Looking into language can be a daunting task, one that is fraught with potholes, confusing twists, and many dead ends. Within the queer community, language can have a particular significance. From the importance of the labels we choose for ourselves to the labels people place us under, language can play a large role in the quality of life of queer people. Language can be a good indicator towards the attitudes of a society; looking at language can, in fact, be an invaluable resource for finding the role queer people maintained in any given culture. From the esteemed baté of the Crow nation to the use of "fairy" as a jab at femme queer men and trans women. Today we will explore a word that finds its roots in New Zealand with the Māori people, and see what insight it can give us into queer people's place in Māori culture.
It must first be noted that we find ourselves again fighting against the ever-present antagonist of our efforts: historical erasure. In this case, the erasure is due to not only the sexualities and/or gender identities of the people involved, but also to the fact that they were Māori. Because of colonization and the persistent marginalization Māori people face within society, much of their history and cultural identity have been lost. So as we begin our discussion we must acknowledge the intersection that it stands upon. Takatāpui discusses the connection between the Māori people, same-gender desire, and gender variance, and thus will be societally pushed down from two different angles.
Before we delve into the contemporary issues the term faces, we must first look at its origin. Strangely enough, it begins with one of the most famous love stories between a woman and a man in Māori culture.
In most tellings, the story begins with Hinemoa, a high ranking woman. Because of her high rank, she was declared sacred, meaning it was up to her family and the elders of her tribe to find her a husband once she was of age. This is when Tutānekai, the illegitimate son of a chief from another island, came in the picture. He was not Hinemoa’s equal, but he encountered her in meetings between the two tribes. It is said that they spent much of their time looking at each other, both too nervous to say anything.
It was Tutānekai who broke the silence, sending a messenger to tell Hinemoa of his affections. She responded, “Have we each then loved alike?” He then asked Hinemoa to come to him and told her that he would play his flute on the shore of his island each night waiting for her to come by canoe.
She agreed, and night after night she listened to the music but was unable to go to him. Her tribe had discovered her intentions and had pulled all the canoes high up on shore. Finally, unable to wait any longer, she decided to swim. Using six hollowed out gourds to help her float, she took off her clothes and swam towards the music.
She swam most of the night in the cold water, growing more and more exhausted with each passing minute. Eventually, she was able to make it to the island. She rested in a warm pool but remembered she was naked and tried to find a way to get Tutānekai to come to her. It was only when Tutānekai sent a servant to get him some water from the pool that she saw her chance.
Deepening her voice in an attempt to sound like a man she asked ‘For whom is this water?’ To which the servant replied it was for Tutānekai, and Hinemoa took the gourd, drank the water and then broke it. The servant went back to report what had happened and Tutānekai sent him back to the pool to try again. Hinemoa did the same thing she had the last time. When the servant reported back once more, Tutānekai went to see who was stopping him from getting his water and discovered Hinemoa naked in the pool. He then put his cloak over her and the two of them went to his home.
It was the next morning before anyone discovered what had happened, only believing it was true when Hinemoa and Tutānekai walked out his home together. The two families celebrated the marriage, bringing good relations between the two tribes.
After hearing that story, it may be hard to see why this is the origin of the term takatāpui, a work used to discuss the intersection between queer identities and Māori culture. However, there is more to the story. Scholar and renowned expert in the word takatāpui told of another, less discussed aspect of the story:
“Tūtanekai may have loved Hinemoa, but his heart belonged to Tiki, whom he called ‘taku hoa Takatāpui’ - my intimate same-sex friend - and spoke about at great length. Tūtanekai missed Tiki so much that he moaned to his adoptive father, Whakaue: Ka mate ahau i te aroha ki tōku hoa, ki a Tiki’ I am dying for love for my friend, for my beloved, for Tiki.”
She then tells that some of the kuia that she has met told her that Tiki was eventually allowed to move in with Tūtanekai and Hinemoa. Considering this possibility and the societal acceptance of polyamorous relationships, it is possible that there was an arrangement for Tiki and Tūtanekai to continue a relationship, though there is no evidence of whether that included Hinemoa or not.
The word began being used again because of Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and then Lee Smith; in the manuscripts of Wīremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke. The first printed use of the word was in Mana Wāhine Māori: Selected Writings in Māori Women’s Art, Culture and Politics. However, a governmental paper by Herewini and Sheridan in a discussion of the health of Māori gay men is most often considered the first use of the word. While Mana Wāhine Māori: Selected Writings in Māori Women’s Art, Culture and Politics did use it first, the Herewini and Sheridan paper is governmental so is seen as more official.
