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  • Briar Pomana

The Power of Pūrākau

In this feature article, Kaiwāwāhi Tuarua / Sub-Editor Briar Pomana deep dives into the power of pūrākau today from the perspective of a millennial Māori.

On a hazy Auckland morning my friend Edie and I sit at a window table in Bestie Cafe on Karangahape Road. The space is something out of Sex and the City with its bustle of city folk and constant roundabout of other table dwellers.

We sip on housemade kombucha and oat milk lattes, telling each other stories that make us laugh so hard our pounamu earrings twirl. I imagine what we must look like from the outside, two young Māori women wearing vintage fur coats and stacked rings, giving them all a show. We talk a lot at these meet ups as we try to make sense of this city. Both of us undoubtedly will bring the chat back to our families and this becomes, as it always does, the basis of our kōrero.

Edie is an uri of Ngāti Mutunga and I always say she’s my favourite West Coast Māori. Quite traversely, I whakapapa to the other side of the North Island, as a descendant of Kahungunu. We met in 2019 during a kaupapa Māori screen production class in our first year of university. This is embarrassing to admit, but I knew from the first time I saw Edie that we’d be friends. Our kaiako for that initial class was the elusive Jani Wilson, a Māori academic who specialises in film and storytelling. Jani influenced our entire class to rethink our perceptions of what made a story. In the most beautiful ways, us rangatahi Māori were exposed to a plethora of Māori media and encouraged openly to share our thoughts and whakaaro on these works. It was in Whaea Jani’s class that I began to understand our mana whenua and the abundance of art we so easily generate as Māori.

I grew up in a household in which we competed through the stories we told. We measured success by who could get the most laughs, tears, face drops and so on. I’ve always been fascinated by this art form, and I believe this is an inherited trait from my mother and late Papa. Descendants of the infamous couple, Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine, our iwi of Ngāti Rakaipaaka are known as the ‘People of the Clay’. This name derives from our whenua and if you’ve ever been to a tangihanga or unveiling in Nuhaka you’ll comprehend quickly that it’s not the easiest of tasks to shift our whenua – especially when there is a hole needing to be dug.

My Papa was a hard man who worked and worked and worked. I would sit with him in the evenings in his blue lazy boy chair as he smothered himself in Vicks with his darkened callused hands and filled my head with stories. The yarns we would have were unmatched. Rarely did he have to say much and I was all ears. There is something so intrinsically Māori about sitting with your grandparent on an old armchair after having a soak in the bath and basking in the moments spent together. For my whānau, this sharing and exchange from kaumatua to mokopuna is as much a part of our DNA as curly hair and clicky knees.

Edie’s family is the same – not in that her family have terrible knees like us, although this could in fact be true – but in that familiar aspiration to make and share. It’s apparent in the way my friend carries herself, like a manifestation of a dream – and she most certainly is. I think this is why Edie and I get along so well. We’re both people who love to think and scheme, pondering over shadows in doorways and halls, before finally deciding there is no conclusion and divulging all our recurring thoughts over insane amounts of gumboot tea. It’s complete and utter madness but god is it fun.

And for me, that’s the art of pūrākau. It’s chaotic divinity and sacredness. It’s whakapapa and love. Pūrākau is the act of handing down or keeping something close. It cannot possibly be defined in layman terms because – like much of our philosophies and conscious states – pūrākau is less about gain and more about growth, and the possibilities that arise when we collectively dream and parade in those thoughts.

I was intimately reminded of this recently after reading a pūrākau Edie wrote. The story traced itself against the backdrop of a deep grief in Edie’s whānau – one I was not privy to at the time, but could relate to nonetheless. Initially Edie had asked me to have a quick flick through and pass on any thoughts that might arise. What actually ended up happening was my ugly-cry face being rather unattractively lit up by the Google Doc late on a Friday night. Edie’s story was a portal into my own shared experiences with loss and love. It moved me considerably to read words like those I was leaving lonely in odd notebooks. I see the same sort of sharing and connection during tangihanga. That last night where one minute we’re all cackling on our already-made-up mattresses and then the next it’s like time suspends us just goes to show the mastery of our crafts.

I see the same power of storytelling in Whiti Hereaka’s Kurangaituku, which recently won the 2022 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham NZ Book Awards. Her version of this pūrākau is another testament to what can be achieved when Māori are free to be Māori and create art that speaks to our own communities and whānau. Historically this sovereignty of story and whakapapa has been flogged and stolen for the sake of capture but no longer is this violence against Indigenous people tolerated.

In both Edie’s pūrākau about her whānau and Hereaka’s massive literary win, I cannot help but marvel at the sheer magnitude of it all. Our stories, our words and our actions breathe life into the most expansive parts of who we are. Whether it's sitting at a cafe on Karangahape road with a friend, having cuddles with your Papa, laced throughout lecture discussions or explored in unapologetically Māori writing, lean into the power of the pūrākau. It’s in our whakapapa.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.


Mō te kaituhi:

Briar Pomana

Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwāhine, Ngāti Rakaipaaka



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