Prestigious grant for Waikato Uni research into the Maori way of death

8 October 2009
A unique project at the University of Waikato to examine the Maori way of death has won a prestigious Marsden Fund grant, worth $950,000 over three years, in the Royal Society of New Zealand's latest research funding round.

Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku of the School of Maori and Pacific Development and Associate Professor Linda Waimarie Nikora of the Maori & Psychology Research Unit will lead a team to explore and record tangihanga practice past and present.

The team has also secured $250,000 from the Nga Pae o te Maramatanga National Institute of Research Excellence to look at the historical and social change aspects of tangihanga.

"Maori talk about death all the time, yet it is also the topic least studied by Maori, or understood by outsiders," says Prof Awekotuku. "We believe that this delicate and volatile subject deserves attention and study, as our work will extend and enrich the knowledge base, and inform the wider New Zealand community."

Findings from the research programme – Apakura: the Maori way of death -- will be made available to a wide range of groups, from whanau and hapu to the health services, police and the funeral industry.

A further outcome will be constructive analysis and advice on controversial issues in the tangi experience, such as claiming and repatriating the deceased, exhumation and recovery, makutu or modern sorcery, and organ donation.

"We are also concerned with the vast population of Maori living -- and dying -- overseas, and their whanau need for clear information, security and guidance," says Prof Awekotuku.

"Tangihanga practice is the ultimate form of Maori cultural expression. We want to capture it for our descendants, whether they be here or in Moscow or Berlin, so that when it happens they'll know what to do. That's what's driving this project."

The research team includes Waikato University colleagues Professor Pou Temara, who's also chair of the Karanga Aotearoa Human Remains Repatriation programme at Te Papa, and Te Kahautu Maxwell, composer, orator and academic. "Both these men are uniquely qualified ritual experts, and their involvement in the research team is imperative and significant," says Prof Awekotuku.

Co-principal investigator Dr Nikora said the team acknowledged that their work carries the inherent risk of 'karanga aitua' – calling misfortune by drawing attention to it, but felt it was a risk worth taking.

"On receiving the Nga Pae grant in July, the first thing we did was carry out the appropriate rituals to mark the start of the research programme, and to pay heed to imperatives around safety," she says. "We all have people in our own lives who may pass away during the course of this project."

Prof Temara notes that the rituals of tangihanga were previously the prerogative of a sagacious few. "It was a particular form of knowledge, but in this modern world, we have a new sense of freedom, to rationalise and to explore. Yet we must still take care."

Prof Awekotuku says the Marsden funding for the project represents a leap of faith. "We are all living the research, and that's what makes it unique. The Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund has made a huge commitment in supporting this project, and we are grateful for this extraordinary expression of their faith in us."

She says the research programme will actively mentor and support more than a dozen Masters and PhD students through their degrees.

Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku researches in the culture, arts and heritage sectors, and served on various governance bodies, including Te Papa/Museum of NZ and Creative NZ. She has published extensively on heritage and social issues.

Associate Professor Linda Waimarie Nikora has worked in developing the field of kaupapa Maori and indigenous psychology for over two decades, and was the founding director of Waikato University's Maori and Psychology Research Unit.

Their last Marsden grant resulted in Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo which won the 2008 Montana Lifestyle & Contemporary Culture Award, and was voted the Maori Book of the Decade in the recent Nga Kupu Ora Maori Book Awards.