From its beginning, the word's definition has been rather vague and differs from source to source. One often cited definition is from the Takatāpui, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Scoping Exercise for ALAC18, which said:
“Takatāpui is a traditional Māori word which means ‘intimate companion of the same sex’. The term has been reclaimed for all Māori who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, whakawāhine, fa’afafine, same-sex attracted, asexual, queer and questioning.”
But we can find a more thorough definition from Elizabeth Kerekere:
“Takatāpui is an umbrella term that embraces all Māori with diverse gender identities, sexualities and sex characteristics including whakawāhine, tangata ira tāne, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer. Takatāpui identity is related to whakapapa,
mana, and inclusion. It emphasises Māori cultural and spiritual identity as equal to - or more important than – gender identity, sexuality or having diverse sex characteristics.
Being takatāpui offers membership of a culturally-based national movement that honours our ancestors, respects our elders, works closely with our peers and looks after our young people”
And with the resurgence of the word's usage, we find that the many different definitions, while complicated, is in a way something to be grateful for, because it means the discussion is happening.
It means that this history is finding its way back into the minds of the modern Māori community, which is not only a lifeline for takatāpui youth who want to find support in their culture and heritage but also a tool for Māori people who are not takatāpui to gain better understanding of the takatāpui people within their community. Like in many other colonized areas, a European belief system, including the discrimination towards queer people, was forced on the Māori people.
As this discussion continues we get to see history made before our eyes as they untangle the legacy of inclusion their ancestors had from the beliefs that were pushed upon them. At this very moment, as people continue to find out more about these words and this culture, people are given the chance to reconnect to their community or their identity. And again we go to Elizabeth Kerekere, who said:
“But since the term takatāpui came into usage, it was found about the late '70s, early '80s, and it has increasingly gained traction, not just as a term to refer to Māori who may be identifying as queer in whatever way, but as an actual identity, which seeks to bring all those parts of ourselves together and focus on issues specific to us so that we don't always have to choose in any given circumstance: Are we Māori today or are we queer today? And you'll find that in most services that are offered in this country in terms of health, education, we often have to choose, just in life. When we go home we're being like the good Māori girl, and when we're in the city we can go to lesbian things and hang out with the cooler crowd.”
And here we find one of the most interesting and important aspects of the term. Takatāpui is about an intersection of identities. It is not primarily about being queer and being Māori in a secondary sense, it is about how those two pieces of a person interact. Because while sometimes labeling things and putting everything into their own individual box can be helpful, it is imperative we discuss how the different aspects of ourselves connect with one another.
In the end putting words to something is only the first step in the journey, and the next step must be understanding how the word connects to you and the society around you. It is only through this that we reach past the most surface discussion of our own identities and begin to understand them, and how they affect our place in the world. Words are not only things on paper or things said to one another, they have deep personal and historical meanings that shine through in every use of them. They affect how people see us, how we interact with our communities, and often how we see ourselves.
[Disclaimer: Some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
“Hinemoa and Tutanekai – Love Story.” Māori in Tourism Rotorua, TangataWhenua.com, nzmaoritourism.com/hinemoa-and-tutanekai-love-story/.
Kamm, Rebecca. “'It Was a Revolution': How the Māori LGBTQ Community Became a Family.” Broadly, VICE, 17 Nov. 2016.
Kerekere, Elizabeth. “Part of The Whānau: The Emergence of Takatāpui Identity He Whāriki Takatāpui.” Doctoral Thesis. Victoria University of Wellington, 2017.
New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu Taonga. “Hinemoa and Tutānekai.”Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu Taonga, 15 Nov. 2012.
Online News Team. “'Ground-Breaking' Resource to Offer Support to Takatāpui.” Māori Television, Māori Television, 14 Dec. 2015.
Sarah Harris. “Elizabeth Kerekere Speaks on Māori LGBTQ Term Takatāpui.” NZ Herald, NZME. Publishing Limited, 3 Oct. 2017.
“TUINI NGAWAI MEMORIAL HUI.” Te Ao Hou THE MAORI MAGAZINE, June 1962, pp. 41–42.
“TUINI NGAWAI MEMORIAL HUI.” Te Ao Hou THE MAORI MAGAZINE, June 1966, pp. 36–39.