think about how much gratitude and respect you have for someone and find something of value that reflects that. 

But don’t forget that in this day and age, money makes the world go around. Your service providers have bills to pay and need to buy food to eat.

Usually, you’ll know well in advance if there is a time coming when you are going to engage the cultural services of someone, so use that time to save or sell some things if you have to. 

Make sure your koha truly reflects the value of the services you received and the level of respect and gratitude you have.

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