Bone Shame: Grief, Te Ao Māori and the Liminal Space where Translation Fails

By | 1 May 2018

A pervasive sense of shame continues in many quarters but it is more underhanded now, more subversive. Our self-appointed paternalistic parents intend to school us again – colonise us afresh with renewed shame. Perhaps the act of ‘psychological colonisation’ is simply the process of shaming another culture. The parlance of today is that we lost it. We lost our language. For this we are to be shamed anew. If we had wanted it, we should have looked after it. As if walking to school one day, in our negligence, we lost our language. I lost it. I let it slip through the cracks of the sidewalk, I failed to retrieve it when it fell from my pocket. I am at fault. The shame is mine. And if I believe that, if we listen to that story and narrate ourselves that way, we are complicit in our re-colonisation. In our continued undermining of our self. We didn’t lose it. It was stolen. Not the same. Not equivalent. Not shame.

The prefix whaka- is a crucial term in the Māori language. I like to think of it as a word that causes action. When put in front of another word, whaka causes the second word to activate, to become. The word Māori, though it is understood to signify the indigenous people of New Zealand, actually means ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’. To whakamāori something means to make it normal, or to clarify. This is often used as the word for translate.

Whakaira tangata means to create people.
Whakawhiti is to cross over.
And whakapapa is the word for genealogy.

Whakapapa actually means to ‘make into layers’. Generation after generation forms layers in ascension from the ground (papa), or Papatūānuku, upwards. Everything has a whakapapa – the rocks, the animals, the stars in the sky.

The first definition in the Maori Dictionary for whakamā is to make white, to whiten.1

In Māori mythology, in my whakapapa, the first human, my ancestor, was a woman, Hineahuone. She was formed from the clay of Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother). Hineahuone lay with Tāne, god of the forests, and they begat Hinetītama, the Dawn Maiden. When she was grown, Tāne took Hinetītama, his daughter, to be his wife. Upon discovering that her father and husband were the same, Hinetītama rejected her life and transformed herself into Hinenuitepō, the goddess of darkness and guardian of the underworld. Many accounts of this describe her feelings, they say that she ‘fled in shame’. They use that word because they are written in English. The English word for shame is about self-stigmatisation, about humiliation, but in Māori, the word whakamā is different. It is a collective shame, where you realise that you have made choices that have separated you from the collective. And you have become visible to that collective because you are outside of it. Like in a corridor of a hospital. Like on an island. This surely is what it means to be lost.

The definition of shame in the English language, that seems to resonate with whakamā, is from psychologist Jeffrey Kauffman (2010). He says that ‘… shame is a pervasive feature of the human response to death and other loss … one may feel naked in the face of death. Shame prompts disconnection; and disconnection is, itself, experienced as shameful.’2

The hahunga was the ritual of exhumation. This took place once an appropriate amount of time had passed since the death. This was where the bones of the deceased would be disinterred, scraped to remove any remaining flesh, washed, painted with red ochre, mourned over again with increased grief and open emotion, and finally enclosed in a waka kōiwi (bone chest) or a waka huia (treasure chest) and laid in their ultimate resting place. My mother told me that sometimes, after the scraping, these bones would be hung in trees so that the elements could dry and bleach them, so they could be bone dry before the painting. Once in their chests they would be secreted away, hidden from thievery and those that would turn them into implements, tools or exhibits.

Bones are whakapapa. When Māori talk about bones, they are invoking their whole whakapapa – their entire tribal history, family, and affiliations. There is a common saying among Māori when asked if we are related. We say ‘we have bones’. Traditionally, there is a lot of ritual and process around bones. Bones always go back to the earth.

Kōiwi is the translated word for bones but it also means tribe (the iwi), and spirit, and descendent, and whakapapa.

Your poroiwi is your skeleton.
A waka kōiwi is a casket for burying your bones in.
The rua kōiwi is the burial place.

A patu iwi is a bone weapon, a weapon for destroying people, genocide.

What is the whakapapa of shame? What bones does our shame have? When the missionaries arrived in New Zealand in the early 1800s, they learned to speak the Māori language, quickly succeeding in writing it down and translating the bible into te reo for dissemination. Christianity, it seems, has had many synonyms for shame and has spread its doctrine enthusiastically across cultures.

By 1820, a systematised version of written te reo had appeared and both Government officials and many Pākehā spoke fluent te reo Māori. From the 1870s onwards, the language was actively discouraged in schools and determined assimilation policies were pursued. People were both shamed and punished if they spoke te reo. Justifications and rationalisations for this were rife. It is famously quoted that in 1930, T.B. Strong declared ‘… the natural abandonment of the native tongue inflicts no loss on the maori.’3

The feeling of shame arises when one’s faults or deficiencies are exposed to others. Darwin described shame as one of the mental states that could induce blushing, or a confusion of the mind. Not only that, but he asserted, ‘We have seen in all parts of the world persons who feel shame for some moral delinquency, are apt to avert, bend down, or hide their faces …’ He also proclaimed that shame could result in crying.4

  1. Moorfield, John C., 2003-2017. Internet. Te Aka Online Māori Dictionary. Retrieved 21 May 2017. Available from:
  2. Kauffman, Jeffrey, 2010. On the Primacy of Shame. In J. Kauffman (ed), The Shame of Death, Grief, and Trauma. New York: Routledge, pp. 3-24.
  3. Higgins, R. and Keane, B., Te reo Māori – the Māori language – Language decline, 1900 to 1970s. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Internet. Available from: Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  4. Darwin, Charles, 1872. Chptr 13: Self-Attention, Shame, Shyness, Modesty; Blushing. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. New York: D. Appleton & Company, pp. 309-346.
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