Whare Wānanga

Whare Wānanga are iwi-community centres of higher learning. Although they have undergone much change, they are the oldest continuous education institution in Aotearoa-New Zealand having existed in this country since soon after the arrival of our ancestors from Polynesia. They were and are an essential institution of our communities and our culture.

In pre-European times, whare wānanga were highly sacred institutions convened to teach the children of aristocratic families and to maintain the traditions and knowledge of the community. Primarily boys attended them, however, some girls did attend as well and graduated in their own right. On the whole, however, the whare wānanga was a male institution.

(The puhi institution was the counterpart of the whare wānanga and was established exclusively for aristocratic girls and young women. Tapu-sacred girls and young women – known as puhi - were set aside from their community (and from the attentions of men). They lived in their own dwellings away from the village and were groomed and mentored by the elder women of the iwi. An excellent example of the puhi institution in action concerns Te Rongorito, the youngest sister of the famous Maniapoto (ancestor of Ngāti Maniapoto). Te Rongorito lived at a place called Te Marae-o-Hine, near present-day Ōtorohanga. The tapu of Te Rongorito and of Te Marae-o-Hine was guided jealously by her brothers.)

Mana Atua

The traditional Māori worldview holds that ‘behind’ the world of everyday experience is another reality, a spiritual reality. This deeper dimension of life is able to express itself in this world of our everyday experience. The word ‘mana’ refers to a non-ordinary, a non-everyday ‘power’ that comes from this spirit world and expresses itself in our everyday world and the deities or atua are particular expressions of mana in the world.

The traditional worldview relates that anything of this world is a potential vessel or pathway by which mana can come into the world. Anything can become a vessel of mana so long as it meets certain criteria and attends to certain disciplines. Vessels of mana include the forest and its many elements, and the waters and species of fish. Objects made by human hands too can become vessels of mana. Mere pounamu, taiaha, kakahu and much more can become vessels of mana.

Humans too are vessels of mana and so the primary purpose of the whare wānanga was to activate and foster the mana atua of the student. Whare wānanga graduates of the highest grade are referred to as tohunga or ‘vessels of mana’. A tohunga is a gifted person and a repository of knowledge. Ultimately, however, what sets them apart is the gift of creative insight. A tohunga is able to bring forth understandings and perceptions of things that others are not able to. The arrival of insight in the mind of the tohunga (and the consequent actions that may result) represents the arrival of mana or the expression of mana in the tohunga.

Before entry into the whare wānanga, the young people of the community were studied by their elders. The elders wished to understand the nature and character of each of their children. They wanted to know what naturally and organically expressed itself in each child prior to any kind of formal teaching and conditioning. They wanted to know what kind of person each child was.

If a child showed a certain aptitude or exhibited a certain skill, if they were drawn in a particular way, the traditional view stated that this demonstrated the deities that were alive in that young person. The atua or deities were expressing themselves in that person. Skills, abilities and the character of the individual were the deities (atua) expressing themselves naturally (māori) in the young person. The elders would debate the qualities of each child and once they had agreed which atua was manifesting in which child, they would then commit that child to a learning pathway by which they acquired knowledge pertaining to that atua.

When the student had moved through the grades of the whare wānanga and arrived at the standing of the tohunga, the student had become a vessel (māngai, taunga) for the deity (atua) that was naturally manifesting in the student when a child. The student had now become the wielder of mana atua.

Te Pikinga-a-Tānenuiārangi

The most well know mythic narrative pertaining to the whare wānanga is the story concerning the ascent of Tānenuiārangi to the 12th or highest heavens. It is said that the ‘baskets’ of knowledge were held by the supreme being, Io, in a house called Rangiātea. Io asked who of the children of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatuanuku (earth mother) was able to ascend to the highest heavens to obtain the baskets of the wānanga and to bring them into Te Ao Mārama, into the world. After some discussion, Tānenuiārangi was selected and after many trials and adventures, Tāne finally arrives in Rangiātea where he receives the baskets. He returns to Papatuanuku where a house called whare kura had been established as the ‘home’ for the baskets of the wānanga. This became the first whare wānanga.

The story of Tānenuiārangi’s ascent is an allegory concerning the journey towards enlightenment and understanding, towards mana. The journey symbolises and teaches much about the nature and the character of the person who successively receives the ‘wānanga’ and those who don’t.

The Modern Whare Wānanga

In the 19th century, reformulations of whare wānanga took place in the face of colonisation. Rev. Māori Marsden of Te Tai Tokerau states that the whare wānanga he attended (until its recess in 1958) was a reworking of a whare wānanga that was lead by Aperahama Taonui and reworked in his time in the 1850s and 1860s. The Ngāi Tahu tohunga, Taare Tikao, states that the traditions that he learnt were a reformulation of the Ngāi Tahu whare wānanga tradition following the devastating conflicts with northern tribes in the first half of the 19th century.

Although great change did take place during this period, whare wānanga continued to be convened in large and small ways. By the 1960s, it appears that whare wānanga activities fell to their lowest ebb, however, they never entirely disappeared. For example, author Cleve Barlow discusses a small wānanga he attended in the Hokianga in the 1970s.

In 1981, the first of the modern whare wānanga, Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, was established by the Raukawa Trustees (representing Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toarangatira and Te Āti Awa). This was soon followed by Te Wānanga-o-Aotearoa in 1983 and then Te Whare Wānanga-o-Awanuiārangi in 1991. These three whare wānanga are now Government funded and they offer a wide range of curricula with high involvement of mātauranga Māori.

Wānanga, an Indigenous Creative Process

The whare wānanga is the institution; however, at its heart is the concept of wānanga which is both a process and a quality of consciousness by which learning and creating can take place. The imparting of knowledge is a critical part of the wānanga process as teachers and other learned people share what they know with students. However, the mere imparting of knowledge is the not final goal of wānanga.

Ultimately, the purpose of the wānanga process is to enable the creative mind to come into being. The phrase ‘te hīringa i te mahara’ refers to the awakening of the conscious mind. Groups or collectives of tohunga are referred to as ‘te teretere pūmahara’ and a learned person is referred to as ‘te tangata whai mahara’. The key word here is ‘mahara’ which is conscious awareness. A ‘tangata whai mahara’ is somebody who is alert, awake and also active in pursuing what their mind suggests to them. Creativity, mana, consciousness - whatever we may call it - these terms refer to this ‘inner world’ in which ideas, concepts, perceptions flow and often in the most random fashion.

 The whare wānanga and the wānanga process is about fostering this ‘mahara mind’, it is about liberating and expressing a certain kind of consciousness and intelligence.