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

By | 1 May 2018

The root word for shame in English means ‘to cover oneself’. Like with blankets, maybe. Or mud. Or hatred. To be camouflaged in a thicket, on a bank, or in the darkness of the night. Māori do not hide their shame. Nor their grief. It is visible to themselves and others because it means they have become dislodged, disconnected, from their whakapapa.

Language is whakapapa, is bones, is a recitation and a bridge to the mythological. It was tradition for a child to have special karakia (prayers) said and for their whakapapa to be recited at their birth. Oriori were composed and sung, ritual songs that children could grow up to learn and that would help them remember their bones, their origins, their mythology. I have been present at births where karakia have been spoken. Where atua (gods) have been referenced and where whakapapa (genealogy) has been recited. But I have not heard oriori. These were the reserve of high born children, those of rank. The lines of their descent were called out to take hold of them at the moment they entered this world. To fasten them to their histories and to whisper into them a deep pride and respect for their forebears and their future. The words of oriori would reach across time, across the void, as a way to navigate te wheiao. Memory has a role to play. Language not only shapes what we remember, but how we remember it. For Maori, where there is a need for translation there is also grief. Yearning for our language is a kind of grief, and grief is a kind of madness.

On the steps of surburbia I sleep. It is in the cloudy hour before dawn that he went; te wheiao. We are waiting, keeping vigil, because we know he is going to die. I am holding him in my arms. Our paediatrician is a folk musician. He likes to compose his own songs, sometimes. We have talked about it in the bright lights of all the afternoons I have spent waiting for miracles by his bedside. Now the time for miracles has passed. He comes to join us in the garden. I have taken my infant son outside for the first and only time in his life. I have asked to do this because he has never left the hospital. He has not felt the soft breeze of Tāwhirimātea, nor smelt the foliage of Tāne, nor stood on the solid ground of Papatūānuku to whom his bones will return. The paediatrician stands next to me and asks if he can sing a song that he has written. He says he has removed his white coat because he is not here as a doctor. He is originally from the Czech Republic and he did his training in South Africa. His voice is clear and pure. This will be his oriori. He calls to the stars and to the light on this Kai Tahu land and in the still and timeless space of te wheiao, Hinenuitepō greets my son.

There is poetry in my bones. The language of te reo Māori is a poetic language, overflowing with metaphor, imagery and allegory. When you listen, you are not listening to translate the words but listening to hear the song, to see the painted message being unfurled before you. Each phrase carefully chosen for the multiple meanings it might carry. And each of those meanings multiplied by the choice of imagery that it is surrounded with. Poetry is the best way to describe this. Skilled orators know how to call on language that will echo through and across time, that will wend its way under ramparts and quake the tendons that hold down your heart.

Waka Huia

The scraping of the bones After one year her bones scrape when she walks. Papatūānuku clings to stubborn flesh, twisted memories, fallen hopes. This is the exhumation of the grief. Of the reasons. Of the weeping. She buries the pito in the hardened ground, red ochre on her hands and leaves in her hair. The stick of the dead will not carry itself, she says.
The washing of the bones I am tapu as I wash the body of the dead. Water reservoirs surround me, islands of working biology. As I hold the sponge and feel it inflate, engorge, absorb. I squeeze each tiny hand I wash, each tiny leg I wash to clear away spirits; to hydrate the soul.
The laying out of the bones to dry Your brother and I have found a tree. We pass it, season through season, and give it names like flaming orange, and kick-arse blossom. We see your bones climbing it. We see them drying in the wind, its breath plays you like chimes, we say.

Nothing can be truly understood without context. Especially not language. When we separate a phrase or a word from its whakapapa, it’s as though we separate it from any real meaning. I have seen the epigraph that opened this essay quoted in academic texts, in journal articles, and as advice to those in search of answers. It is used authoritatively to elucidate the deeper meaning behind the Māori sense of whakamā. ‘Let shame be the punishment’ is understood to mean so great is shame’s power of censure, that is can be used to organise and control behaviour. But this seems to me to be a particularly Pākehā understanding of the concept of shame, one riddled with guilt and punitivism which neglects to take into account the whakapapa of the saying. An ancestor of Ngāti Awa was suspected of wrongdoing and was abandoned on an island. He beckoned sea creatures to his aid and they returned him to the shore. The sea creatures proposed malevolence upon those who had accused this ancestor but he bade them not to, saying the oft quoted, ‘Waiho mā te whakamā e patu. Leave them for shame to punish.’ What is often discarded, however, is the sentence that immediately followed, that when taken together gives us a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the Māori worldview. Yes, he tells us, shame will do the punishing but, ‘Waiho hai kōrero i a tātau kia atawhai ki te iwi. Let us acquire fame by being merciful.1

  1. Mead, Hirini Moko, 2001. Ngā Pēpeha a ngā Tīpuna. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.
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